Peace by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is one of my favorite books. I still don’t completely understand this book. With Gene Wolfe this is not a problem (at least with his earlier works—for me, the jury is still out on some of his latest novels). His books are layered, and they always repay the slow, careful re-read. I’ve gone through this one at least three times now, and each time I pick up something new. Wolfe remains my favorite author, and Peace I think is an excellent introduction to his work, especially if you’re not coming from a science fiction or fantasy background.
On the first level, Peace is the beautifully written memoir of Alden Dennis Weer and a paean to life in a Midwestern town from a childhood among horses and coaches to old age among factories. The language itself makes it worth the read. Wolfe is a craftsman, and his skill with description, dialogue, and the creation of characters is showcased in any of his works but especially shines throughout Peace. I would be interested to know how much of this work is biographical. (Though Wolfe grew up in Texas, he’s stated that there’s more of him in Weer than many critics recognize.) There’s a richness to the memories that Weer relives throughout the novel—places and people and lost pocket-knives—that carries a deep reality, as I suppose is true with any great work of literature. Yet Wolfe is a “genre” author, so he can wrap this in surreality and twist it in strange ways. (One of my favorite passages is a story-within-a-story when Weer’s childhood housekeeper is telling a story she heard as a child from her own housekeeper. Wolfe deftly telescopes the narrative until, like looking down a tunnel of mirrors, you realize that narrator narrating the story-within-the-story is perceiving you, the reader.)
On a second layer, Peace is a book about memory and death. Weer is writing at a time when all the characters in the novel are dead, and his narration moves back and forth seamlessly between memory and across years. He writes his story from various rooms in a house he claims to have had built to encapsulate various locations from his long life, and he seems to be haunting his own memories like a ghost. On this level, the novel is a tale about childhood and old age and all the memory and loss that goes with both and in many ways reminds me of “Forlesen,” one of my favorite Wolfe short stories.
On a third level, Peace is about storytelling. The novel is a patchwork of stories embedded within other stories, something characteristic of much of Wolfe’s fractal-like writings. Some of the stories, such as the one Weer reads as a child about the princess in the tower, clearly relate to episodes from Weer’s own life (in this case his Aunt Olivia’s succession of suitors). Some are much more ambiguous, and some relate to the novel’s overall story in ways I still don’t perceive (such as the epistolary tale from the carnival near the novel’s conclusion). There are ghost stories and there are stories left unfinished. There are threads I have not yet unwoven, one of the things that keeps me coming back to Wolfe’s work and keeps internet listservs humming with speculations.
And finally, Peace is a mystery and a horror novel. Yet it’s subtle horror, buried so deep that upon first blush, much like Wolfe’s short story, “A Solar Labyrinth,” there doesn’t seem to be much there at all. But by the end of the book you’re left with the distinct impression that Weer has killed at least two characters and possibly more. Nothing is said directly, but the clues are there, the lack of direct acknowledgement making it all the more chilling. Other characters simply disappear. (Did Margaret Lorn’s father ever make it in from the storm?) Things happen off-scene that carry significance the narrator only hints at. Is this because he’s recalling things seen from the vantage point of childhood? Or because there are things he simply does not want us to know?
And then there is Weer’s fate itself, again something that is never spelled out (far be it from Wolfe to have such a low estimate of his readers’ astuteness) but that is made fairly clear from the clue of Eleanor Bold’s tree and the vignette of the necromancers at the grave’s edge (as well as the title of the novel itself).
Strange and dark things happen in Peace, but they are of the horror and wonder that is a large but unseen part of anyone’s life. I think this is what makes Peace so effective: like Weer, we all have our secrets and memories of the ephemeral and the ghastly. Peace is a life story, which always eventually becomes a ghost story.