Waggish on The Book of the New Sun
I read Gene Wolfe's series The Book of the New Sun earlier this year, and I made a lot of noise about how I intended to write something extensive about it here. Well, alas, I don't see that happening. (Really, we'd all be a lot better off if I refrained from making predictions about what is or is not going to be happening around here.) But Mr. Waggish has now posted something of his own about the series. He was "less than enthusiastic"; he criticizes the prose as "clunky" and identifies various plot elements that remain problematic, but
where the book most seriously fails in its ambitions is on a more fundamental level, which is that in the stability of the text itself. We know that Severian is a liar quite early on. We also know that what he is writing is destined for public consumption by people in his world, and that Wolfe claims to be acting as a translator of Severian's manuscript which has traveled long and far, without knowing anything about that audience. These two facts cause the book to be underdetermined with regard to Severian's motives and to the purpose of the text itself. Because we do not know what intent may be behind Severian's lies, we can't derive from the whole what the meaning of any particular piece is, because we do not have the whole context. If Severian were known to be telling the truth, we could inductively grasp the meaning of his history in the world. But because both are uncertain, the book loses sense structurally. This is not a matter of obscurity; rather, it is an intentional choice that indicates a serious failure on the part of Wolfe to push his book past the realm of entertainment. Without our being able to grasp the deeper sense of Severian's words other than as a maybe-true story, he reduces the book to decontextualized apocrypha, a gnostic gospel without an accompanying authoritative text.I don't really have much to say against this, except that I wasn't bothered by this kind of thing in my reading of the books. With respect to the plot-problems he lists earlier in his post, Waggish observes that "People argue that Wolfe can be enjoyed without answering these puzzles". I might say that I quite enjoyed the series without being terribly troubled by either of these (the plot-puzzles or what Waggish sees as the undeterminedness of the series). Why? Well, I liked having Severian around; I found his voice engaging and thoughtful (and, besides, I didn't think the prose was especially clunky). But then, I didn't really think of him as a "liar", though it was clear enough that his narrative was not altogether reliable (to say the least). I thought of the novel as a kind of Borgesian picaresque, the various set-pieces in the novel reminding me of some of Borges's stories, with Severian wandering among them. Certainly I tried to keep track of the events, to understand who the characters were and the role they played in the story, but I admit that I wasn't overly concerned if some things didn't seem to add up (though, in fact, I can't quite recall whether such a thing ever occurred to me while reading). I did ask myself what Severian's purpose was in telling the story he was telling in the manner he was telling it, and I wondered about the implications of his unreliability, but finally even these questions lost some of their urgency in the face of my enjoyment of his telling.