Monday, December 06, 2004


I believe that Gene Wolfe is one of the great American writers. Peace is definitely a great book, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus is either great or nearly so; The Book of the New Sun has a good deal of magnificent writing in it, though I want to reserve judgment as to the overall scheme. Of his shorter works, "The Death of Doctor Island" and "Forlesen" are stunning.

But it's been years since I've read a new book by him that I've enjoyed. I was underwhelmed by The Book of the Long Sun. I didn't like The Book of the Short Sun overall, though parts of it were excellent. And I disliked The Knight in toto. (Below I've appended a rant about The Knight that I posted to the Wolfe mailing list when it first came out.)

A few days ago The Wizard, the second part of the "bilogy" of which The Knight is the first part, showed up at my local library, and out of curiosity I checked it out. I got about ninety pages into it (skipping a bit), and then began looking ahead to see if there was anything worth continuing for. I don't actively dislike The Wizard the way I did The Knight, perhaps because my expectations going in were so low. I just found it dull. As with The Knight, none of the characters or their actions interested me at all. The characters have endless boring conversations about the book's convoluted plot, and given my experiences with Wolfe's recent work I have no expectation that making the effort to follow this plot would be worthwhile. Bye bye, Wizard.


Here's the rant about The Knight I mentioned, very slightly edited. It was written in the white heat of disappointment, so to speak; were I to read The Knight again (which I don't plan to), I might find a little more value in it.

I just finished reading The Knight, without any pleasure. In fact, I found it dispiriting, for the extent to which Wolfe has fallen off even from The Book of the Short Sun. I nearly gave up two-thirds of the way through, as up till then literally nothing about the book had interested me (except for a few scraps of research): not Sir Able of the High Heart, the Uberknight who his inferiors willingly submit to (if not, they're treacherous curs, whom he rightfully punishes), not any of the other characters, not the world, and not the plot, such as it was. Able doesn't behave like an adolescent, magically given an adult body or not: what he does behave like is an adolescent boy's fantasy of how he would behave if given a powerful adult body. Nor does he sound in the least like an adolescent, contemporary or otherwise. When Able talks to other characters, he sounds like the generic Wolfe Competent Male; when he's narrating, he mostly sounds like Hoof, except when Wolfe throws in some incongruous "poetic" passages, or remembers that Able is supposed to be a modern teenager and tosses in a reference to Macs or baseball. As Roy and Chris have suggested, the idea that the book is a letter written by Able to his brother to explain his situation is ridiculous. After the two-thirds mark, the book picked up a little, I'll admit: Mani, the only interesting character, appeared, and the story moved away from Able alternately displaying his valor and chastising cads. But I have no interest in Able's further adventures, and no need to know what happens next.

Aside from the minor characters being completely uninteresting except for Mani, several of them have been recycled from The Book of the Short Sun. Disiri is another version of Seawrack. Able's adoring slave-elfmaidens are like Jahlee--shape-shifting temptresses in lust with the hero--though lacking Jahlee's individuality. Berthould and Pouk are both versions of Pig, and Gylf combines Oreb and Babbie.

There's been talk about how the book explores chivalric values, but in fact the values of the book are those of British boys' school stories circa 1910. Some people have argued that Able is an unreliable narrator, but to me this is wishful thinking (like the idea that "The Ziggurat" is a critique of patriarchy) born of disbelief that Wolfe actually wants us to see a dull lout like Able as a hero.

Compared to my other complaints, it's a minor point, but Uns's dialect is even more annoying than the dialects in The Book of the Short Sun.

I'm aware of the high praise the book has received here, in print, and from the famous names who contributed blurbs, but I find this acclaim simply baffling. I literally don't see anything in the book to evoke it. To me, the book is like a parody of Wolfe. Even more, it strikes me as being Wolfe's own wish-fulfillment fantasy. I'll probably read The Wizard when it appears, for old times' sake if for no other reason, but it would take a miracle for it to redeem The Wizard Knight as a whole, and I no longer expect miracles from Wolfe.

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