Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Land Across (part I)

Gene Wolfe's The Land Across is a strange book, and I have mixed feelings about it on first reading.

The novel is a first-person account of travel (to a fictional European country), starting somewhere close to a travel guide and quickly degenerating into a haphazard memoir in which time  flows irregularly. Some days stretch over chapters; some chapters cover months or years.

The narrator's voice is oddly without affect, and the narrator himself is unsympathetic and unreliable. (So obviously unreliable that it seems to point to some narrative trick being pulled.) Although unsympathetic, he must come across better in person, since he beds at least 3 women in the book  (of the maybe 6 he meets; of the others, two are uninterested or unavailable [e.g., a mostly-incorporeal ghost]). Events follow each other with no real sense of cause-and-effect or consequence, although the narrator keeps narrating as if a logical chain of causes and effects exists. This substantially contributes to my sense that the reader is being misled or left uninformed about some aspects of the book.

Also contributing to the seeming-puzzle-nature of the book: the narrator leaves out details, while noting they are omitted, and adds in extraneous-seeming facts, while noting that they seem extra or even that they are entirely unnecessary. I am sure several rereads, probably with notes, are required to figure out which of these are important and which truly dismissable, as well as which actually relevant information is being purposely omitted or obscured.

The effect? The entire book seems disjointed. I picked it up on the strong, strong recommendations of internet strangers, which suggested that this was a writer's writer, and this book was complicated and required rereading and was immensely rewarding. After the first reading, I am a little bored and disgusted with the narrator character: he is callous, scattered, opaque, and unsympathetic. And that's just in his own words, carefully and deliberately chosen. But I also see the giant signal flares, writ large across the novel's sky, saying that this novel contains hidden multitudes, puzzles, and mysteries.

So here I go: back for a reread, with the novel's details and my puzzlement still fresh in my mind. I'll let you know how it goes the second time around.

This post's theme word is quisling, "a traitor, esp. one who aids an invading enemy." Whether Grafton is a quisling or not, and who or what he is betraying to which particular organization/government/religion/woman, is not particularly compelling after the first few unexpected turns and reversals.

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