Friday, March 5, 2010

Readings — An Evil Guest

An Evil Guest
by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe’s latest novel strikes me as a mixed bag, both in terms of contents and in overall effect. By ‘contents’, I mean that it includes time travel, stage musicals, musings on celebrity charisma, dread Cthulhu, and a host of other things up to and including time-travel and aliens. By ‘effect’, I mean that I’m not sure Wolfe builds an involving novel out of the whole.

The tone, for example, is engaging, but noncommittal. What seems like it should be in one spot a screwball romp out of The Sound of Music, and then in another a suspenseful edge-of-your-set noir thriller, becomes flattened into an oddly grey, rambling story which contains these things but seems to lack their flavour. The setting is ostensibly the future, practically seems more like the big city of a 1930s Hollywood film, and feels really like nothing in particular. Sure, Wolfe’s linguistic dexterity is on display, his tricks with showing only what characters see (including what they see wrongly) are there as well, and it’s a book which will reward the engaged reader more than the casual page-turner — but I don’t know whether the reward’s really that great.

The WolfeWiki suggests an alternative reading of the work which is logical, internally consistent, and yet weirdly unaffecting. Which I think is my ultimate problem with the book. It’s too detached. Much of the effect of Wolfe’s writing, one way or another, comes from keeping the reader at a certain distance. I think for this book to work, the lighter sequences would need to be more affecting, and that’d probably mean allowing the reader a bit closer in. Lacking that, I found myself uninvolved with the characters and the world.

Now, it doesn’t help that the central character is not, to my mind, terribly well-written. Cassie Casey really hearkens back to the women in those ’30s films I mentioned above, and not in a good way. It’s not that she’s flat or unintelligent, though she’s both, it’s that she’s not credible. She sounds like a movie character, which means what a bunch of men in a smoke-filled room think a spunky woman sounds like — or what they think she ought to sound like. Adam Roberts, in his thoughtful review of the book, seems to me to have it exactly right: “Casey is not a strong woman. She is a conservative’s notion of a strong woman: an "Of Queen's Gardens" woman, permitted to explore to the very edge of her pedestal but not to step down from it.”

A concern with old movies is hardly new in Wolfe’s fiction; consider There Are Doors. But while that novel was, to me, genuinely eerie and unpredictable, An Evil Guest seems to struggle more with the pulp formulas it plays with. Certain Wolfeisms seem oddly out of place. For example, his fondness for what I think of as “Thursday” figures, after G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Without giving anything away about that remarkable book, its central figure is a mysterious man, fat, cunning, and wise, who has a disturbing amount of both power and charisma, and who is perceived at the beginning of the book in a sinister light but who ends it being revealed to be something different and greater than was previously suspected. Wolfe frequently uses similar figures in his writing, some of them sinister and some of them not, some of them variations on the archetype; consider Benjamin Free in Free Live Free, or Rex von Madadh in Castleview. The point I’m getting around to is that you'd expect a figure like that — and there are two of them in this book, though they might actually be one and the same, depending on how you read it — to fit naturally with noir themes. But they don’t, really. They seem, to me, out of place; as though Wolfe hadn’t quite worked out how to make some of his recurrent imagery harmonise with the other images he was working with.

In the end, An Evil Guest seems to me more an interesting book than a good one. It’s intriguing, and worth thinking about, and moves at a relentless clip. Its language is spare and pared-down, but the dialogue is often jarringly improbable. What I suppose you can say is that for good or ill — for good and ill — it seems weirdly characteristic of Wolfe. It’s far from his best book, but it is still recognisably his.

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