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Monday, July 20, 2015

Do not buy this book

If you are not a serious - and by serious I mean VERY VERY SERIOUS - Gene Wolfe fan. Some months ago, I was contacted by an author with perhaps the most insanely ambitious and least marketable submission I had ever imagined. He was in the process of writing a complete literary analysis of every short story and novel that Gene Wolfe had ever written. He said it ran about 800 pages... and that was just Volume One. Since I am a fan (although I have subsequently learned not a sufficiently serious fan), of Gene Wolfe, I decided that we would publish it if Mr. Wolfe was amenable. So, I called him up, told him about the project, and after he stopped laughing, he said that he had no objections so long as we sent him a copy when it came out. He also asked who the author was, and when I told him the author's name, there was a brief moment of silence on the other end of the line.

"I've met him," he said. "You know, he didn't seem like a lunatic."

In any event, Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951-1986 is now available on Amazon and at Castalia House. It is 828 pages, retails for $6.99, and features a foreword by Gene Wolfe fan John C. Wright. From the Foreword:
He is the only author I admire without ever daring to emulate, because his skill exceeds my own too greatly. I boldly claim that he is not the greatest living science fiction author, only because he is the greatest living author writing in any genre. In scope, in craftsmanship, in capturing nuances of dialog, in skill of approaching the central mysteries of the human condition, and of putting into words what never can be put into words, he had no equal, and, save perhaps for Cordwainer Smith, no serious competitor. He is that skilled.

One line is sufficient to show the subtlety of his writing: “The great question…is determining what these symbols mean in and of themselves. We are like children who look at print and see a serpent in the last letter but one, and a sword in the last.” At the risk of spoiling the jest, I direct your attention to the last letter but one in that sentence, where you can see a serpent in the s, and a sword in the t in the last. His whole work is as cunningly contrived.

One line? One name. To pick one trifle out of the treasure house, is anyone else amused that the fencing master in the city of Viron, where all men are named for living things, is called Xiphias? Xiphias is the archaic name for swordfish. What other fish does one name a fencing master after?
Seriously, though, this book is esoteric beyond belief. If you're just a casual fan of Gene Wolfe, I guarantee it will go completely over your head. If you're not a fan of Gene Wolfe, don't even think of reading this, go read Wolfe instead. And if you're one of the 200 potential readers of this book, you're probably not reading this post, you're already ordering it on Amazon. So I may as well stop here with the note that the second volume, Beyond Time and Memory: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1987-2015, will be published by Castalia House next year.

Labels:

67 Comments:

Blogger Laramie Hirsch July 20, 2015 7:24 AM  

I hope that your colleagues at Castalia House will understand that by saying "Do not buy this book unless you are a serious Gene Wolfe fan" or "it will go over your head" ...is actually really great marketing and has my interest.

With that being said, VD, what do you recommend as a good Gene Wolfe introductory book or story?

Blogger Shimshon July 20, 2015 7:38 AM  

I plan to follow your advice, but I think it's awesome that you decided to publish a book like this.

Blogger VD July 20, 2015 8:01 AM  

is actually really great marketing and has my interest.

It isn't marketing and I'm not joking. I mean that literally. We did this because it is worth doing, not because we expect to sell very many copies.

With that being said, VD, what do you recommend as a good Gene Wolfe introductory book or story?

I would go with The Book of the New Sun novels.

Blogger CM July 20, 2015 8:05 AM  

Seems like it would be a decent addition to a homeschooler's library for high school students learning how to critique literature.

Anonymous EH July 20, 2015 8:25 AM  

It will be interesting to see how he handles the unreliable narrators. In some cases one can be pretty sure of what's really going on and how it differs from what the narrator believes or professes to believe, but in no case is it certain, and often the possibilities are balanced so perfectly that perhaps even the author may be of two opinions on the matter.

I'm particularly interested in how Mr. Aramini decodes There Are Doors. Is it as subversive of female pedestalization as it seems, or is the narrator hallucinating, or is that doubt just placed there to give Mr. Wolve some plausible deniability?

Blogger MidKnight (#138) July 20, 2015 8:29 AM  

I fell in love with Wolfe reading the four books of the New Sun series. His "Long Sun" books kept me entertained during many long hours underway, patiently waiting for the next one to come out having finished the current one.

I still may not be a sufficient fan for this analysis.

Anonymous anonymous coward July 20, 2015 8:37 AM  

Is it as subversive of female pedestalization as it seems, or is the narrator hallucinating, or is that doubt just placed there to give Mr. Wolve some plausible deniability?

The narrator is an inmate in an insane asylum. Yes, it is subversive, in so far as it's a book about a female goddess and female goddesses are traditionally evil in human tradition.

Anonymous Bz July 20, 2015 8:45 AM  

Actually, that book sounds like a useful reference to keep around when re-reading. And good criticism can and has served to lure me into reading and appreciating the chewier sort of fiction.

First of all, I readily confess I've long enjoyed Wolfe's work on the rather surface level. After all, what red-blooded SFF reader isn't drawn into Book of the New Sun or Soldier of the Mist?

However, Wolfe is also a great example if you want to read fiction written by a vast intellect, in particular one that loves to play games with the reader. I sometimes think I should read him with pen and paper and plenty of time to figure out all that's going on, often on several levels. He's really a bit like pre-20th century poetry that way. Picking through Ode on a Grecian Urn with respect to meter, allusions, insights, ... Except with Wolfe there are somewhat different interests, like language, translation, identity, puzzles, mysteries. He's an engineer too.

Wright reminds me that I should re-read Cordwainer Smith too. Good, good. Excellent suggestion.

Anonymous Giuseppe The Kurgan July 20, 2015 9:07 AM  

Laramie,
I suggest soldier of the mist. Read that when I was 18 or 19 and it still haunts me.

Blogger Tom Bridgeland July 20, 2015 9:08 AM  

Gene Wolfe. One of those authors of whose writing I just know I am missing the deeper elements. I might actually buy this book just for the pleasure of actually understanding what is really going on.

Anonymous Michael Maier July 20, 2015 9:24 AM  

Vox, as a salesman, you're the best publisher ever. Or... something.

Blogger GK Chesterton July 20, 2015 9:46 AM  

Gene Wolfe is amazing.

Automatthew this is the same fellow that is doing the list on the GW listserv right? If so he does the analysis really well. I'll definitely buy the book...in a few days. I know the list was snarky about he Rabids reading Wolfe this will hopefully put that to rest.

Also for the suggeswtion DO NOT start with New Sun. Start with the "Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories".

Blogger VD July 20, 2015 9:48 AM  

I know the list was snarky about the Rabids reading Wolfe this will hopefully put that to rest.

I wouldn't count on it. SJWs will SJW.

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 9:50 AM  

EH:

There Are Doors will be covered in the next volume. Regarding unreliable narrators, I believe Marc finds them easier to handle than the third person stories, where you can't blame lacunae on the narrator.

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 9:54 AM  

Start with the "Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories".

I second that. But unless you're scoobius, you should skip the title story. Go straight to "The Death of Dr. Island".

Automatthew this is the same fellow that is doing the list on the GW listserv right?

Yes, Marc's the guy. For any Wolfe fans who don't know, there's a mailing list of great vintage at Urth.net.

Anonymous roo_ster July 20, 2015 10:28 AM  

Soldier in the mist books are less challenging to the reader than the books of the new sun.

Blogger luagha July 20, 2015 10:40 AM  

So what you're saying is, you read these books to get an inkling of all the incredible stuff one missed because one wasn't smart enough. I'm in.

I strongly advise the short story collection 'Strange Travelers' and specifically the short stories 'To The Seventh,' about a chess game between God and Satan, 'Bed And Breakfast' about a boarding house near a gate to Hell, and 'Useful Phrases' about a phrasebook for aliens. Maybe.

Blogger GoldenPigsy July 20, 2015 10:49 AM  

As a Wolfe fan, I am really quite excited to read this. Thanks to Vox/Castalia House for putting it out there.

If I were to make suggestions about what to read first, it would be "Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories," but I'm also quite partial to The Wizard Knight.

A question for Mr. John C. Wright, if he is reading these comments:

In the discussion of your review of Stranger in a Strange Land (which was brilliantly funny), you said that you do not consider any SF/F to be on the same literary level as Homer or Milton. You consider Wolfe to be the greatest living author in genre and in general; do you not consider him to be on this top literary tier? Perhaps a tier below?

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 10:50 AM  

I strongly advise the short story collection 'Strange Travelers' and specifically the short stories 'To The Seventh,' about a chess game between God and Satan, 'Bed And Breakfast' about a boarding house near a gate to Hell, and 'Useful Phrases' about a phrasebook for aliens. Maybe.

I'll second that recommendation as well.

Blogger RC July 20, 2015 11:11 AM  

Though I won't be a buyer of this book, it's tremendous that Castalia will publish a book of this nature. I cannot think of another publisher that would do so, knowing that the audience for such a work to be so limited. The best part is I'm not surprised in the least. Kudos to Castalia.

Anonymous Jack Ward July 20, 2015 11:11 AM  

I will probably buy this book because the noise. I've read some Wolfe here, there and this may be interesting. I can see, if the hook takes hold, years of reading the stories and then the analysis, or the analysis then the stories. Experimentation, you see. I wonder at what point I will become certifiable?

Blogger GK Chesterton July 20, 2015 11:17 AM  

This sort of book is useful for new readers since they can get this and one of the collections and go, "oh God, I missed all of that?"

My first exposure to Wolfe was "A Dangerous Guest". It isn't one of his most complicated by far but I knew nothing about him other than other people liked him. I finished the whole book and felt like I had missed another entire book in there. It wasn't until afterward reading an essay on the book that I understood how much I missed and how much my brain was processing as mistakes.

Wolfe does make mistakes, but they are rare. If you _sense_ a mistake it is probably the one and only clue you are going to get about that one thing. After I understood that his books became much more pleasurable.

Blogger John Wright July 20, 2015 12:33 PM  

@ GoldenPigsy

"You consider Wolfe to be the greatest living author in genre and in general; do you not consider him to be on this top literary tier? Perhaps a tier below?"

Excellent question. The answer is I don't know. Gene Wolfe is sui generis: we have never seen his like before and never will again. Other authors write dying earth books and invent fantastic animals to people them; he combs through extinct animals to resurrect to give his dying earth life, and uses the whole work as a gigantic metaphor for the death and resurrection of the human condition.

Meanwhile he plays the game, seemingly without breaking a sweat, of making the superscience seem like magic to the under-educated yet over-educated unreliable narrator with a perfectly reliable memory, and the magic seem like science.

The thing that to other authors would be the culmination of their greatest masterwork, to him is a throw-away, a flourish, merely a bit of topspin on the ball.

I myself think Mr Wolfe is too opaque to reach the levels of Homer and Shakespeare, who had the gift of being able to reach both the common man and the erudite scholar. I am an erudite scholar, but Mr. Wolfe is simply above my head. He will never appeal except to that rather small circle of devoted fans willing to reread and reread his works and puzzle out his impossible puzzles.

Blogger Wayne Earl July 20, 2015 12:37 PM  

... Is actually really great marketing and has my interest.

t isn't marketing and I'm not joking. I mean that literally. We did this because it is worth doing, not because we expect to sell very many copies.


But Vox, your sincerity and its resulting tone coloring to your post is exactly why it is excellently marketed. Think of this as a brightening agent applied to paint - too much of it, and the whole is whitewashed and blindly false. Too little, and the darkened message becomes murky and unclear.

It is excedingly difficult to apply sincerity as coloration as an additive, when the copy writer doesnt possess it naturally for thw subject matter at hand.

Blogger pdwalker July 20, 2015 1:15 PM  

Am I the only one who has never heard of him?

I must correct that oversight.

And JW, you do put your own oblique references and puzzles in your own works. Half the time I'm scratching my head wondering about the references I've missed in your writing only because of the subtle ones I was able to catch in passing.

Anonymous Bz July 20, 2015 1:29 PM  

Well, with this I've spent about twenty bucks on Castalia books this month and none on Tor. Funny how things work out, eh?

Anonymous Bz July 20, 2015 1:55 PM  

Here is Gene Wolfe profiled in the New Yorker by the way: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/sci-fis-difficult-genius

Blogger VD July 20, 2015 1:58 PM  

As a Wolfe fan, I am really quite excited to read this. Thanks to Vox/Castalia House for putting it out there.

You're quite welcome. And if you are really quite excited to read this, you're obviously quite mad as well. Enjoy it; there is a lot to enjoy.

If, of course, you enjoy that sort of thing.

Anonymous Bz July 20, 2015 2:02 PM  

Somewhat tangentially, I recently re-read another genius of SF, one beloved by Gene Wolfe as it happens, namely Jack Vance. What a fresh experience Lyonesse was compared to the formulaic SJW writing we are fed these days.

Anonymous SixtusVIth July 20, 2015 2:05 PM  

You've convinced me to begin reading Wolfe by showing that he is able to generate this level of sophisticated commentary (yes, esoterica does attract me like that). I will of course buy a copy of Aramini too. Thanks.

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 2:35 PM  

Here's a very Wolfean Wolfe story available online: The Arimaspian Legacy.

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 2:39 PM  

And here's a very straightforward Wolfe story that I think most everyone will like. No tricksiness, and very obviously Christian.

The Detective of Dreams.

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 2:44 PM  

And our very own Daniel compared Wolfe's "Build-A-Bear" to our favorite Nebula winning short story, over at Castalia House's blog

Blogger bob k. mando July 20, 2015 2:53 PM  

say, automat.

you remember when i said ray had the nose of the elephant of conspiracy and you had the tail?

you know what the hazard of having the elephant by the tail is, don't you?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmULz03wdQ0

Blogger GK Chesterton July 20, 2015 3:35 PM  

"And JW, you do put your own oblique references and puzzles in your own works. Half the time I'm scratching my head wondering about the references I've missed in your writing only because of the subtle ones I was able to catch in passing"

JC uses clues. I also think he tries to channel Wolfe and Chesterton. Wolfe himself though is a enigma in a puzzle with a grinning Cheshire Cat on top.

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 3:44 PM  

Wolfe doesn't want to fool or frustrate his readers (usually). I think he wants to tell bizarre stories without giving away the game too soon, but he seriously overestimates the acumen of his readers.

Also, he has a very ... pun-gent ... sense of humor. Consider the ending of the strange little story Copperhead

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 3:46 PM  

In case anyone wants to buy some Wolfe without breaking the Tor boycott, there are some older non-Tor editions available used.

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 3:47 PM  

I'm not watching that, bob, because I'm pretty sure I know what will happen.

Blogger Groot July 20, 2015 4:26 PM  

I had just finished reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, which contains much gruesome torture from history, when I read the first two volumes from Books of the New Sun. I simply could not suspend my disbelief regarding a professional torturer with a heart of gold. Maybe I should give Wolfe another chance. I don't know...

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 5:22 PM  

Groot,

New Sun is not my favorite Wolfe. Try something radically different. Genre options:

Modern/urban fantasy/sf:

* Castleview
* There Are Doors
* Free Live Free
* The Sorceror's House

Mytho-fantasy:

* The Wizard Knight
* The Latro series (Soldier of the Mist, et al.)

Straight SF (though still Lupinely weird):

* The Fifth Head of Cerberus
* Homefires
* Pirate Freedom

Blogger astrodominant July 20, 2015 5:32 PM  

I'm in. I own all of Gene Wolfe and only one trilogy has seriously baffled me so far. He is an auto-purchase. I intend to start rereading them later this year and this guide will be an interesting companion. That and a big dictionary.

Blogger Groot July 20, 2015 5:44 PM  

@40. automattthew:
It turns out I own Wizard Knight 1 & 2. I'll give it a go. Thanks.

I am Groot.

Blogger VFM bot #188 July 20, 2015 5:50 PM  

@#25, pdwalker: Yes, you're the only one here who hasn't heard of or read Gene Wolfe. At least you're the only one foolish enough to publicly display the fact that you're a half-educated, ignorant, knavish fool with absolutely no literary knowledge, taste, or background.

Me? I've never heard of him or read anything by him either. Now Malwyn is going to dive out of the sky on her bat-wings on top of both of us!

Blogger GK Chesterton July 20, 2015 5:53 PM  

Groot,

It would be going _very_ far to say Severian is a torturer with a heart of gold. He does monstrous things almost all the time. He kills with a flourish to entertain and he is strikingly indifferent to the suffering of those who are in the prison. There is also some possibility that very bad things happen to the boys in the charge of the torturers including abuse and ritualized murder.

However, he does compartmentalize the people involved in his profession. If you are a prisoner for the most part he will ignore you. If you are _not_ then you are far more human.

Blogger Groot July 20, 2015 6:10 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

Anonymous TroperA July 20, 2015 6:20 PM  

So is this book anything as crazily analytical as "The Shone Report" was to the movie "The Shining?"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1v9EKLQD_g

I swear, there's an entire cottage industry devoted to picking apart every little thing done by Stanley Kubrick. If you want to see REAL fanboy loonishness, just watch "Room 237"....

Blogger John Wright July 20, 2015 6:24 PM  

" I also think he tries to channel Wolfe and Chesterton. "

Never. Humility forbids. I can do a passable Jack Vance, an excellent AE van Vogt, a clumsy Zelazny, an exquisite Lord Dunsany, a modernized EE Doc Smith and so on. I can walk in the paths of these men. The flight of the swan among the thunderclouds I cannot walk.

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 7:14 PM  

only one trilogy has seriously baffled me so far.

SHORT SUN!???

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 7:18 PM  

So is this book anything as crazily analytical...

Not in most cases. In many of the short story writeups, I wished the author had been able to provide more crazy theories about just exactly what the hell is going on. His analysis of Fifth Head, on the other hand, has already raised hackles on the Urth.net mailing list.

Blogger Markku July 20, 2015 8:28 PM  

This is an important book because many of you will not believe our warnings, and buy it. Then you will experience pain, and then you will believe us in the future.

Like a baby touching a hot stove.

Blogger bob k. mando July 20, 2015 9:12 PM  

38. automattthew July 20, 2015 3:47 PM
I'm not watching that, bob, because I'm pretty sure I know what will happen.



pffft. how bad can it be? it's on youtube and not even click through for adult content.

Blogger rcocean July 20, 2015 9:22 PM  

Wow, Vox. You mean you published a book that wouldn't get you lots of $$$ or advance your political beliefs? Its almost like you're not part of the Publishing Industry.

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 10:10 PM  

Then you will experience pain, and then you will believe us in the future.

Alternatively, perhaps many will succumb to lunacy.

Blogger Thucydides July 20, 2015 10:16 PM  

Wow. I love Gene Wolfe and thought I was a fan. I read the first "Book of the New Sun" trilogy until it literally fell apart, and still treasure my first edition paperback copy of Peace (although each time I read it it seems like I am reading a totally different book, the story is so dense and intricate). But this is taking literary fandom to "11".

Best of luck to Vox for publishing and the author for what is obviously a work of love.

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 10:17 PM  

Honestly, though: you should only buy the book if you have already read -- and intend to re-read -- at least one collection of Gene Wolfe stories.

Otherwise, you're either making a charitable donation, or investing in a future where you will want to compulsively pore over Gene Wolfe short stories, where lies are clues and lacunae are smoking guns.

Blogger automattthew July 20, 2015 10:22 PM  

Thucydides,

Marc's book includes a long essay on Peace, the subtitle of which is:

“Fairy Tales From the Emerald Isle, Cultural Displacements, Birds, and the Resurrection Egg: Motifs in Gene Wolfe’s Peace”

Here's a sample:

Besides these ghostly “afterlife” themes, there are several other things we should note – for an American story, the family names listed are overwhelmingly Scottish or Irish, as can be clearly seen in the appendix to this article. Obviously the early Gaelic stories told by Kate Boyne and Hannah are spoken again through Weer, the fairy tales of that land involving the Sidhe and the Firbolg … but it seems that these characters in the frame tale of Peace resonate with the displaced history of those fey Gaelic creatures, perhaps even becoming exactly like them, transformed through death into the fairy tales mentioned so often. This fate even echoes the displacement of the Native Americans, as the deer skin treaty forged by Olivia and her friends at Den’s fifth birthday party indicates. Most fascinatingly, the sidhe mentioned in the final story told by the Doherty’s descendant Dan French survive in the transformed shapes of a flock of geese even long after they should be dead. The relationship between the sidhe, the lesser fairies, the Firbolg, and the Tuatha De Danann is one of displacement and eventual replacement, and this too seems to be in the backdrop of Peace: Weer’s memories have become magical to whatever lives on earth after man’s time is done.

Anonymous dc red dogs July 20, 2015 11:29 PM  

The Ziggurat (North Woods, engineer, wild dogs, crabby aliens) and Forlosen (dreamscape involving getting married young and taking a dreary job) are exciting short reads by Wolfe that do not require scholarship or puzzle solving skills. Of the seven novels I have read, the most accessible (to someone who is Christian, anyway) is There Be Doors, a story that begins to tell - no spoilers here - about what happens to a young person who had the chance to live in a beautiful dreamscape of a world that is sort of like an idealized version of Chicago but who, in a half-cocked manner, met a girl and forgot to decide not to ignore the First Commandment of the Decalogue (Wolfe was, and apparently remains, in spite of recent hardships, a cheerful Christian believer)

Blogger Groot July 20, 2015 11:32 PM  

44. GK Chesterton July 20, 2015 5:53 PM
"It would be going _very_ far to say Severian is a torturer with a heart of gold."

I was thinking of the scene where he is to torture and kill a woman he learns has been falsely accused. He breaks her thigh bones quickly and finishes her off with dispatch as a mercy, then kills the woman who has made the false accusation. These noble acts are still the breaking of thigh bones, murder of an innocent, and extralegal execution. As you note, one could only call his behavior as stemming from a heart of gold in irony, and thus it was.

Blogger automattthew July 21, 2015 12:16 AM  

Groot,

Severian only gets worse. Aramini's opinion, so far as I understand it, and I think I may agree, is that Severian becomes a false savior.

Blogger automattthew July 21, 2015 12:17 AM  

dc red dogs:

It is to laugh.

Many think "Ziggurat" and "Forlesen" are some of the most difficult Wolfe stories. Both are among my favorites.

Blogger automattthew July 21, 2015 12:20 AM  

Of the seven novels I have read, the most accessible (to someone who is Christian, anyway) is There Are Doors

More laughter, because this novel is:

A. The one Wolfe says is his favoritel

B. The one none of the Wolfe fans likes.

Humbly. What have we missed?

Anonymous Jack Ward July 21, 2015 12:38 AM  

OK. I bounced to Amazon clicked on the book cover and read a few of the offered teasers. Yeah, this will be a challenge. I have read Fifth Head of Cerberus and reached the same conclusions as Mr. Aramini concerning the Shadow ones of planet St. Anne. The book itself was interesting to read and a bit sobering for sure.
This, if it goes forth will be a labor indeed and, probably, not one of love to read and compare to the fiction works they describe. But, it will be fun, in a fashion, to obtain and read the Wolfe works in the same order as the critiques.

Blogger TheLastBaron July 21, 2015 12:57 AM  

As a huge admirer of Wolfe's writing, this is a must-have for me. It looks like its only available in Kindle format though. Are there plans to offer it in Epub or PDF? Or, dare I say, a print edition?

Blogger automattthew July 21, 2015 1:35 AM  

TheLastBaron, see:

http://www.castaliahouse.com/downloads/between-light-and-shadow/

Blogger automattthew July 21, 2015 1:39 AM  

I want a print edition, too. And so I have been doing, and will continue to do, everything I can to make that happen.

Blogger Jeff Y July 21, 2015 9:45 AM  

Actually, I'm quite enjoying the book. The analysis of "The Last Thrilling Wonder Story" is excellent. I took it more as a comment on logismoi more than anything, so Aramini's take on literary allusions in the story was surprising to me.

Anonymous dc red dogs July 21, 2015 10:14 AM  

automatthew - for me There are Doors is so good because the narrator and the main character are more in synch with each other than in the other Wolfe novels I have read, (as if the main character were a younger confused version of the narrator, who, unlike the main character, knew what was worth living for in life and, in an archetypal fictional narrator way, was describing his own self without his real-life good fortune, or describing someone who could be his own in-another-universe son, lost in a distorted but magnificent Midwest city and without Christian guidance) The background seems clearly to be a dream-like distortion of the territory of Wolfe's happiest years, raising his family in the Midwest with a wife that he loved, simply and without idolatry -none of which (wife and family, Wolfe's lack of idolatry) is in the novel, but the love with which the background is described leads me to think that Wolfe put as much of his then-recent happiest memories into this book as he could, within the constraints of the plot. Also, you can tell he was in the full flow of creativity, personal connection to the fictional city or not, when writing the background and the backup characters, including the almost alive landscape and lakescapes. Finally, from a Christian point of view, you can almost hear the narrator aching to tell the main character that idolatry is wrong. Of course, I may have misunderstood a lot, but those are my impressions after a couple of readings and lots of thought.

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