Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Book of the New Sun

My wife and I read together a lot. It's amazing when I think about it what we've gotten through this way. Long works like The Lord of the Rings, Don Quixote, Emma, The Brothers Karamazov, David Copperfield, and The Worm Ouroboros; short works like Heart of Darkness, The Time Machine, The Big Sleep, The Man Who Was Thursday, and Our Man in Havanna. She used to teach elementary school, and we've read a lot of juvenile fiction, too, like the Curdie books, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Wind in the Willows, The Neverending Story, and Lang's fairy tale collections. As you can probably tell, our tastes differ somewhat. Sometimes we read nonfiction, although we often don't finish this, usually because of my short attention span. It's easier to come back to something after having laid it aside for awhile when you're reading on your own than when you're reading aloud with someone else.

This summer we've been reading Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which is appropriate as he recently received the SWFA Grand Master award. I've read it before; this is her first time. It's a good book to read aloud because of its formal voice and attention to language. I suppose that's why we tend to go through a lot of nineteenth-century literature together—choppy dialogue and stylistic experimentation don't lend themselves to vocalization. Actually, in order to really appreciate beautiful writing, I find that I have to read it aloud; my pace makes me miss a lot otherwise. Conversely, bad writing becomes painfully apparent this way.

BOTNS is one of those books that divide people. Some think it's one of the great novels of modern times; others just don't get it. Unsurprisingly, it garners more stars on Goodreads than Moby-Dick, and the reviews are really rather similar. People who don't like it find the plot too meandering, the action too halting, the ruminations too digressive; people who like it have a hard time giving a single, coherent reason. Everyone who reads Moby-Dick and hates it takes great pains to make it clear that they get it—understand the symbolism and allusions and so forth—only that it doesn't impress them. But "getting" a book in the sense that you know all the stuff the endnotes would tell you isn't really getting it at all. There's a landscape here, and you have to live in it. You have to have come to love the cadences of the King James Bible, been daunted by the cruelty of the Old Testament, set yourself up against Nature in hate and fear, looked into the maw of a universe without God, been swayed by the music of Pantheism. It isn't a story, for God's sake. It's a monument. Much the same can be said of BOTNS.

So, first let me offer some faltering explanations of why I like the book. After that I'll discuss a few objections.

To begin with, I've written elsewhere about how much I admire the vocabulary. It's eminently suited to the story, which takes place in a Dying Earth so far in the future that the only productive mining is in the "hills" of heaped remnants of previous civilizations, the great city is a world unto itself tapering into ruins at its extremities, and exposed strata in the mountains consist of layers of million-year-old human artifacts. Wolfe has a way, too, through careful word choice and image-painting, of making you think you understand something—the nature of a building or a person, perhaps—and then dashing it to pieces by the narrator's casual mention of some minor detail. For example, you realize only gradually that the Citadel in which the story begins is in reality a collection of ancient space crafts. The vertigo of "time's abyss" (as The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has it) occurs too many times to count.

The structure of the book is that of a traveler's tale. Such stories bore some people to tears, but I find them profoundly enjoyable when done well. This one is done well. Its cast of disappearing, reappearing characters reminds me, oddly enough, of the anime cartoon Belle and Sebastian, which I watched on TV when I was in kindergarten but haven't seen since. It also contains numerous tales-with-the-tale, much like Moby-Dick, something that, again, isn't to everyone's taste, but is to mine. A couple of the stories are far-future retellings of current tales (Theseus and the Minotaur, Mowgli's Brothers). It is, in general, as profoundly erudite a piece of speculative fiction as you will ever find.

Objections to BOTNS fall into several categories. Some people take offense at the fact that the book doesn't spell everything out. Some reviewers have concluded that BOTNS is little more than an immense puzzle for the reader to solve. Admittedly, the book does contain many puzzles. Personally, from a stylistic point of view, I appreciate it that Wolfe didn't clog his story with infodumps. I mean, the infodumps (and, in the later volumes, the synopses) are there, but you have to put them together yourself. It's really rather artfully done. It's as it would be if Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings by taking Frodo from his front step to Rivendell, with no "Shadow of the Past" or Council of Elrond, ending with his acceptance of the quest for Mount Doom. No appendices, no backstory: the history of the One Ring—including Frodo's destiny—is to be pieced together by the attentive reader from an assortment of hints and allusions. They are, of course, vastly different works, but have this in common: verisimilitude. LOTR purports to be a version of the Red Book of Westmarch, a chronicle, while BOTNS is presented as Severian's confessions.

Other people get angry about the treatment of women in Wolfe's Urth, as if this is his coda for how he thinks women ought to be treated. One reviewer lists all the rights women in Urth fail to enjoy as though they are Wolfe's crimes against humanity, ending with a heartfelt "f*** you." It's strange. Would they feel the same way about a historically accurate novel set in (say) Imperial China? I mean, setting a story in a milieu in which women (and people in general) don't enjoy basic rights and privileges doesn't make the author an apologist for it.

Of course, some authors might be accused of taking a little too much pleasure in the mistreatment of female characters. John Norman comes to mind. I personally can't bring myself to read Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane because of the rape scene at the beginning. But I don't get same feeling from BOTNS. Severian certainly beds a lot of women, and some people argue that that's chauvinism right there, in that the author is making all the women want the protagonist. However, he also makes monstrous undines and masked hierodules want the protagonist. So, perhaps it serves a thematic purpose.

And what might that purpose be? Given that Severian's predecessor is an impotent androgyne, and that Urth is dying of exhaustion and sterility, perhaps his prodigious virility and attractiveness signify his role as the one who is to bring the New Sun. Actually, the book practically says as much in one of the final chapters:
If I am he who is to renew the youth of the sun with the White Fountain of which I have been told, may it not be that I have been given, almost unconsciously (if that expression may be used), the attributes of life and light that will belong to the new sun?
Again, time is spoken of as a tapestry woven from many threads, and Severian's particular course seemingly leads to a planet inhabited by green men who live by drinking in the rays of the sun. He aids a green man sent back to his own time and is aided by him in turn. As is well known, the Green Man is a personification of fertility.

Severian is, in fact, a Grail Knight, in the sense of From Ritual to Romance and The Waste Land. Remember that the "grail" of Wolfram von Eschenbach's version is a mysterious stone, not unlike the miracle-performing Claw of the Conciliator carried by Severian through most of the story.

Well, this is getting to be a long post, so I'll continue in another.

No comments:

Post a Comment