In which wallflower and Avathoir read each other’s favorite books without knowing a thing about them.
Entry 1: Peace, by Gene Wolfe
I’m running out of time.
I’m out of step
and closing down
and never sleep for wanting hours.
The empty hours of greed.
always the need.
To feel again
the real belief
of something more
If only I could fill
my heart with love
I am the devil, and I have come to do the devil’s work
– Attributed to Charles Manson, actually Tex Watson
Avathoir: Hello everyone, and welcome to the first installment of Blind Reads, our new series in which wallflower and I will each assign the other to read a book the other has never read (or even heard of) before and then have a conversation about it. The first book in this series is Peace, a novel by Gene Wolfe and a personal favorite of mine, to the degree I put it on my list of the greatest postwar American novels (and, to be honest, I would probably put it at number one).
Peace was the (technically) third novel published by Gene Wolfe, after one failed novel and then a series of increasingly celebrated short science fiction stories that were published as a novel titled The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Unlike those books and subsequent works in Wolfe’s career, Peace remains somewhat of an oddity: there are no magical creatures, no magic spells, and for the most part just follows the life of the CEO of a certain fruit juice company (the answer to which fruit juice company is right there if you think about it) Alden Dennis Weer: his youth in the small Illinois town of Cassionsville, the various strange characters he encounters, and his ultimate disappointment in how his life has shaken out.
Nothing is this simple of course, this is a Gene Wolfe novel. Gene Wolfe is smarter than you, and has read Nabokov and made a career out of showing he can do an unreliable narrator better than the man who made it iconic for modern readers. However, when a Wolfe narrator lies to you or tricks you, or tells you something indirectly, you have to work much harder to figure out the answer, which is why his books have a high reread value for so many people, and this one especially. (Key rules: Characters will lie in dialogue but not in narration. Multilingual puns are to be expected. Fairy tales are always actually just retellings of something that actually happened. Wolfe never repeats himself because he considers it an insult to the reader, and he is entirely willing to throw something in that you won’t notice because he expects you to read every word).
Since it would be reductive and not add anything to the discussion to tiptoe around this entire thing, I’m just going to spoil exactly what this book’s ACTUAL plot is. If you’re curious and even have the SLIGHTEST consideration about reading this book, turn back NOW. Go read this book and then contribute. Otherwise, I’m going to just say it after the line break.
Alden Dennis Weer is narrating as a ghost.
He has been dead since before the beginning of the narrative, when the tree planted over his grave falls and wakes up his spirit, and his wanderings through his memory are in fact a ghost trying to remember that it is a ghost in order to pass on to heaven.
To make matters worse, our Weer has an explicitly difficult time doing so because in life, as we learn from various clues, Alden Dennis Weer was a monster.
He commits his first murder in the book at five years old, kills or causes the death of at least half a dozen others, corrupts an underage girl, and destroys the financial fortunes of several people. There are even hints throughout the book that Den is in fact a demon born to human parents, either the result from a curse or due to the unintended consequences of a character’s experiment. As a result, when read closely this gentle midwest story turns into something utterly terrifying.
wallflower, since you had no idea what this book was, I have to ask…when did you get the realization that what Weer was saying was, if not lies, essentially utter manipulation of who, and what, he really is? Did a chill run up your spine? Did you furiously reread the entire book to make sure you weren’t hallucinating? What was it like reading this book having no idea what you were getting into?
wallflower: You know the story of Abraham and Isaac, when God does that God-thing of testing his servants, going all “hey if you really love me you’ll kill your firstborn” and Abraham is all “gotta do what you gotta do” and God at the last second goes “hey just kidding!” and Abraham’s like “oh God, whatta prankster you are” and everyone learns something and God doesn’t really want you to whack your firstborn and yay for everyone. Except for one little detail, or actually the absence of a detail: Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. (Genesis 22:19) That’s how the story ends, and I missed something on the first reading. It’s testimony to the power of narrative to make us expect things to happen in a logical sequence that I didn’t see that not only does Isaac never come down from the mountain, not only does Abraham never unbind him, but Isaac is never mentioned once the angel shows up. (What’s believed by a lot of scholars and also myself is that we have a rewritten version of an earlier story where Abraham does in fact kill Isaac.)
That’s the experience of reading Peace. Up front: having read this 1¼ times to the multiple readings of you (and Neil Gaiman, whose afterword is essential after-reading), I get maybe half of what you find here and I certainly think it’s all plausible. What’s most clear is how goddamn good Wolfe is at what he does, and how that makes this a different reading experience from most books. If I can’t fully talk about what Wolfe creates here–not yet–I can begin to understand the methods by which he does it. As a primary technique, Wolfe throws in a lot of narrative slippage, from the very first pages: little moments where Weer jumps forward or backward in time, saying things that made me stop and reread, saying to myself “did he just actually say. . .?” (From page three: “There is this to be said for doctors: they may be consulted though dead, and I consult Doctors Black and Van Ness.”) On the surface, the narrative voice is quite conventional, a Midwestern mid-20th century man telling the stories of his life, and that’s why the slippages are so effective: Weer isn’t thrown by these, but I am. (House of Leaves, which is all slippage, isn’t nearly as disquieting.)
These moments increase in frequency, so that by the middle of the book, Weer can’t stay in one place–or one time–for longer than a paragraph or a story, and I see that now as the actions of a deeply guilty spirit. Like the narrator of Abraham and Isaac, there are things that Weer doesn’t want to see; he often stops just before a character dies and resumes some time after, beginning with Bobby Black and ending with his secretary. (I’ll have to reread, but Weer, you are guilty until proven innocent.) Reading this, feeling those breaks, jumping backwards to track down exactly when I first met so-and-so (another brutal moment: realizing the 16-year-old Sherry Gold appears at Dr. Van Ness’ office at the beginning most likely because she was impregnated by Weer near the end), made reading this most like reading Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, specifically hunting down the exact moment when Bob Arctor/Fred splits into two selves, never to come back together again.
Wolfe’s secondary technique, and it’s a great thematic one, is how this is a book of stories and storytellers. (The final chapter seems like Wolfe is going for something mundane, an ironic kind of oh-so-you-thought-I’d-give-a-big-reveal moment, but when it shifts into a Irish-legend-type story for the last pages, it fit in with everything else.) The stories are family stories, historical narratives, journalism, folk legends, tall tales, letters; Scheherazade and Spin-the-Bottle both get invoked, and they create the same effect, the sense that as long as Weer keeps telling stories, or remembering the stories he was told, he won’t have to face whatever comes next: “And Shahrazad perceived the dawn of day and ceased to say her permitted say.” This is a marvelously involuted novel, digressions and stories not so much building on each other as descending from each other (a little like The Crying of Lot 49, honestly), a labyrinth in which Weer hopes to disappear.
What becomes clearer on the reread (and there will be more of them, oh my yes), is that Wolfe’s virtuosity has a point. Near the top of my list of That Which I Fucking Hate in art is technique for its own sake, and that’s not what Wolfe does. He wants to pull off something incredibly tricky here (probably the best recent example is the final season of The Wire), crafting a narrative that’s largely defined by what isn’t narrated. It worked for me because I can feel the shifts in time, I can feel the rising curve of desperation as Weer tries not to tell the one story that matters. Bringing Dick back here (you know I’m all about that Dick), in The Divine Invasion, he writes a Socratic dialogue about paradise. Asked why souls will refuse the journey to paradise when all that needs to be done is to confess their sins, the reply is that most people will hold on at all costs to the belief that they are not evil. Whatever else Wolfe does, he never loses sight of the truth of his main character. Do that right and I’ll follow you anywhere.
Speaking as inexperienced reader for other inexperienced readers, I found on rereading this that the way to deal with Weer’s narration is to look at the basics of what happens–the who, when, and where–and then ask if he’s being honest about the what and the why. (Teenage girl shows up at a middle-aged man’s cheap apartment, is there one chance in a thousand the scene plays out the way he says it does?) This is especially important if it’s the last time he mentions a character, because that’s the sign he doesn’t want to tell us–or himself–something. Throwing it back to the more experienced reader here, and since we’ve already thrown out the big ol’ spoiler warning, what are the events that Weer won’t tell us? What’s the shadow-narrative of his life, and how does Wolfe relate that to us?
Avathoir: The “Shadow Life” of Alden Dennis Weer is something that, like the plot of many works of Wolfe’s, remains fiercely debated. The only thing we know for certain is that Wolfe has confirmed that we are reading Alden’s narration after he has become a ghost, and that the events he is describing took place: he is not making up events which did not happen, though his perspective is heavily biased. Anything after that we are speculating, but I am going here to attempt to explain my own personal interpretation of what Alden really is, as well as a couple of other mysteries.
The first mystery: How does Alden go about doing what he does?
The explanation for Alden being a demon in human form is not a popular interpretation. Most reads assume Alden is merely a murderer, while I’ll be arguing otherwise by explaining how Alden operates.
His first murder, of Bobby Black, is one that can be genuinely seen as an accident at first, a scuffle that resulted in a fall down the stairs, but Alden’s later transportation back into the memory of his visit to Bobby’s father’s practice where he explicitly says that his son will die makes that conclusion impossible.
The second murder is one up for debate, but it entirely possible that Alden cut the rope of his Aunt Olivia’s (more on her in a bit) suitor MacAfee, who in fact plunged to his death or was injured to the degree that he had to exit the narrative (I would in fact be lead to believe he died and Alden passed it off as an accident, if not for the fact that his car is the one which kills Olivia, and it’s hard to see who else could have done it in that regard except him as a revenge killing).
Afterwards, Alden laid low for the most part until the Coldhouse prank, and it wasn’t until Julius Smart and the Gold family came into his life that he began to return to his old ways. I have at least a couple of theories for exactly why this happened, but I think the only genuine conclusion we can take about Alden as a person is that his is a mind that is explicitly evil, in the sense we don’t usually think of it. He’s not a ham (though his prose colors purple at times) not an Anton Chigurh-like arbiter of divine judgement, and not a caged animal like Robert Durst. He is closer to Thomas Harris’ initial depiction of Hannibal Lecter, or to Fu Manchu or Poe’s Montresor: A gentleman (or perhaps, a devil with the trappings of one) to whom ruination is the hardwired instinct and the logical answer to the slights against him. Interpreted through his viewpoint, everyone who dies is the result of him taking proper retribution, though he refuses to admit this (and this may be why he is unable to admit he is dead). More than that, Alden’s evil is such that everyone he kills their evil he absorbs, which is why his crimes get more and more severe the older he gets. Curiously, this is an idea similar to one in the beloved mythology of his dear Aunt Olivia’s Sinophilia: Gu, the idea of sealing poisonous creatures in a jar and having them kill each other, whereupon the only survivor would have absorbed all the other creatures’ poisons, and there’s a similar monologue in the book about an idea quite like that. More on this in a bit.
The Second Mystery: What does Alden care about?
There are, I think it is fair to say, only two people in the world Alden can be confirmed to love, both of which married other men and who he was unable to have due to other circumstances: Margaret Lorn, who was unable to forgive him for the actions he took with Julius Smart, in addition to their obvious class differences unable to be enacted upon in an America still not quite adjusted to the New Deal, and Olivia Weer, his aunt, who married Julius Smart.
It may be crude to suggest that Den harbored an incestuous, romantic love for her, but Olivia is closer to the age of a sister than she is to his mother (who was only around twenty herself when she had him, according to the timeline) and the clear devotion he shows to her is something that occurs again and again to the novel. It is not for nothing that she gets the last line in the book, asking him to join her, and I think in this light it is fair to say he thought of her in the same way he did Margaret Lorn (though I personally am curious if you share this interpretation). Another way to answer why Alden does what he does is because he wants women he cannot have, and he knows this, though he will not say it.
Third Mystery: Who died in the Coldhouse Prank?
We know for a certain fact that Alden is the one who allowed the boy who froze in the coldhouse to die, though we can leave it ambiguous if he was in on the prank. The current interpretation that the victim was either Ted Singer (who was the boyfriend of poor Sherry Gold) or a boy who Margaret Lorn was seeing, but this is the only mystery I can offer no explanation for. I offer it to you if you’ve got any ideas.
The Last Mystery: Who is Julius Smart?
Julius is perhaps the subject of the most mysterious line in the book: Alden calling him the most important and main character. Now, Smart eventually marries Olivia, and he founds the fruit juice company that Den later runs (here’s a riddle for you: What is the name of the Company? A fruit juice company named by a woman who is obsessed with Chinese history and culture? This is a real life company. You can totally get this.), but he ALSO prevents Alden from gaining any power until his death. Most think this is because of The Coldhouse prank, but I think it’s because he’s the only one who knows Alden is a demon. He should know, he made him this way.
How so, you might ask? Well, the first thing is the recurring imagery: Everywhere in Julius’ story there are alchemical motifs, of gold, lead, of immortal life and, most importantly, of homunculi, manmade familiars who serve the bidding of a creator-master.
Now, the Tilly story Smart tells is usually interpreted as one of two ways: as either him saying something that actually happened to him, or it is actually Smart telling the story of how he killed his first wife (his middle initial is T, and he calls his mentor “Mr. T” throughout the story, among other clues), but I prefer to offer the other explanation: Smart was learning alchemy from Tilly, and the wife was in fact a test subject. Leaving for Cassionsville, Smart set up shop as a druggist. He knew Olivia from before Den was born, and he was the only pharmacist in town. A woman he wanted with a pregnant sister, ripe for experiment? It is all too easy to suggest that Smart gave Den’s mother medicine which resulted in the creation of Den’s psychology, or perhaps physiology.
Now, having laid all that out, here is the evidence Den is a demon: the smell of brimstone is always present when he is about to commit murder (most evident during the treasure hunt), he is shown to have a natural affinity for fire (making several for Olivia in almost no time at all at her request) and he has an incredible ability to charm (poor Sherry Gold). Furthermore, like any summoned creature, no matter what Julius does that displeases Den (stealing the egg from Margaret Lorn’s family, marrying Olivia and failing to save her from death, denying him promotion despite his clear merits) Smart never suffers at the hands of Den.
You’ve mentioned Dick, but the story Wolfe is most interested in is much older than his contemporary: This is Goethe and Marlowe, the story of Faust as told from Mephistopheles’ point of view, of a demon who doesn’t even know he’s a demon. Den is every Mephistopheles: Marlowe’s reaper, Goethe’s romantic, absorbing evil as his own soul wilts, all at the hand of a man who created him to give him everything he wanted, only to take it all away. There is also the fact that in one story Mephistopheles romances the aunt of Faust’s love interest, who is typically named Maigret.
That’s my personal epileptic trees interpretation of the Shadow Plot of this novel. Do you agree or disagree with any of this? What would you add in your own reading?
wallflower: oh, I’d have to do more reading more closely before I could get into the realm of “agree” or “disagree.” I will say, and it shows how well Wolfe lays out this world, that there are at least two possible names for the orange juice company. Given Olivia’s love not just of Chinese culture but the specific source of the Pekinese dogs she breeds, it could of course be Tang; but also, look how we find out that she named the company: another businessman looks at Smart’s portrait and says “Formulated the original product and thought up the name?” So, someone thought Smart could have come up with the name; now, put that together with the moment near the end when we find that the company will expand into liquid juice, and the name could also be Orange Julius.
Everything you say I find at least plausible; again, what makes Peace work, what makes it a deeply disturbing work and not just an intellectual puzzle, is that everything you say feels right, although here’s a shout-out to my favorite clue: on page 11, Weer lists the rooms of his memory house, finishing with “my den, where I now never go.” This isn’t even reaching–given how almost everyone calls him Den, of course that’s the room he must never visit. Taking your points in decreasing amount of fuck-yeah:
Bang on about Olivia. There’s no other character he describes in as much detail, no one else he gives as much care in describing. She’s the only character who seems to come back at different times in different attitudes; she the only character he allows to have some kind of growth. (She even gets one of the five chapter titles.) You can feel, when he describes her three suitors (and of course interpolates a mythical story of a princess and her three suitors, which Olivia interrupts before he can finish), evaluating, really judging each of them, and clearly finding them wanting. It’s only Julius Smart who passes his test, and typically, he doesn’t say anything about it. Following your rule, don’t look at what Weer says, look at what happens: Smart is the only one of her suitors who we hear of in old age–an old age where Weer has stolen his company and reduced him to a joke, but that seems to be the best end you get with him.
Contrast this with the big absence of the novel: Weer’s father, who I’m not entirely sure is ever even named. Weer cares a lot about his inheritance from him, but what matters even more is the stories. At least two of the stories are about waiting decades to claim something, a woman or a treasure, and Weer says “I found myself instead a poor man at forty, and a very rich one at fifty.” That’s what matters to him, and exactly what happened to him, exactly what Weer might have done, is what he doesn’t want to think about. I’ve seen theories that Weer killed his father (I’ve seen theories that Weer killed every other character, which may be a bit much), but again, what makes this compelling is how it feels like he could have.
That it’s Julius Smart Behind It All, and that what he wants to do backfires on him and creates Weer, feels right but not as necessary as Weer’s evil. (It also feels very like a Gaiman plot, something that might have inspired vol. 1 of The Sandman.) Smart is clearly separate from everyone else in Peace, and not just because of that name. (On meeting him, a librarian who becomes Weer’s possible girlfriend and more likely victim remarks how smart he is, so it’s a quality he values.) What distinguishes Smart is, you guessed it, his stories, which are horrifying and Gothic in a way that the stories haven’t been before this point. (“Is this a ghost story, Mr. Smart?” “I guess it is.”) The story, and the story-within-the-story are about slow poisoning and transformation through that; not for nothing is the chapter where he’s introduced called “The Alchemist.” Banshees and Chinese pillows of jade are one thing, but a guy slowing getting transformed into rock–that’s some Lovecraft-level shit, and it signals that Smart might be playing on that level.
As to whether or not Weer is a demon, that depends on what you think of demons. In appearance, he’s closest to the Devil that Robert Johnson saw, a man in a suit. In action, in addition to early-period Hannibal Lecter (circa his first appearance in Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon, before Harris and then Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelsen pumped him up to demigod status. Not that there’s anything wrong with that), he reminds me of Tom Ripley with one key switch flipped. Like Ripley, Weer will lash out or eliminate anyone he feels crosses him; unlike Ripley, Weer won’t admit to himself he’s done it. Weer pretends at a detachment that Ripley has genuinely achieved; Ripley fears the law, but not himself. Peace a spiritually compelling novel, and the Ripley novels are morally compelling; Peace is about a conflict within oneself when, as Weer keeps reminding us, the rest of the world has gone. Maybe this is what Ripley’s afterlife–the one that he so deeply doesn’t believe in–will be like.
When you introduced me to this, my entire knowledge of Gene Wolfe was that he was a science-fiction writer. This led me to some fun non-interpretations while I was reading this–at one point I was sure that this was, Matrix– or A. I.-style, a world constructed by some not-quite-human force out of memories of the past; at another point, I thought this was some kind of post-apocalyptic world. It’s neither of those, but it seems to me that Wolfe uses some of the power of science fiction, particularly its ability to realize realities other than the one we agree to live in, to tell this story. This is not a novel that more so-called realistic and acclaimed writers could pull off. You mentioned Marlowe and Faust; what other connections do you see here between Wolfe and other writers, including possibly writers of science fiction?
Avathoir: The fact remains that Wolfe is basically the only science-fiction/fantasy writer currently living besides Ursula K. Le Guin and John Crowley who have mastery to such a degree that arguably the most contentious and opinionated group of people in the world have unanimous praise for (there’s a video of him, Isaac Asimov, and Harlan Ellison, possibly the Most Arrogant Man Alive, having a talk about their work on a PBS special, and Ellison cedes everything to Wolfe in terms of who’s the better writer. Incredible.) However, I think what makes Wolfe unique among genre writers (and what separates the good ones from the great ones in that particular field) is that in many ways he’s not particularly interested in genre writing in many ways. Like Le Guin with anthropology and Crowley with the Victorians, Wolfe did not grow up a sci-fi nerd. While things like knights, dragons, and swords appear in his works (and this one as well) this is the older influence of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which is another story of people trapped in stories within stories and myths and dreams, in addition to that he’s also a stated fan of Proust (a person who had a thing for memory) and Chesterton, which gets at another big thing that makes Wolfe unique: he’s a Catholic convert, and he did so out of love for his late wife Rosemary.
Love is a big theme in this book, more than I think a lot of people who would attempt something like this would be comfortable with. Weer has done a lot of bad things, but he loved Olivia and he loved Margaret Lorn, and because of that it’s possible for him to find some kind of redemption if he’s willing to confess his sins. He hasn’t yet though, and the dream he’s in has yet to end as a result, but that the Irish legend finally leads to the (gorgeous) monologue that Peace nearly ends on (upon the very subject matter) shows the path for someone even like him to take.
However, I think there’s also one more big influence on how Wolfe chose to write, and that’s the time he served in the Korean war. There’s an edition of his letters home that he wrote to his mother, and it’s a remarkable volume, not just for his already evident massive ability but that he essentially does the same thing he does in this book: writes a story of absences, of things he cannot say because the horror of what he was seeing could not be expressed directly for whatever reason. Wolfe has said in interviews that he feels of all his work (and he’s written several masterpieces) this is his favorite and the only one which achieved what he was going for, and I think that’s correct: this book is sui generis, and it earns a rank among the great postwar novels.
Now then, since we’ve seemingly exhausted most possibile conversations (at least on this reading), I’ll ask you a few things before we wrap this up: Do you think Den actually has a chance to go to Heaven (Wolfe has said that he considers Den to have “a similar soul” to himself in many ways, which might be the source of his sympathy but might also be why you should always keep an eye open around the man) or do you think he’s absorbed too much evil over his life? Do you have your own explanation for why Den considers Julius to be the most important character in the book in some ways (that is, if he’s not the Faust we’re led to believe). Do you have any theories onto the victim of the Coldhouse Prank?!
There’s also one more subplot we’ve forgotten about: Doris, the girl who Weer’s informant tells him has died at the circus, which is one of the few times Weer himself seems unsettled by something. Did Sherry Gold give birth to Alden’s daughter, who he gave to the circus which came a while later? (This would, if true, be another story that Wolfe seems to be using to explain Den’s life: Cinderella, the girl out of place, but she has no fairy godmother, and she dies before she ever gets near a ball).
And lastly: how should we view this novel in American literary history, as the masterpiece I think it is, or something altogether too strange for even that label?
wallflower: Weer can be saved, yes, and Wolfe drops a lot of clues that give me reason to think so. The first is a simple structural point: this is Weer’s first trip through his afterlife, of course there’s some stuff he’s not ready to face yet. Compare him to the protagonists of Shutter Island and The Fountain (AVAST! SPOILERS AHOY FOR BOTH!): we see Teddy at the end of his journey, and we see Tom at the beginning and end of his. Teddy has to submit to a lobotomy to achieve peace; Tom spends a thousand years traveling through space to do it. For that matter, think of Groundhog Day, where by the best estimates, Phil takes almost 34 years to advance to February 3rd. He can get to where he needs to go, but it won’t be easy.
We also see, near the end, an image of what Weer could be headed towards. The last character introduced is a 71-year-old man, an old farmer, broken by the industrialization that Weer was a part of (and explaining just how that industrialization broke him), living his last days in hard work producing potatoes for Weer’s company. He has the same paralysis on his left side that Weer has after his stroke, which makes me think this is the alternate version of Weer. From the very beginning, Weer never let anyone get in his way, never let anyone even inconvenience him: he fights Bobby Black on the stairs rather than let him “gain the room,” and sends him to his death. Weer has been the eternal winner, leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake on his way to the last chapters, “Gold” and “The President.” This old man isn’t a winner, life has moved on and by some measure beaten him, but he has been a good man, raised a family, and lived past his Biblical threescore and ten, none of which Weer could do. To have him show up at the end makes him feel like God or Wolfe saying: behold the life that was to be yours. Of course, at this stage of the game, Weer treats him the same way he treats anything that bothers him: writes him off without so much as an exit line. He’s not ready yet.
Wolfe also suggests what Weer will have to do. First step, he’s gotta find that damn Boy Scout knife, the one his grandfather gave him back in the first chapter. Despite the fact that it has at least five other tools folded into it, he never calls it anything but a knife, and since it’s a Boy Scout knife, it has a meaning and not just a use beyond a weapon. Throughout Peace, Weer keeps looking in the rooms of his memory for the knife and not finding it. I’m pretty sure he used it to kill Lois the librarian and buried it with her body after he took the treasure of gold. My reasoning: he has the knife at his dinner with Lois and shows it to her; he sees “a glint of metal in Lois’ hand” when they’re digging for it, and that was probably the knife in his hand, not the gun in hers; digging for the gold is the last moment Weer gives Lois in Peace, and my guess is that he makes up the story of Louis-Gold-making-up-stories to cover for the fact that Gold really did give him the clue to find the gold (it just occurred to me that given the similarities of Gold/gold and Louis/Lois, Weer might be making up the names of the whole family); and remember, Weer was poor at forty and rich at fifty. One fascinating aspect of what Wolfe does here is that we’re put in the place of not what Weer does, but what he’ll have to do: Weer says often that he’s writing this down, and I wonder if he’ll read what we read to try and figure out what he’s done.
The knife, by the way, made me go back to John Locke and Lost, specifically the moment when the near-eternal Richard Alpert tests the young Locke by arraying a set of objects before him and asking “which one of these belongs to you?” (I’m told that this is a test given to prospective Dalai Lamas.) Not, Richard sez, which one you want, but which one is already yours. Locke chooses the knife (we find out which one he should have picked in the next season) and that’s the end of the test. He’s not ready yet, and neither is Weer for the opposite reason: Locke chooses the knife because he wants to be the owner of it, Weer can’t find his knife because he can’t see what he did with it.
(By the way, and in the spirit of not ignoring the things that bother us, I have no idea who the victim in the Coldhouse Prank was. Maybe I’ll have a theory in a few more readings.)
So, how should we view this novel? First, it’s a goddamn great book, which immediately makes it hard to categorize. Still, I’ve been thinking about how you called this the best postwar American novel, and how “postwar American novel” isn’t just a designation of time, it’s also a genre. In preparation for this, you gave me links to several articles about/guides to Peace, and one of them was a wonderfully personal essay by Joan Gordon about how she read it. She took it as a work of “mainstream realism with psychological explanations for its ghosts”: “Peace is narrated by Weer as a middle-aged man, suffering some kind of mental breakdown caused by over-work and loneliness. His memoir is largely a response to the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). . . .Each question. . .triggers a long and detailed set of memories” and sez that “I still prefer it to other interpretations, true or not.” (To her credit, this is about the most necessary thing a critic can ever say. Also to her credit, she links to Robert Borski’s reading of Peace, about as deep, symbolic, and far away from her own as it’s possible to get.) Gordon, in other words, takes the book for exactly what it is on the surface, a man relating the story of his life, and doesn’t investigate the blank spaces in that story, or the symbols that keep cropping up in it.
Gordon sees Peace, then, as fitting squarely into the genre of the postwar American novel. These novels were about the responses of Americans (usually white men, sometimes not white, sometimes women, sometimes even families) to the social transformation created by World War 2, the Korean War, and the industrialization, organization, and suburbanization of the years afterwards. It’s a genre that stretches from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to Something Happened (the closest American fiction has ever come to Samuel Beckett) and then went dormant for a while, coming back with probably its last and best version, Mad Men. Gordon’s interpretation doesn’t deny the others (and my reading is much closer to hers than Borski’s); it coexists with them, a surface layer that deserves its own attention (and you know I love the surfaces) and also points to something else going on.
If Peace doesn’t work on that surface level, the rest of it doesn’t work either. Gaiman notes that Wolfe’s narrators are “scrupulously honest, but only up to a point.” It’s that level of honesty and detail that makes the point where the honesty stops and he skips over the details have an impact on us, a clearly drawn portrait where the negative space becomes even clearer. Many Solute writers and commenters have discussed this: you can’t come up with something that deceives the reader/viewer and expect that to fix a flawed work. A shift in perspective might make us see things differently, but very rarely can that shift turn a bad work into a good one. Peace is a great book from all the readings–Gordon’s, Borski’s, yours, and mine.
Finally, though, there’s something affecting and disturbing about looking at Gordon’s reading and your reading (call it the demonic reading, perhaps?) at once–the lack of distance between them. Leaving aside what Wolfe sez (and you also know I love authors but authorial intent can go fuck itself), what Peace shows us is that the world of business deals, manufacturing, and porches can become a world of demons, brimstone, and serial killing with a half-degree shift of perspective. Perhaps one more way to locate Peace is to place it in the American tradition of writers like Shirley Jackson and Rod Serling, who rendered the surfaces of everyday life with such detail and never registered a beat of surprise when that life shifted into horror, because for them it was always there and always would be. The horror isn’t hidden, it’s right there if you just look for it–if you just stop believing that it’s not there. There are more Alden Dennis Weers in the world than we think.
Next up in Blind Reads: David Mamet’s Wilson, which has quite a few points of commonality with Peace.