Sunday, November 3, 2013

Pandora by Holly Hollander by Gene Wolfe

Here we have a 200 page mystery novel by critically acclaimed SF writer Gene Wolfe, who, since I read his Book of the New Sun over ten years ago, has been my favorite writer. 

Wolfe writes this novel, Pandora by Holly Hollander, as if it is a first person narrative written by a woman, though it is not clear to what extent this fictional book, Pandora, is a novel, and to what extent it is a non-fiction account of a crime perpetrated by the writer’s stepmother against the writer’s father and others.  The first three sentences of the book are “Is this a historical novel?  Nope.  This is just one that took a real long time to sell.”  This is the beginning of the Foreword written by the narrator, Holly Hollander; this Foreword refers to the characters in the book as if they are real.  Further muddying this issue is the fact that the text of the book makes clear that the teenage Holly was both a fan of mystery novels, and considering a career in journalism.   Holly was a high school student at the time of the crime, the early 1980s; her book is being published about ten years after the events it describes.
Writing in the voice of a young woman is of course a somewhat risky undertaking for a man in his late 50s, and I have to wonder how women have assessed Wolfe’s effort.  Nancy Kress, quoted on the back cover of my edition, considers the book, and Holly in particular, delightful, so Wolfe has at least one female thumbs up.  

The plot is a pretty traditional murder mystery, with a terrible homicide, a bunch of suspects, red herrings, police detectives and amateur investigators trying to figure everything out, all that sort of thing.  I’m not exactly a connoisseur of mystery novels, but in my opinion the mystery plot works; it is interesting and makes internal sense, is hard to figure out but could, conceivably, be figured out by the reader.  In short, the much younger wife (Elaine, Holly’s stepmother) of a successful businessman (Harry Hollander, Holly’s biological father) manages a sort of raffle at the local fair.  At the climax of the raffle, when a nineteenth-century box labeled “Pandora” is opened to reveal the prize, there is a tremendous explosion, which injures many and kills several people, including the man with whom Elaine is carrying on an adulterous affair, a married Vietnam vet.  Who planted the bomb and why?  The people who have been making harassing phone calls to the Vietnam vet?  The vet’s jealous wife?  Holly’s insane uncle, Harry’s older brother Herbert, who would be running the Hollander company if he wasn’t in an asylum?  The impecunious ex-lawyer who lives on the edge of town with some hippies because he recently got out of prison for trying to bribe a judge?
There is much more to the book than the mystery, though.  Wolfe adds many interesting touches, such as literary criticism of mystery novels in the voice of Holly, lots of talk about Greek mythology and the wisdom of the Greeks (mostly from the ex-lawyer) and about World War II (Harry served in combat at Anzio and elsewhere in Europe, and has several war souvenirs that figure in the plot), and lots of talk about books, all things Wolfe cares about.  

Pandora by Holly Hollander, as the title suggests, is also about women, women’s place in society, and men’s attitudes towards women.  The killer turns out to be evil step-mother Elaine, who is ruthless and greedy enough to blow up innocent strangers and gun down poor crazy Herbert in her pursuit of her husband’s wealth, and who uses her sexual wiles to try to camouflage her atrocity.  Several times the lawyer character, who is portrayed as well read and intelligent, makes what you might call sweeping generalizations about women, that women are curious, that women writers tend to use particular words more than men and write in a certain style more than men.  Two versions of the Greek Pandora story are related by the ex-lawyer: the one in which Pandora’s curiosity unleashes evil upon the world, and the one in which the gods create Pandora, the prototype woman, as a means of punishing men.  This is not a flattering view of women!

At the same time, the women in the book are all victims of men, or neglected by men, in one way or another.  It was Herbert’s murder of his wife that put him in the insane asylum.  The Hollanders' housekeeper recalls how her mother was often given black eyes by her father.  The ex-lawyer, Holly’s spying reveals, has broken some woman’s heart.  And in the very last line of the book, we learn that Harry, whom Holly adores, can’t be bothered to remember his own daughter’s birthday!   Not a flattering view of men, either.

Looking at the back cover blurbs, we learn that not only Nancy Kress but also Charles de Lint think that this book is “a delight to read.”  The New York Review of Science Fiction calls it “a bright bauble.”  I think it’s a very good book, but my perspective is a little different: I suggest that Pandora by Holly Hollander is about the prevalence of evil in our world, again as you might expect from the title.  The main plot is about a mass murder and the total collapse of a teenage girl’s family.  (After Elaine is arrested Harry moves out of town and Holly moves in with the impoverished lawyer and the hippies.)  Again and again Wolfe reminds us, in well integrated little asides, about the Nazis, Indian wars, atrocities in Vietnam by both the communists and the anti-communists, police and government corruption and incompetence, etc.  There is a dearth of functional, fulfilling love relationships in the book.  And what is the Hollander business which is so successful?  Manufacturing locks and safes, a business that thrives because the world is full of killers and thieves!    

Of course, Wolfe is a Christian, and the novel does offer a measure of hope and redemption.  Perhaps the ex-lawyer, having paid his debt to society and made sure Elaine and not one of the other suspects was punished for the murders, and Holly, who has maintained a good attitude despite the trials she has been through, can make a happy life together in that ruined old house on the edge of town. 
This is a well-written and complex novel that rewards careful reading and reflection.  Wolfe is a master of economy, there is no fluff or gratuitous decoration in the book, each sentence has some purpose and meaning.  Wolfe respects the reader, and assumes the reader is smart and knowledgeable, but even if you miss some allusions and nuances, as I’m sure I have, there is much to enjoy and appreciate in the novel.  Another superior effort by a great writer. 

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