Fought In A War
Sometimes people will stop me in a grocery store or in a park or when I'm high on ecstasy and they will ask me, "AC, who is the world's greatest living writer?" What other reason would I carry around a portable pedestal for than this exact situation? He lives in Barrington, Illinois and his name is Gene Wolfe. Wolfe grew up in Houston and served in the Korean War. He was an engineering prodigy who invented the process that makes Pringles, and he edited the journal Plant Engineering for over a decade. In the military he had been a cartographer, and his extraordinary grasp of how things are in relation to each other is always on full display in his fiction. What other fabulist would you want making up your stories than the one who knows where everything is?
His latest effort Home Fires explodes on the page. Almost all dialogue, the book is nearly high on speed. There isn't a single moment that Skip Grison isn't involved in some kind of action, usually uncovering deception in one form or another. He is a lawyer, the first lawyer protagonist that Wolfe has ever used in his long fiction. Like all Wolfe's heroes, he is just as much a priest or godfather than anything resembling the finest of legal minds. The fact that he was able to write this novel indicates Wolfe could easily be a Supreme Court justice (Scalia with a handlebar moustache?), his grasp of the law is that rigorous. As a legal thriller, Home Fires would be fantastic in paperback for airplanes.
Because his characters always lie so ruthlessly, Wolfe's writing has been called hard to follow. The masterwork that made his name was the first part of his first quadrilogy, The Shadow of the Torturer, but there is precious little in the way of the high technology inherent in the work of giants like Asimov or Heinlein. It is Wolfe's narrative techniques which are state-of-the-art, not his settings.
I can't even imagine what someone must have felt picking up The Shadow of the Torturer in some bookstore in 1980 and expecting the same old generic paperback fantasy to read on the toilet. The story of aging Earth's last ruler read like someone had watched Star Wars and thought of how much better the future could be instead of the past, with dead spaceships plunged into the ground and reinvented as prisons. The Book of the New Sun's main influence is Marcel Proust; some parts of it are even gentle jokes on In Search of Lost Time. The book is so deep that it demanded its own guide, penned by Michael Andre-Driussi, in which the elaborate chronologies and geographies of the novels are revealed to their fullest.
Wolfe approved Andre-Driussi's work; he seems to realize that his books should offer some guide to those who embark on them, like any worthwhile amusement park ride. The Book of the New Sun in four parts was followed by his landmark The Book of the Long Sun. With Severian's tale The Book of the New Sun he had stretched out time to its very limit. Long Sun tightened the action, sticking it on a generational spaceship running out of gas in the far part of the universe. His Calde Silk figure was modeled after G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, and his admiration of Chesterton's devout belief in the presence of an all-knowing God is at its most entertaining in stories like "Bed and Breakfast", "Westwind" (his tribute to The Man Who Was Thursday) and "The Fifth Head of Cerebrus", a sister planets novella that some account as Gene's supreme masterpiece.
(When he was a young man, Wolfe corresponded with J.R.R. Tolkien. Where are these letters? Why haven't they been published by the highest possible authority - perhaps the government or Cory Doctorow?)
Last year's new novel The Sorcerer's House followed in the tradition of Wolfe's rewrites of themes taken up in the early 20th century work of Clark Ashton Smith and G.K. Chesterton that inspired him to write his first stories. Each time, in order to top himself, Wolfe rips all the naivete out of his work, making it that much more jaded and sinister. His concern in Home Fires is the meaning of war. It's not that Wolfe doesn't accept war – all his work seems thrust in the middle of a larger conflict the people in it can never quite fathom fully, whether it be Erebus and a mysterious undine in The Book of the New Sun, the espionage between our world and one where men die after they lose their virginities in There Are Doors, or the mysterious Os of Home Fires, who neither eat nor drink, but live among us.
Wolfe converted to Catholicism before he married his wife Rosemary. It is fun to analyze his books for various amounts of the faith that his characters truly show in God, which is the way believers judge a convert. After Wolfe underwent double-bypass surgery in April of last year, he put a literal God character in his new book, a man with a white beard and a long cane. Gene is always testing the unbeliever, seeing if the faith he embraces is a rewarding reality or a vicious lie. He regards this as the true test of the individual.
The premise of Home Fires is that Skip was dating Chelle when she decided to join the military. Due to the vagaries of space travel, she returns decades later having spent much of that time in coldsleep travel, where she did not age. She is so badly injured in combat that part of her is composed of someone else who died. Skip is now an older man and a partner in a law firm, and his "contracto" ("wife" and "husband" are terms relegated to history) is a vibrant young woman denied sex for biological decades. They "decide" to go on a cruise together; perhaps it is decided for them. Other events occur: picture Die Hard but with the world's greatest mystery lurking at the heart of it, and don't forget a cyborg, seven different types of handguns and rifles, mindwipe, and hard sex.
Skip tells us that he "kept the home fires burning" while Chelle was away, fighting the Os, an unimaginable alien enemy, off the planet Johanna. He feels, and he is right to feel this way, that she in her service made a sacrifice for him, and that he owes her something very specific. He dumps his secretary/girlfriend (usually called a Megan) and leaps to her aid out of a duty that is at once akin to love and other times resembles patriotism for a United States that does not exist in the future of Home Fires.
Some pine against interminable war, and they may be right to do so, but it is not as if there would be no fighting if our country abstained. We are in the middle of something that not even generals fully understand. Paul Ryan's budget didn't lower military spending even though we cannot afford it, or anything. Our financial situation as a country has never been more clear. But our spiritual condition: that is a different matter.
We eventually learn that Wolfe's soldier Chelle sets out for war because she does not really want to be a married accessory to a rich husband. She is attempting to avoid the very insignificance that so many of Wolfe's peers embrace, and so enters the military. The generation of authors who served in the armed forces because they had no other choice constituted the crucial heart of 20th century literature. Gene Wolfe and his protagonist took up a task that would knit Jonathan Franzen's balls to his asshole. Even if they are wrong to fight, we are nothing compared to them.
- Alex Carnevale
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