"I guess it's not nice to be fooled."
"I'm told some people like it."
In the midst of battling alongside (and occasionally with) Thomas Covenant in Stephen Donaldson's Second Chronicles over the past three or four weeks, I've had precious little mental or emotional space to spare for other novels. But one that managed to slip through Donaldson's (undoubtedly "clenched") net was Peace (1975), by Gene Wolfe (largely thanks, it must be said, to a bus ride to London, the Chronicles being far too huge at 1250 pages to easily carry on public transport...).
And what a thoroughly wonderful little escapee it proved! Peace is a strange, sad, unique novel: a fictional autobiography whose subject is determined to conceal himself at every turn, an American-Gothic patchwork of stories without endings, a ghost story where we never see the victims die (or are even entirely sure what happened to them). The overarching themes are of storytelling, and resolution - or, rather, its absence: an endlessly-thwarted striving for the peace of death, of absolution, of conclusion, of happily ever after.
Alden Dennis Weer, our primary narrator, relates his memories from his home in an anonymous Midwestern town. His narrative voice is a meandering one, skipping freely between trains of thought, often losing his original thread in the throes of his reflections.
Now, when I sit alone before my fire and look out at the wreck of the elm revealed by the lightning flashes, confused and ruinous as a ship gone aground, it seems to me that the garden - I mean little Joe's garden, basking forever in the sunshine of its Tyrrhenian afternoon - is the core and root of the real world, to which all this America is only a miniature in a locket in a forgotten drawer; and this thought reminds me (and is reinforced by the memory) of Dante's Paradiso, in which (because the wisdom of this world was the folly of the next) the earth stood physically central, surrounded by the limbus of the moon and all the other spheres, greater and greater, and at last by God, but in which this physical reality was, in the end, delusive, God standing central in spiritual truth, and our poor earth cast out - peripheral to the concerns of Heaven save when the memory of it waked, with something not unlike an impure nostalgia, the great saints and the Christ from the contemplation of triune God.
His telling jumps back and forth in time according to internal and external prompts: things Weer sees or feels in his immediate surroundings, or the random associations thrown up by the events and people he is describing. Yet it gradually becomes apparent that this is not simply the work of a wandering mind - rather, the tangential meandering is often strategic, employed to slide past recollections he would rather avoid, and conclusions he does not wish us to reach. Furthermore, there are signs that Weer may be entering and altering the past by the deceptively simple act of evoking and recounting it. This is reflected in his location as he writes: his home seems to be a sort of memory palace, continually rearranging itself around him; the rooms of his past emerge in the house as they come into his narrative.
He tells a variety of tales, each with different measures of distance between the reader and the events recounted. There are episodes from his own life, told in retrospect and filled with hindsight and obfuscation. There are episodes, second-hand, from the lives of people he knew, recounted in imitation of how they were told in his hearing (and layered with interjections and challenges from the original listeners). Finally, there are stories told at third-hand or beyond: folktales and legends and urban myths, stories whose origin have been lost entirely.
Often there is a playfulness to the stories- an awareness of the audience, and a consequent reshaping for their entertainment or understanding. Wolfe, clearly, loves both telling tales and examining the mechanics of their telling, as when Weer recalls a book he read as a child, about a princess and the succession of her suitors:
[The final suitor] was not only deficient in supernatural abilities but rather short (again judging by his picture) as well, but he made up for these inadequacies with curly blond hair and a marvellous degree of cunning. At the princess' urging he traded that well-known shrewd bargainer the fox out of his ox, leaving him a mere 'f', then exchanged the ox for a giant's shadow, with which he so terrified the people of a seaside town that they made him their king, whereupon he went back to the giant and exchanged the shadow (now more valuable than ever, since it was the shadow of a famous conqueror) for a magical bird of ruby and amethyst, which he presented to the princess.
And very few of any of the stories have identifiable endings. Weer never finished reading the book described above. Other tales are interrupted, or their resolutions are forgotten - or deliberately elided. It seems that the process of telling the story is the significant part; the conclusions are left to live and grow with rich abandon in the readers' or the hearers' imaginations. A tale can never truly be concluded as long as someone, somewhere continues to tell it. (Thus, too, Weer's search for peace - if that is what he desires in penning his memoirs - is an impossible one, and the import of his life cannot be set in stone). This point is made directly when young Weer is told, regarding the Venus de Milo's missing arms:
"In point of fact, the position of the arms - and what happened to them - is well established. It is seldom published, however, because the mystery makes a better story."
Here lies the heart of Wolfe's treatment of his narrator's patchwork memoirs. A sinister note is sounded repeatedly throughout the novel; at the doctor's surgery (perhaps in the past, perhaps not), Weer contemplates spying upon a woman undressing in the cubicle beside him:
If I were to make a hole through the partition with my jackknife, I could see her, and if I were lucky she would not see the bright blade of the leather punch coming through the wall, or the dark hole afterward, with my bright blue middle-aged eye behind it.
While, having lived a long life, it is hardly surprising that Weer should have seen many friends and family members die, there are hints that a number of the deaths may have come about by decidedly unnatural causes. None of this is ever engaged with directly; mysterious circumstances are referenced but rarely explained fully. People drop abruptly from the narrative, and it may only be pages later that we discover, in passing, that they died. But whether this is an attempt to skirt his culpability, an oblique search for absolution, or simply a function of an old man uninterested in providing linear narrative, is left entirely up to the readers. Alternatively, perhaps the whole thing is a complete invention: another fantastical unresolved story, made to entertain, and to fool. How much, if any, of what Weer tells is the truth - or even close?
The characters are vivid, even if we can never be sure we're seeing them as they really were - Weer's aunt in particular:
"I think I should have screamed," my aunt Olivia said. I could see, however, that this expression was intended merely as a conventional indication of excitement. What she would really have done was borrow a knife and whack off a piece to put under the little microscope in the conservatory.
The early twentieth-century Midwestern environment provides an atmospheric and slightly eerie backdrop to the narrative: it is a place of old manners and older folklore, of dusty drawing-rooms and repressed desires, of gossiping servants and fledgling science. The outside world is a strange realm, one that - whether distant historical past or across-the-ocean present - is viewed only through the esoteric, often muddled stories of others (Weer himself never leaves the town). The impression I was left with is that Weer in his memory palace represents the last bastion of a faded world, one doomed to die once the light is shone upon it: and one that, perhaps, only ever existed in his stories.