My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Gene Wolfe won my undying devotion by being the author of the books that pushed me across the borderland from science fiction and fantasy to literature. (There’s no hard and fast border between the two. It’s a spectrum, but when you start reading Wolfe you realized you’ve definitely wandered– or plunged– into the literary side of this spectrum.) The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, and all of the Sun books are enough to cement his reputation, and they remain among my all-time favorite books. Yet the man is still writing, and I’m still obligingly reading everything that comes from his pen or whatever word-processing software he uses. The Land Across, a standardly (for Wolfe) unclassifiable novel that straddles the boundary between crime mystery, international espionage thriller, and supernatural fantasy, is his latest.
I’ll be honest, some of his most recent stand-alone novels seem like they could be a bit inaccessible to someone not familiar with Wolfe and his tricks. I come to them with a predisposition to love the writing and the writer. Even so, I left An Evil Guest with a confused frown and The Sorcerer’s House with a wry sigh. I closed The Land Across with a perplexed grin. It was nowhere near (to me) as impenetrable as Castleview (for which I lack the Arthurian key). Of all Wolfe’s novels, the one of which it reminded me the most was There Are Doors, but with the soft alienness of a foreign country instead of a parallel dimension. (I also recall Doors as having lots of conversations in cafes, as does Land.)
On the surface, the plot is not straightforward at all. In fact, it’s bewilderingly complex. The main character, Grafton, wants to write a travel book about an unnamed and difficult-to-reach Eastern European country. While traveling there by train he gets picked up by the border patrol and arrested as a possible spy. Under a loose sort of house arrest, he agrees to rent a (probably) haunted house in which there is reputed to be treasure. He gets kidnapped by an underground revolutionary movement and eventually arrested again by the country’s secret police. When his cell-mate escapes, the secret police enlist Grafton to help track the man down. The escapee seems to know some magic, and a secret society of Satanists gets involved. Mysteries are solved. Long conversations are held in cafes. Women (who, married or not, seem to throw themselves at the narrator) are obligingly slept with. Grafton gets awarded a medal by the country’s dictator. Then he goes back to see if he can find the treasure in the haunted house.
If all that seems rather random and scattered, it is. But the genius of Wolfe’s writing is the way he makes it all seem natural. There are aspects of the supernatural and the surreal, but as with most of Wolfe’s writing these aspects are subtle and the bones of the story are the people and the conversations they have. Wolfe is the only writer I know who can create what seems like an action-packed novel but where most of the action is actually taking place in conversations over cafe tables. He is a master of relaying dialogue the way it actually occurs in conversations. People talk like real people in Wolfe’s novels, with all the logical leaps and half-understood or misunderstood transfers of information that this normally entails. The challenge is that Wolfe doesn’t put you in the narrator’s head, so you’re required to make the leaps and conclusions on your own. The narrator might throw you a clue, but for the most part he assumes you can keep up.
I was left, as I so often am after reading Wolfe, with the feeling that there was a lot more going on in the novel than I figured out. Even though, as far as Wolfe novels go, there was a fair degree of closure. There are lingering puzzles: the jarring and dream-like way in which Grafton was first taken off the train at the beginning of the novel, the unnamed lady he meets a few times and then exits the narrative with, and finally the ghostly figure of the Leader himself (as well as Vlad the Impaler) that haunts Grafton throughout the story. But these aren’t large enough or central enough that their mystery detracts from feeling as though I’ve understood the story at all. (Though, with Wolfe, you can’t get away from the feeling that he’s laughing at you because the real story, the secret story taking place in the sewers beneath or the back alleys behind the narrative hinges on solving these lingering mysteries.)
Wolfe’s novels should be read multiple times, ideally immediately after having finished it for the first time. But I am still a bit of a lazy reader, so I was pleased The Land Across did not immediately draw me into a story of tangential pathways and dizzying divergences like Abel’s quest in the Wizard Knight books. Indeed, once Grafton fell in with the secret police, the “case” of solving where his escaped cellmate was and finding the identity of the head of the secret Satanist cult formed a more or less consistent thread on which the novel rested. And this thread was, at least superficially, resolved.