I’ve been mystified by Gene Wolfe for my entire adult life, and then some. His books are famously tricksy, with unreliable narrators, and hidden plots that we are supposed to unearth from clues distributed carefully through the text. This is not what I like them for, particularly, or perhaps it is, but it’s not the solving of the puzzles that I enjoy so much as their stubborn resistance to explication. I was given his Book of the New Sun in its four separate volumes when I was in my early teens, and I was utterly captivated by it. I was transported in my figurative entirety to his strange, far-future world of medieval social structures clinging precariously to life on the ruined detritus of an unimaginably advanced technology, slowly dwindling into chaos, and collapsing under the weight of their own history, beneath a dim red sun in the last throes of its demise. Strange, unexplained terminology is used to describe the world around the characters, words Wolfe excavated from the Classical era, or from palaeontology, or from disused corners of the English language: when he needs to name something of the distant future, something very far removed from his readers, he uses archaic terms, and these create a magically baroque milieu, as dark and ornate as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. The ostensible story is a fantasy quest, through a science-fiction landscape, not unlike Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, which are one of Wolfe’s inspirations. As a teenager I hadn’t heard of The Dying Earth, and nor was I able to pick up on any of the other references to other works with which the books are peppered, aside from one to Lewis Carroll. Nor did I pick up on any of the clues that all is not as it seems in the narrative. What I took from the books was a delicious sense of a mystery somewhere beyond my grasp – which I think is how all good speculative fiction invites its readers in: we begin by wondering what these strange things are the characters are referring to, and gradually the explanation is revealed. Heavy-handed explication kills the atmosphere stone dead. Wolfe’s gradual reveals alert us to one version of his story, that which is believed by his eloquent and thoughtful, but also superstitious and gullible first-person narrator. I swallowed this hook line and sinker, but on re-reading the books in adulthood, most recently as part of the research for my masters dissertation, I became aware that these were more complex and more layered texts than the episodic ‘surface’ narrative would suggest. I didn’t really get past many of the traps that Wolfe sets for the careless reader, however, continuing to believe that the story was some kind of Christian allegory, until Peter Wright set me straight in his thorough analysis, Attending Daedalus.
There will be no spoilers here. I don’t propose to talk in too much detail about what Wright has to say, just to say that it is perspicacious and illuminating. Some of the claims he makes seem a little tenuous, but then I haven’t really looked at the evidence, other than the Wolfe novels I’ve read (which by no means constitutes a majority of them). The greater part of what he has to say seems entirely reasonable, and he has the erudition, which I still lack, to note and investigate the huge number of intertextual threads that Wolfe deploys in the construction of his puzzle-box narratives. Wright has also looked closely at all of Wolfe’s published work (as of 2003, when his analysis was published), and he is able to show how similar themes and similar deceptive strategies are present across his oeuvre, particularly a recurring parallel between the reader’s relationship to the author and the social subject’s relationship to power. He also shows how the books that Wolfe has published subsequently have all been to some extent an exegesis of, or an expansion on The Book of the New Sun. References to his own fiction seem to be as plentiful in Wolfe’s work as references to other authors’ works, both as a means to misdirect the reader in their search for the ‘real’ story, and as a means to offer them clues. That Wright has followed the clues for me, and that I have taken his shortcut to an appreciation of Wolfe’s intentions, is no shame, as far as I’m concerned: I first read his books at 14, I’m now 47, and I still haven’t figured them out for myself! My only regret is that one of the pleasures I took in these books is now denied to me, the joy of rubbing up against the unknowable, and sniffing at the edges of unreason. There’s nothing in Wolfe’s fiction that’s not amenable to rational explanation (which is one of the spoilers I promised I wouldn’t drop), if only you can determine what it is. I enjoy many works of literature and other arts that are not subject to explanation, that value mystery and even madness as forms of knowledge in their own right, and any sense I had that this was also the case for Wolfe is now dispelled. I mean, it may be the case, but it’s not the point of his books. Those things are still valued aesthetically in his fiction, but Attending Daedalus is not a book about Gene Wolfe’s aesthetics. It is a forensic examination of the craftsmanship with which he constructs his fantastically complex puzzle-boxes of novels, and one which reveals a breathtaking degree of intelligence and skill.