Free Live Free by Gene Wolfe

September 1, 2006 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Gene Wolfe, at least to the extent I have read him (I have read the majority of but by no means all of his books), operates in two modes: the vast epic and the small experimental piece. His vast epics–labyrinthine, intelligent to the point of being overbearing, and concerned with the human condition–are magnificent. His “minor” works, such as Castleview, tend also to be labyrinthine and intelligent to the point of being overbearing, but are focused, perhaps to their detriment, on some peculiar quirk of narrative Wolfe wishes to explore. Free Live Free is a much longer book than Castleview, but fortunately it is also quite a bit more successful. The premise of the story is that a man with a house about to be condemned puts an ad in the paper offering free rent in exchange for helping him save the house. If this sounds a bit like “hey guys, let’s put on a play to raise that money!” then, well, it’s not. For one thing, the only people willing to occupy rooms in this decrepit old house are some of the most shiftless derelicts you can imagine. Wolfe is engaged in a sort of character study here, so each person comes from a specific type: the failed salesman, the prostitute, the fortune teller, etc.

This is Gene Wolfe, after all, so it eventually turns out much more is going on here. The plot is indeed labyrinthine. However, the prose conforms to what I can only describe as an old-fashioned aesthetic. I’m not well-read enough to identify it better than that, but the prose (by design I am sure) constantly evokes a sort of textual mustiness. I thought this was interesting but somewhat unpleasant. Likewise, reading about such a group of misfits was also relatively uncomfortable. However, I eventually got sucked into the strange story (which is, for Wolfe, unusually accessible) and rather enjoyed it by the end. It’s hardly the sort of book I would recommend to someone…if you want to try Gene Wolfe, Book of the New Sun or Fifth Head of Cerberus is where you should start…but for Wolfe fans it is an interesting and rewarding read.

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