The Sorcerer’s House by Gene Wolfe

May 14, 2010 at 1:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Fantasy | 1 Comment

This book is about a man who unexpectedly comes into possession of a house. This house is at the center of a lot of colorful folklore, the least of which is that it is haunted. Strange things happen to the man in the house, very strange things. Yet the man himself is strange, just out of prison, in fact, but also the holder of many advanced degrees. He also has a twin brother who is comparatively normal, with a wife and a good job. But things are about to get really weird…

When people study Gene Wolfe’s work in the future, and, yes, I believe people will, they will feel very comfortable classifying Sorcerer’s House as a novel of his late period. If you haven’t read much of Wolfe, this will mean nothing to you, but if you haven’t read much of Wolfe, you should give Book of the New Sun or Fifth Head of Cerberus a try instead of starting here.

Nevertheless, I will try to explain what I mean. First, there’s no question this is a Gene Wolfe book. Early or late, I see Wolfe’s fiction as being notable for at least two peculiarities: he always makes the narrative voice relevant to the story, and he always conceals large parts of the story, forcing the reader to piece it together later, theoretically after finishing the book but generally on subsequent readings. These aspects wax and wane in importance but they are always present in his novels. Sorcerer’s House has an unusual approach to narrative voice: it’s a collection of letters, most of which in combination present a first person narrative from the main character, but scattered throughout are letters other characters have written to him. It’s not the only epistolary novel I’ve read, but it’s got to be the only one where the letter format proved important to the story itself. As to his other main attribute, just how much of the story is concealed is a matter of debate, but rest assured there are many questions that will only be answered with very close scrutiny and at least one further reading.

So it’s certainly of a piece with the rest of Wolfe’s novels. I also call it “late Wolfe” because like many of his recent books, it’s short and written in simple language, making for a deceptively easy read. Though none of his late work is set in the early twentieth century (Sorcerer’s House seems to be set in the modern day), much of the dialogue has the feel of that time period. Finally, lately Wolfe has become enraptured with the device of having his narrator make some sort of very tricky logical leap, announce the conclusion, and then (sometimes, if Wolfe’s feeling generous) explain how he or she got there. Wolfe’s always used this device now and then, but sometimes in this, as with his other recent books, it feels like there are stretches where the dialogue is almost entirely discussing the character’s inferences. Sorcerer’s House even takes the perhaps unfair step of sometimes concealing the clues that the narrator used to deduce his conclusion and either supplying them after the fact or expecting the reader to infer them. The result of all this is a novel that’s a quick read without being very accessible. The writing feels strange and affected. It’s not as off-putting as Evil Guest was but it can’t be ignored.

It should also be said that Sorcerer’s House is probably one of Wolfe’s more difficult books. People often talk of Wolfe’s narrators (especially Severian) as being unreliable, but in fact this is rarely a major feature of his books. Not so in Sorcerer’s House, whose narration (in my estimation, at least) is less reliable than any other Wolfe novel. And as is almost always the case with Wolfe, only by paying very close attention will the reader find the threads of the real story through the layers of misdirection and mirage.

However, I should also say that there’s a lot to like here. Wolfe is nothing if not imaginative, and like another fantasy writer I’ve been reading lately, Kelly Link, he’s very good at generating genuinely strange phenomena. Unlike Kelly Link, who deals in evocation and suggestion, at the end of Sorcerer’s House most of the phenomena will have been given satisfactory explanations. Not in terms of masks and stunt men, this is still a fantasy novel, but what initially seems flatly inexplicable eventually coheres into a comprehensible structure. This being Wolfe, this structure is embedded in another, greater structure that must be inferred, but even with a single reading there’s plenty to appreciate.

It’s not a masterpiece, and not a return to the form of his great work, but ultimately it comes down to this: if you like Wolfe, I think you’ll like this book.

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