MARCH 3, 2016
A BORROWED MAN, Gene Wolfe’s newest novel, is a ghost story; all of his novels are in one way or another. Here the ghosts are memories, as they always are, at least on a metaphorical level, and since science fiction literalizes metaphors, these ghosts haunt libraries, characters, the writer, and his readers through both memory and invention.
Invention first. The narrator is a “reclone,” the clone of a dead mystery author, E. A. Smithe, whose memories have been uploaded into the clone’s brain. He, along with the reclones of other authors, lives on a shelf in a library, a slave to whoever might check him out, and doomed to the bonfire if no one shows interest. Because a copy of one of his novels, Murder on Mars, holds a clue to both a murder and a treasure, a glamorous heiress named Colette Coldbrook checks him out (yes, the double entendres are intended), thus saving him from the fire, at least for now. He, two intriguing sidekicks, and the dame eventually solve the mystery, which involves a portal into a green jungle world and chases across the depopulated and rural North America of the 22nd century. Surprisingly for a novel by Gene Wolfe, the mystery is solved and few questions remain unanswered.
This is not at all the novel I had imagined when Wolfe said that it would be about clones of authors filed in a library. I had been thinking that the novel would feature several famous authors solving a murder mystery, speaking in pastiches of their own styles, with sly references to their novels popping up here and there. I’d still like to read that novel sometime. I also keep wanting Wolfe to return to the elegant and baroque style of The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), Peace (1976), and The Book of the New Sun series (1980–’83), but he doesn’t want to. Instead, his style has become more and more spare, more reliant on dialogue rather than description or meditative passages. This novel may have a gentle lesson about why my expectations are irrelevant, and that is one of the things I will be exploring.
But back to the ghosts. My plot summary indicates some of the ways in which a reader may be haunted by allusions this novel. There is the reclone’s name, reminiscent of E. E. “Doc” Smith, a beloved SF writer of the golden age whose books may not be flying off the shelves anymore and thus are in danger of disappearing from libraries. Or perhaps it reminds us of Clark Ashton Smith, whose “The Hashish Eater –or– The Apocalypse of Evil” (1920) is quoted late in the book. He too may no longer be checked out of the library, and his work, which ranges over SF, fantasy, and horror, between prose and poetry, may be close to Wolfe’s heart. This character, however, writes mystery stories, and the plot, with its sinister family and jungle greenhouse — although it’s not a greenhouse, it’s an actual jungle on another planet — invokes Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939). And the jungle world: Is that a reference to Wolfe’s middle volume of The Book of the Short Sun, In Green’s Jungles (2000)? The reader is haunted by these and other literary references.
The writer may be haunted, too. As is true for authors in general, Wolfe’s characters must haunt his imagination, arise out of his memories, and so gain substance. Beyond that, his narrator is an author: that is, the memories of the narrator are those of an author. In thinking about what the novel says about the relationship between author and narrator, I began to understand why my expectations are irrelevant. Wolfe’s decision to write more sparingly goes beyond the writer’s workshop dictum of showing versus telling. Wolfe demonstrates here that the writer changes over time, that he is a human with different ways of being at different times in his life. In The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) he showed the stagnation of cloning one’s self, one’s ideas, one’s ways of being: what might have been a step toward greater things becomes stepping in place, and nothing and no one changes. Here the writer, E. A. Smithe, is trapped in a new body, one that longs to speak in its own voice and does so when he writes, but when he speaks, he is enslaved to the old “writerly” voice controlled by memories that are not his own. Wolfe is trapped in a body that is getting older all the time (as they do) but doesn’t want the writer inside to stagnate by repeating past modes. Rather than an old voice in a young body, like the reclone’s, Wolfe’s newer writing may demonstrate new voices in the old body of the experienced writer, in the body of work.
The character of E. A. Smithe’s reclone is different from Smithe himself, but haunted by his memories: “a young guy behind an older guy’s face,” which is how we all feel as we age, but literally true here. He is aware that his judgment and insight are those of a very young man. For instance, he is more naive and less experienced than his memories:
I was not the man I thought I was […] I was somebody else, a kid who had been grown from that guy’s DNA and loaded up with his memories, phony memories of things that had never happened to me and never could happen to me […] I carried the memories of ten thousand decisions big and small, but I had never made a real one.
The other characters in the novel are less developed, perhaps extensions of Smithe and his memories, perhaps limited in their scope because the reclone too is limited: in experience, certainly, but also in freedom to write. “They put this mental block in me […] against writing: NOT ALLOWED.” He can speak in his own voice only by using a keyboard just as one of the intriguing sidekicks, Mahala, is mute but fluent on the computer. The police and the wealthy Coldbrook family, around whom the mystery swirls, are standard mystery novel characters, as if created by Smithe’s memories. The love interest, Arabella Lee, the reclone of a poet, is more a romantic ideal than a living woman, at least as we hear her speak. (And her name must remind us of Edward Allan Poe’s beautiful dead romantic ideal in a kingdom by the sea.) It would be fair to say that they are the ghosts of people, formed by memory and convention, rather than rounded and realistic characters, but this is what one would expect of the reclone of this mystery writer.
The reclone of Smithe is an archive of the memories of his namesake, stored in a library, also an archive. Both the human being and the institution are, in this future, undervalued and marginalized. Libraries and other archives have haunted Wolfe’s fiction since The Fifth Head of Cerberus. In the dystopic and empty future of The Borrowed Man, books are almost obsolete, yet they hold a great importance for the characters in the novel: a book is a literal key to the mystery, and to great treasure. Print, as produced on a keyboard, is the only way for two of the characters to express themselves. Smithe, in the literary voice of his originary writer, stresses the importance of books. First, “they hold millions upon millions of secrets […] A few hundred of those secrets may be enormous.” Second, “[b]ooks — real books printed on paper — were the heart and soul of a whole culture.” Their repositories, then, preserve the memory and culture of a people. If libraries die, if books are burned when people stop reading them, then cultures die as well: “Cultures are like people, it seems. Sure, they get old and die; but sometimes they die even when they are not very old at all.”
That is how Wolfe portrays the “New America” — as a dying culture, in which “real humanity has retired.” The disabled and the poor (and immigrants like Smithe’s other sidekick Georges) are as disposable as books and clones in the impoverished future of “[o]ld ruined towns, and starved-looking children in rags.” Wolfe raises the ghost of the future we will inherit if we go on as we do. A Borrowed Man is a lonely book haunted only by metaphorical specters, a change from so many of his works (Peace, “The Haunted Boardinghouse” , The Land Across ). In a few places the beautiful language of his earlier work appears briefly. Smithe opens a book he had written 13 years before he died to read a passage that evokes the style of The Book of the New Sun: “Eridean had called them the sewers, but they were enormously larger and more varied than the term implied, tunnels and cellars and subcellars and worse, far beneath the city,” it begins, a haunting reminder of the vast Library of Ultan. Has that Gene Wolfe died? Certainly he has evolved, the man he is now rising like a ghost from the man he once was.
This is an intriguing and rewarding novel, fast paced and lively, quite accessible. If it does not represent the author at the peak of his powers, or at his most complex, it is still quite fine, and is highly recommended.