Monday, November 26, 2007

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.

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9 Comments:

Blogger Scraps said...

I don't think I live in the same aesthetic universe as someone who can read Wolfe's precise, thoughtful, and flexible prose and call it "clunky". Whatever else one might say about Wolfe, his command of style is superb.

November 26, 2007 2:54 PM  
Anonymous Mr. Waggish said...

Yes, and if you enjoy the picaresque quality and the well thought out world...well, it certainly is part of Wolfe's appeal. And those things did hold my interest, particularly in the 2nd and 4th books. But the difficulty of deciphering the story obscures that they read as empty calories, not as a book that I would come back to in years to come. But then, I do tend to put pretty heavy expectations on the books I read to add up. Because of that I don't really see the Borges comparison, since in Borges so much is so often subordinated to the idea...I would think of Calvino or Nabokov (Ada, e.g.), where the tropes and setpieces exist more for their own sake.

As for the prose, it tends to polarize: I know several people whose taste I greatly respect who find Wolfe's prose off-putting and ponderous. Obviously it has garnered much praise from other quarters. I didn't have a particularly negative reaction, but nor did I find myself drawn in by his style in the way that I have been by John Crowley's, for example. Or Nabokov's.

November 27, 2007 3:14 AM  
Anonymous Scottsh said...

I guess I always assumed we were getting Severians view on the world as he remembered it. His unreliability was due to the limits of his memory at the time he wrote it as well as the self-editing one often does with memory. It didn't bother me, but it did have me thinking about aspects that Severian got wrong - either because he didn't wish it to be that way or because he misunderstood the motivations of others. He is not an omniscient narrator by any means.

November 27, 2007 1:27 PM  
Anonymous mr waggish said...

Hey Scott, now I'm really confused. Severian says on the third page that he has an eidetic memory, so there's one blatant lie at least by your account!

November 27, 2007 5:00 PM  
Blogger Jesper Svedberg said...

Well, there is eidetic memory and there is eidetic memory. You can have a memory that is good enough for most people to call it eidetic without it being perfect. Wolfe has read Borges and it's fairly obvious that Severian isn't Funes, but he can still have a memory that allows him to recall most of his life in great detail.

I find Wolfe's prose to be second to none. I'm a huge fan of Crowley and Nabokov as well, but there's just a stately elegance and an unyelding force in Wolfe's sentences that I can't help but to be totally awestruck by. This, in combination with his powerful imagination and his ability to create some of the most memorable images in science fiction, easily makes this book worth reading, even if you don't know how everything hangs together.

Even so, I personally think that Wolfe has made a genuine attempt to make tBotNS mostly comprehensible. The fact that many readers report that they can still come up with new facts on the fifth or sixth tour through the book tells me that one just shouldn't assume that the answers aren't there.

November 27, 2007 6:10 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

My view of Severian's claim that he had an eidetic memory was that he thought he thought his memory was flawless, but really it wasn't. I thought it was hysterical that he claimed (many times!) to have perfect recall, but then would tell us he wasn't sure about this or that detail (also many times!). Now, this could have meant he was simply lying, but somehow I didn't take it that way. I took him as some weird amalgam of boastful and modest--he seemed modest about a lot, but then boasted of this awesome memory, without seeming to notice that he was contradicting himself, often as not on the same page.

I don't know a lot about the interpretative debates surrounding the series, but I have come across some claims that Severian is insane. I dunno. Like I said, I found this disjunction between his claims and the reality on the page amusing. Why does he claim that, if it's obviously untrue?

November 27, 2007 6:56 PM  
Blogger Bob Hawkins said...

Severian has always had eidetic memory, and therefore has never had to learn how to organize or prioritize memories.

How often do you not understand what's going on while it's going on? Later, you think about it, and come up with a story that's consistent, but not necessarily true. Severian doesn't. He's stuck with a story that's incomplete, inconsistent, and not necessarily true.

November 27, 2007 7:26 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I like that, Bob. Thanks.

November 27, 2007 7:28 PM  
Blogger aaron said...

I'm not sure about you, but I read to be 'entertained'. Therefore Wolfe did not fail in my eyes at all. Perhaps Wolfe's work is just lost on some folks. Glad I am not one of them.

March 19, 2008 7:45 PM  

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