Review: The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

17332287Title: The Land Across

Author: Gene Wolfe

Publisher: Macmillan

Format: eBook

Where I Received the Title: Amazon

Review:

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.
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Peace in the New Year

As I type this message, I am listening to the Coode Street Podcast interview of Gene Wolfe. Wolfe, while widely regarded for his literary skills within genre fiction, has not achieved widespread fame. It’s really a shame, because I believe him to be one of the greatest living authors alive today.

screen-captureFor Christmas, I received a new procurement —  Orb Book’s reissue of Gene Wolfe’s novel, Peace, with an afterword by Neil Gaiman. It was first published in 1975, but remains one of Wolfe’s masterworks next to his popular tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun. It is also one of his most challenging novels, for not everything is tied up in a nice bow for the reader. Also, Peace was never meant to be a genre novel — it was meant to be a mainstream novel set in a small town.

Instead of doing a straight-forward review of the title, I plan to discuss this book over a series of posts, examining the narrative on a deeper level.

Gene Wolfe once wrote to Neil Gaiman in a letter that his definition of good literature is “that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure.” I have reread a few of Wolfe’s works, but Peace is one I have not braved a second time as of yet.

Neil Gaiman’s article in Fantasy in Science Fiction offers advice on how to read Gene Wolfe. One of his suggestions is to reread his works because “it’s better the second time. It will be even better the third time. And anyway, the books will subtly reshape themselves while you are away from them. Peace really was a gentle Midwestern memoir the first time I read it. It only became a horror novel on the second or the third reading.”

I hope the experience of rereading Peace will be as memorable for me as it was for Neil Gaiman and I also hope that the added reflection of this great work will be beneficial to any travelers who may stumble upon this humble blog.