We Read Things Differently

By Joan GordonApril 30, 2013

We Read Things Differently

Peace by Gene Wolfe

WHEN PEACE WAS first published in 1975, it was marketed as a mainstream novel and that is how I read it. One reissue, the one with a cover by Gahan Wilson to which Neil Gaiman refers in the afterword to this new edition, flags it as a ghost story. I’ve had almost 40 more years of reading Wolfe’s fiction to make clear to me that virtually everything he writes is a ghost story, and I’ve heard persuasive arguments by John Clute, Robert Boski, and others that it is indeed a ghost story, yet when I reread the novel for this review, it still seemed like a work of mainstream realism with psychological explanations for its ghosts. I’m probably wrong as far as Wolfe himself is concerned, yet here I am reading it stubbornly in my own way, and I have my reasons. It isn’t that I think I’m right and they’re wrong but that this novel contains many readings, as many readings perhaps as there are readers, which is as it should be. I would maintain that the best books have such potential, that they are like Thematic Apperception Tests but much, much better; they are books of gold, as Severian — the protagonist of Wolfe’s magnum opus, The Book of the New Sun — would point out. This is one of the best books: it is richly metaphorical, deeply layered, evocative, convincing, beautifully paced, gracefully written — still, after all these years, and after so many other wonderful novels, novellas, and short stories, one of Wolfe’s best, which is saying a great deal.

Peace is the fictional memoir of Alden Dennis Weer, written out of sequence, but describing his growing up, coming of age, financial success, and physical decline in a small Midwestern town. Embedded in it are a number of ghost stories, and stories about the people in his life, especially his Aunt Olivia. Having told you this, I have told you nothing really that indicates the novel’s power. The story begins with the fall of an elm tree, thus, as Robert Boski and many others, claim, “liberating the ghost of Dennis Weer.” The rest of the novel proceeds from there. It is apparent that Weer’s house, in which he wanders and gets lost but which helps trigger his memoir’s episodes, is a house of memory, more metaphorical than architectural, so that too supports the theory that this is a ghost story, I suppose.

Here is the ghost story interpretation (from Peter Wright’s Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Article and the Reader): “A ghost (Alden Dennis Weer) haunts the memory places of his life.... The title.... alludes to Weer’s quest for peace as he revisits his memories in the hope of finding a meaning to his former life.” This is the interpretation to which I have heard John Clute and Gary Wolfe also ascribe, not to mention Neil Gaiman in this edition’s afterword, and Borski, quoted above — even though, as Wright points out, “no reviewer recognised Weer’s deathly state ... and the ghost’s story quickly became Wolfe’s first misinterpreted narrative.” Wright’s particular wrinkle is that the reason so many people miss the correct interpretation is not because they miss the symbolism of the tree falling on a tombstone, as I did, but because Wolfe is “encoder” and reader “decoder of elliptical yet elegantly labyrinthine conundrums” ­ or, as Wright says later, and in a more exasperated way about The Book of the New Sun, “This element of choice is Wolfe’s principal device for confounding the reader.” I have to admit that the ghost story is probably the correct interpretation, although I vehemently disagree that Wolfe’s goal is to confound the reader. He does often confound me, but that is my limitation, not his.

Robert Borski refines the ghostly interpretation with a very careful textual analysis that follows what he calls “The Brimstone Trail,” multiple references in the novel to alchemy, Faust, and many other works, esoteric and otherwise, to claim that “Alden Dennis Weer may be the Devil incarnate.” Borski provides an overwhelming number of citations to support what at first seems an unlikely claim, seeing Aunt Olivia as also embodying “the fire-and-brimstone connection.” I resist his interpretation. There is no doubt in my mind that Den, as he is often called, has done some very bad things — you will discover them as you read — but I’m not sure that makes him the devil. The name Weer connects him not only or inevitably with evil werewolves but also and more obviously with an author named Wolfe. And, just as Borski finds a number of connections between Weer and the devil, he, and I, find a number of more autobiographical connections. But Gene Wolfe is not evil, nor is he sympathetic with the devil, and Wolfe has said of Weer, “we have similar souls.”

Olivia is self-centered and manipulative but, again, not, it seems to me, evil. After all, she does take care of her nephew when his parents leave him with her, and Den has fond memories of the experience. Borski describes Olivia as “overeating — a classic symptom of rejection,” but the novel merely notes that she has grown “plump ... until she was a comfortable size 14,” as a result of not having to cook for herself any longer. Since something like this has happened to me, then, I can’t possibly see it as something more sinister than domesticity. Further, would Wolfe have sent me as a wedding present many years ago a beautiful bowl painted in the manner of Aunt Olivia, a bowl we refer to as the Peace bowl? Borski’s interpretation, though ingenious and persuasive, seems to miss the tone of the book and might be one of the readings the story contains without being the one truest to Wolfe’s tone. It is certainly a reading I need to resist for my own reasons, as you might imagine, given the beautiful bowl I use as often as possible. I resist it also because the description of Olivia reminds me of Wolfe’s much beloved wife Rosemary. Clearly, my reasons are more personal than intellectual, but such is the reading process.

If Borski is right, then he is right about one of the characters who troubles me already. Louis Gold is a book forger, and a Jew. As I read the novel I was uncomfortable already with his portrayal and that of his wife and daughter: why were they tagged as Jewish? Was Wolfe suggesting that the forger’s dishonesty, for instance, was connected to his Jewishness? But if Borski is right, then Louis Gold is stereotyped as more than a greedy Jew; he becomes a servant of the devil. I have always been able to see the portrayal of Gold as colored more by exoticism than anti-Semitism, because it is very difficult to imagine Gene Wolfe as anti-Semitic. I cannot believe that Wolfe would intend to portray Jewishness in the light Borski suggests. Therefore, I must resist this interpretation as well. How personal is the act of reading! How like a psychological test of character, especially in the case of a complex and ambiguous a novel such as Peace.

And this leads precisely to my own reading of the book, as I outlined it many years ago in The Starmont Reader’s Guide to Gene Wolfe (1986), and which, as I reread it for this review, I still prefer to the other interpretations, true or not. When I first wrote about the novel, then, I suggested that, while Weer’s situation as narrator is ambiguous (he might be the old man traveling back in time to seek help, in which case this is science fiction, or he might be that same old man seeking help through remembering, in which case it isn’t), the interpretation that allowed the most “symbolic resonance,” I claimed, was that:

Peace is narrated by Weer as a middle-aged man, suffering some kind of mental breakdown caused by over-work and loneliness. His memoir is largely a response to the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).... Each question ... triggers a long and detailedset of memories.

I still like this interpretation not only because it is a reasonable one, given the evidence of the text, but also because it resonates with the themes of loneliness, abandonment, and the power of memory that recur as often in Wolfe’s writing as do ghosts. Even more, though, I like it because I arrived at this interpretation with the help of my father, a psychologist, not long before he died. That makes Peace function not only as a TAT for its narrator, but for me, its reader.

How fitting that this novel of memory evokes such strong memories in me, that it makes me write a review that is also a kind of memoir. It may well do that for other readers also, making them form associations with their own childhoods, with their regrets, with their guilt, with the things they longed for or expected. The novel’s very ambiguity makes room for the reader who doesn’t mind living with uncertainty.

Peace provides other pleasures than those of interpretation and memory. Its individual scenes are sharply evoked so that we travel in time, along with the narrator, to the novel’s streets and houses and afternoon parties, as well as to stranger and more grotesque places such as the cave, the circus, the pharmacist’s house (I’ll leave you to find those). The embedded stories are gripping. And the language is gorgeous. Just in the first section, “Alden Dennis Weer,” look how Wolfe collapses the cosmic perspective of science fiction with that of religion in an ecstatic description:

This planet of America, turning round upon itself, stands only at the outside, only at the periphery, only at the edges, of an infinite galaxy, dizzily circling. And that the stars that seem to ride our winds cause them. Sometimes I think to see huge faces bending between those stars to look through my two windows, faces golden and tenuous, touched with pity and wonder.

Or, again in the first section, consider the reverie, evoked by a boy scout knife with “simulated black staghorn,” about the “simulated stag,” which he imagines:

ranging the forest among the now-waking trees, trees whose leaves are dying with the summer in every color, like bruises, but bruises beautiful as the skins of races unborn, withheld from us because God, or destiny, or the bland chance of the scientists (whose blind, piping ape-god, idiot-god, we have met before; we know you, troubler of Babylon) has denied us the sight of all those scarlet and yellow — truly red, orange, russet-brown — races on our sidewalks, and all the wonderful richness of stereotypes we might have entertained ourselves with if only they had permitted us.

And the passage goes on, cascading from metaphor to metaphor. No one else writes like that.

Considering how great Wolfe’s technical skill, how rich with meaning his work is, how inviting of multiple interpretation, how widely all of this is recognized (read the quotations from reviews at the front of this edition), one would think the SF journals would overflow with articles about his work. But they don’t. With a very few exceptions, the corridors of Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, and Foundation echo emptily. Robert Borski has written a great deal of scholarly analysis, mostly online or in the semi-prozine The New York Review of Science Fiction. Michael Andre-Druissi has a few articles in the scholarly journals but most of his work is in small press publishing outside academic circles. Peter Wright has his book on Wolfe and a collection of interviews with the author as well, both from Liverpool University Press, and I have my early Starmont volume. Sometimes I wonder if we’re simply afraid to commit to the permanence or authority of putting our scholarship in a scholarly home, since it is quite likely, given how layered, and allusive, and illusive the fiction is, that we’ll be wrong. It’s much easier to admit to uncertainty and to an inability to know as much as the author, to confront the personal nature of one’s response, in the less threatening venue of a book review such as this one. And if I find myself responding to Wolfe’s writing in kind, with memoir and story and metaphor, it seems more suitable here than in the cool halls of academe.

But if you, my reader, wonder whether you should read Peace for the first time, fearing it might be too difficult, or whether you should read it again, wondering if it won’t be as good this time, don’t worry. Peace has riches to offer on the most casual of readings and doesn’t disappoint the most thorough. You may be wrong, but you may not mind. You are bound to discover something no one else, maybe not even Gene Wolfe himself, has seen.








LARB Contributor

Joan Gordon is an editor for Science Fiction Studies and Humanimalia and received the Pilgrim Award for science fiction research. She writes extensively on science fiction, especially in connection with animal studies, and she authored The Starmont Reader’s Guide to Gene Wolfe (1986), which was the first extended criticism of Wolfe’s work. Her most recent article, “The Responsibilities of Kinship: The Amborg Gaze in Speculative Fictions about Apes,” will be published in Extrapolation. She is raising a puppy.




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