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July Books 14) Peace

14) PEACE, by Gene Wolfe

A very layered narrative, the life story of Alden Dennis Weer and of his small-town mid-western neighbours and family, with frequent excursions into history and fantasy, the boundary being rather blurred. As often with Wolfe, a lot is unsaid (I don't think, for instance, we are told that Dennis pushed Bobby Black down the stairs to his death but it is strongly implied). Not as demanding as some of Wolfe's books, but not as engaging either.


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Jul. 13th, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC)
I thought you might like to see my essay from one of the Best Horror Novels collections:

PEACE by Gene Wolfe (1975) / Roz Kaveney

The title is one of the most disturbing things about this subtle book; throughout its length, people sleep or die, but peace is the last thing that they find in their dreams and the stories told there. It is one of the earliest of Gene Wolfe's novels and still one of his best; it demonstrates that it is possible to evoke a truely disturbing unease while using almost none of the standard material of the horror novel. (continued below)
Jul. 13th, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC)

'Peace' is a novel in which it is almost impossible to be sure of anything, but some things appear most of the time to be the case. Alden Weer is an old man, wandering the empty rooms of his large house. Some of the time he is a young man taking medical advice for his old age, and a child doing the same and telling that doctor of the imminent death of the doctor's son Bobby, whom Alden, almost certainly, killed. At other times he is old and brooding and uncertain whether or not he has had a stroke, and whether he can get up to walk around some more; the fire at which he is sitting is no more than smouldering and he himself may only be the ashes of the dead.

At one level, this is a novel of deep nostalgia in which Alden mourns a longago smalltown America in which he was briefly innocent; at another, it is a reminder that lost paradises were never quite what they seemed. Heartbreak and cruelty are part of the human condition; his past is too full for comfort of maiden aunts who aged into eccentricity, and solitary bachelors for whom collection of curios has become a substitute for life. The people Alden knews have far too much in common with the hungry ghosts about whom they tell stories. Alden Weer speaks for us as well as to us, and he is an uncomfortable spokesman, in his vague malice and hints of worse.

We know that people in Alden Weer's life have met with misfortune and it is never entirely clear to us how much he had to do with any of it. His habit of avoiding telling us things and of telling us only parts of stories comes to seem like an evasion. Some of his stories are open to far more terrible interpretations than the one we assume at first sight; the world Alden inhabits is one in which the nightmarish is always available. If this is the case about the little lives whose memories drift around Alden, how much more so the godless but haunted universe of his tales in which genies and ghouls and banshees lurk and even Christian saints can only offer release from pain into death?

Whenever Alden is, people tell him stories, most of which never end; those that do end, end badly in heartbreak and unfulfilled promises. Stories are interrupted by other stories, or set aside so that Alden can discuss his future health with the people of his past; this is a book about frustration which delivers its fair share of frustration as it goes. Wolfe is writing about the limits of narrative and the capacity possessed by the act of refusing a sense of an ending; he gives us instead the evocation of a complex mood. Everyone Alden has known or loved is dead, and the promise of their futures come to nothing but his ramshackle memories. This is perhaps the most horrid thing of all.

Because this is, after all, a Gene Wolfe novel, it includes a number of deeply precious literary jokes. One of the more obvious ones is the unnamed - or rather nameless - presence in it of a copy of the Necronomicon as well as of other books from the Lovecraft mythos; the copy is a forgery of an imaginary book, and yet that, in a sense, makes it a real one. Certainly Alden seems as bound by other character's endless repetition of his name as other spirits are by the book's rituals. The allusion to Alden's stone pillow is perhaps a reference to the unwritten tale with that title which was to be the culmination of Heinlein's unfinished Future History.

Above all, Alden's tale which loops back and forth through his life without resolution and without any clear sense of who ultimately he is and what he has done is an allusion to another book about memory. 'Peace' ends as Proust's 'Remembrance of things past' begins, with a fractious child trying to sleep. Time cannot be regained, Wolfe seems to be saying, and what is lost is gone - including the soul of the damned Alden Weer.
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