The Sorcerer’s House, by Gene Wolfe

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I should probably re-read this book.  In fact, from what I understand I should probably read and then re-read a good deal of Gene Wolfe‘s work.  There’s a lot of it that I haven’t bothered to pick up at all, but the attention he pays to the construction of his novels is something from which I stand to learn a great deal.  It’s no surprise, then, that The Sorcerer’s House is a slowly unfolding marvel of consistent inconsistency, even on my first read-through.  And what the devil do I mean by that?

I’ll start with the narrator.  We are treated to the sometimes pleasing, sometimes grating prose of one Baxter “Bax” Dunn, as the entire story is told through the lens of his letters (with the addition of a few letters that were sent to him).  It is an epistolary, and as such we are entirely at the mercy of Bax’s representation of events as he begins to deal with moving into (squatting in, really) what appears to be a supernaturally expanding house.  But one of the few things that we know of Bax is that he was recently released from prison after being convicted for fraud.  There are other confounding factors at play as well, hinted at but generally sidelined as being of little relative importance, but I’ll leave those for you to discover when you read the book.  Suffice to say that the narrator is tremendously unreliable, to the extent that I’m not sure how much of the book actually happened (I’m certainly unsure how much happened as he represented it, and I think I’ve caught at least one lie).  As if that wasn’t enough, he often walks forward or back through the course of events until you’re working hard just to keep the timeline straight in your head.

On a similar note, I’m impressed by how palatable Wolfe manages to make a character I so grew to dislike.  Dislike might be the wrong word for it; there were so many things about Bax which I found so unlikeable or frustrating, but he exuded such amiable bonhomie that I found it difficult to hate him for very long, as he’s perhaps the very definition of sleazy but charming.  I can only imagine it was second nature to him.  The fact that I’m able to tell you all of this about Bax is part of what I so admire about Gene Wolfe.

There’s a great deal more to say about this, but as per usual I’m going to segregate the spoilers.  So for my pre-final closing thoughts, or whatever you call this bit, I just want to say that this is a fascinating read even if you don’t end up liking Bax very much.  And if you can deal with the several-decades-old gender relations.

Ok, I’m not going to be able to do this book full justice without reading through it again, and I’d probably need a pen and paper handy to keep track of everything as I went if I really wanted to do that.  I’m not going to do that before I post this article, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to put up with me half-assing it for now.  Be warned, there are a few *SPOILERS* ahead.

The penultimate piece of the book both reveals itself to be a lie and ostensibly proves several other elements of the book, attesting to at least partial honesty on the part of Bax elsewhere.  But how much of the rest of the story is a lie, I can’t quite tell.  Much of it has to do with the fact that the book is beset by identical twins, and thus a twin with sufficient knowledge and skill might be able to fake their counterpart well enough for their audience for at least a while.  I’m really not sure how much of what happens with Bax’s brother George is actually happening to Bax, though I currently suspect that Bax only takes George’s place at the last minute.

And the ultimate piece of the book settles the fact that the penultimate piece is a lie, if you weren’t satisfied with the details mentioned in the penultimate section.  No, I’m not going to tell you exactly what they are, I suspect you’ll enjoy seeing them for yourself.  What was most fascinating to me was the fact that it was written as an author’s note, but because of the details it presents it is also part of the story itself, and perhaps the only part of the story which is not touched by the corruption of Bax’s narration.  You finally have a chance to see some of the story that happens after the events described in the letters, and perhaps even piece together the eventual fate of the man I suspect to be Bax.

Ok, that’s enough for now.  If you can put up with Bax, I suspect that you’ll like this story.  If you like puzzles centered around an unreliable narrator, I suspect that you’ll love it.  As for me, I’m going to give it a rest before I chase the re-reading remainder of the story down the rabbit hole.  Oh, did I mention that it’s dedicated to Neil Gaiman?  It is.  And apparently Gaiman rather likes it.

 

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