Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

"Papa Iason isn't a good man.  I told Naala that already, and it's true.  He's a bad one trying to be good, like a lot of us."
I feel like I have been away from this blog for a long time.  This absence is due to several factors, some good (spending more time with the wife; additional work coming in; going through the closet and the basement preparing my old wargames to sell on ebay; seeing a nephew who is on leave from the USMC) and some not so good (mopping out the flooded basement of the house we rent.)  Another big reason I have not been blogging about the fiction I have read is that for over a week I have been reading Gene Wolfe's 2013 novel The Land Across.  I read it once, and then, in hopes of comprehending it better, I read it a second time.

The Land Across is the story of Grafton, an American travel writer who goes to some unnamed post-communist country in south east Europe, where he gets mixed up with the secret police (the JAKA) and their struggle against a coven of devil-worshiping magicians (the Unholy Way.)  To keep things complicated, also involved in Grafton's saga are a subversive religious group that is neither satanic nor magical (the Legion of Light), some magicians who are rivals of the Unholy Way, and the church.

The Land Across is about the struggle between good and evil, but it is as much (or more) about the struggle between good and evil within ourselves as it is about a fight between a bunch of establishment good guys and a bunch of renegade villains.  Almost all the characters are morally ambiguous, and it is not clear how far we are supposed to sympathize with Grafton, who is our narrator, or most of the other characters.  Grafton, and his closest associate in the JAKA, a female operative named Naala, do some things which are pretty terrible, and are not really in pursuance of their witch-fighting duties.  Wolfe subverts our expectations, trying to surprise us by having characters who at first seem to be villains turn out to be "good guys," and vice versa, and by showing the utility of institutions we are presupposed to have a bad opinion of (like a dictatorship and its secret police) and suggesting that institutions we tend to revere, like Western democracy, can fall into decadence and fail.  Several times characters voice the belief that human beings are made up of both good and evil, and most of the characters demonstrate this assessment, acting foully at some points in the book and nobly at other points.   

Structurally, the book is a kind of police detective-centered mystery.  People break into places looking for clues, search the city for fugitives, get imprisoned and escape, interrogate prisoners, and sit around in cafes, explaining to each other how they pieced together one facet of the mystery and then planning their next step in cracking the case.  There are fistfights with thugs and a climactic gun battle that reminded me of the memorable climax of Mickey Spillane's One Lonely NightThe Land Across also reminded me of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, which I found quite difficult to follow.  The second time I read The Land Across I kept notes to make it easier to remember who is who, how they are related, and why they are doing what they are doing, and I realized that if you can focus and have a good memory (skills I don't really have), Wolfe gives you all the clues you need to follow what is going on.  Maybe that is true of The Big Sleep (which I read only once) as well.

Wolfe includes lots of horror and ghost story elements, including a haunted house wherein lies hidden treasure, a mummified hand that sneaks around and tries to strangle people, a lonely castle sitting on an island in the middle of a lake, voodoo dolls, and references to werewolves and Dracula.

Related to the horror elements, and central to the book, are its Christian elements.  Three characters are clerics, and of course there is the Unholy Way, who in the action climax try to sacrifice one of Grafton's love interests to the Devil.  Several times over the course of the book, particularly when Grafton is in a difficult situation, a character appears who reminds Grafton strongly of his father.  Grafton first sees this man in chapter one, and believes he is a member of a trio of border guards; this man takes custody of Grafton's passport.  This figure never speaks, and other characters don't seem to see him, but he offers Grafton moral support and, via gestures, provides our narrator with guidance that helps defeat the Unholy Way.  At the end of the book this man (or one who looks exactly like him) turns out to be the charismatic dictator of the country.  The dictator gives Grafton back his passport, calling it "a little gift."  All the clues (he is one of a trinity, he is like a father, and he provides salvation at the end of the adventure) indicate this character is a symbolic representation of God.

Similarly, there is a man in black who sometimes appears to Grafton.  This figure also never speaks, is not noticed by other characters, and guides Grafton via gestures, but he scares Grafton rather than buoying him.  The man in black also appears after one of the wizards who is not a member of the Unholy Way casts a spell.  Presumably, the man in black is the Devil.

There are several motifs that pop up in the novel repeatedly.  Hands are an important image in the book; not only is there the animated dead hand (which is much more than a monster; it is actually a character with a personality and motives), but people often shake hands and hold hands in significant ways.  Another motif is the decline of the United States; Wolfe really seems pessimistic about the current condition of the USA. One character laments the end of the gold standard, Naala tells Grafton, "We do not seek the destruction of Amerika, which you yourselves have too much destroyed already....", and Grafton at one point wonders if the country he is in, which is ruled by a dictator and his ruthless secret police, and where only members of the government have access to telephones, automobiles or computers, is really any crazier than the US.

Of course, Wolfe is writing in the voice of Grafton, who at times seems like a shallow sort (he is always talking about clubs and clubbing, for example) and Wolfe is famous for employing unreliable and not quite sympathetic narrators.  (Hopefully women will keep this in mind when Grafton spends half a page complaining that women talk too much and are always telling you extraneous and distracting details instead of getting to the point.)

Wolfe writes The Land Across in a spare and economical style; dialogue makes up the lion's share of the text, and there aren't many fancy descriptions or clever turns of phrase.  (We do get at least one groan-inducing pun: the chapter in which some guy gets decapitated is titled "Getting Ahead.")  I liked the book, but I have to admit I didn't think the characters were particularly interesting, there were few exciting images, and I wasn't affected emotionally.  As an intellectual puzzle The Land Across excels, but I didn't really care whether this person got killed, or whether that person got back to America, or who fell in love with who, etc.  This is a marked contrast to Wolfe's monumental masterpieces, like the four volume Book of the New Sun or the three volume Book of the Short Sun, which are chock full of awe-inspiring visions, fascinating people, and heartbreaking tragedies, as well as puzzles that had me breaking my brain.

It falls short of the lofty heights Wolfe has achieved with his finest work, but by any normal standard The Land Across is a major success, with an intricate and surprising plot and a generous sprinkling of thought-provoking passages.  Worth your time, even if you are a dolt like me and have to read it twice.          

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