Author: Gene Wolfe
Where I Received the Title: Amazon
Through life’s turmoils, Gene Wolfe proves he still has his stride in The Land Across. The novel is a memoir/travelogue of an American named Grafton visiting an obscure country in Eastern Europe with the purpose of creating a travel book. Upon reaching the border, he is seized by border guards, has his passport confiscated, and is placed under house arrest. After a romantic entanglement with the homeowner’s wife, Grafton is kidnapped by a religious cult who uses him to perform radio broadcasts. He later manages to find himself in prison, where he meets an American salesman named Russ who specializes in voodoo dolls. This is only the beginning of the mystery and strange country that Grafton inhabits. There are satanic orders, secret police, treasures, ghosts, vampires, and many other unbelievable creatures and circumstances that he must face if he is to ever make it out of the country.
Grafton is typical of Wolfe’s narrators. He has an impeccable memory, but if any reader doubts his reliability, he keeps a journal to document his daily misadventures. Grafton offers many asides to the reader, explaining why some details are added and others are omitted, sometimes for no other purpose than to oblige his own ego. He feigns humbleness in his allusions to women he’s slept with and spares the reader of crude gestures only to hint at them time and time again. He is flawed, but likeable — and resilient too. After losing in a fist fight with Kleon, the man responsible for keeping Grafton under house arrest, he resolves that he will return the favor (even though he slept with the man’s wife).
Also like many of Wolfe’s novels, there are many questions that will require a second reading. This novel was more straightforward than others, but it still contained Wolfean puzzles and ambiguous references, including mention of Dracula (or Vlad the Impalor), a powerful antagonist known for his sexual pursuits and an ability to control other beings (the reader wonders, to what level was Grafton coerced/guided?). The ending was a bit Scooby Doo for me and was followed by a short, non-scholarly afterward proselytizing the merits of democracy, but don’t let this dissuade you from reading. The Land Across is every bit as clever and fun to read as his other books, falling more into pattern with his later fiction. Wolfe commands the narrative voice like none other and has demonstrated once again that his puzzles can never be fully disentangled, only loosened enough to make you feel witty – if only for a moment.