This week I got out my 1990 copy of Gene Wolfe's collection Endangered Species (I love the Marco Patrito cover) and read three stories I had never read before, "Sweet Forest Maid," "Suzanne Delage," and "Kevin Malone."
All these stories are well-written in a fairly straightforward style and include interesting tidbits and observations about life and history, and I am recommending that you read them all. As usual with Wolfe, each sentence feels crafted, each line is entertaining, or serves the plot or mood of the story in some way.
Each story invites speculation about its hidden layers and meanings, and below I will take my wild guess as to what each story's "secret," "point" and/or "message" is. To make things more challenging, I will post my speculations without first consulting the various websites where people smarter than me and better educated than I am explain what Wolfe's stories are all about. Let's see if I make a fool of myself!
|"Sweet Forest Maid" first appeared|
Lenor, a woman with no family or friends, hears about a female sasquatch, and decides to go find her, perhaps live among her people in the forest. Lenor knows nothing about camping or living off the land, and, in some of the toughest terrain in North America, she gets lost and suffers a terrible fever. In the last paragraph of the six-page story she comes face to face with the female Bigfoot...or is it just a hallucination?
I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest this story is about the (alleged) decline of community and rise of atomized individualism in our society. (All you social science types out there will perhaps be familiar with Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, which my boss back in my New York office considered a big deal.) Wolfe says that "today... women like Lenor no longer have friends; the old ties...having broken down." Society has failed to offer a place where the protagonist belongs, and, desperate for companionship and community, she takes crazy, suicidal risks, looking for belonging in a dangerous place.
There are also some clues (references to Hollywood special effects and to drinking Coca-Cola through a straw) that suggest our society is shallow and fake, and that Lenor goes to the woods looking for authenticity; also, that technology has spoiled our relationship with the natural world, and Lenor, after seeing how sad and wise a gorilla looks in a zoo, is looking for a closer connection with nature.
Wolfe is famously conservative and religious, so maybe this story is a depiction of the plight of people in post-war society, when institutions like religion and the family have been weakened by feminism, consumerism, careerism, technology, etc. With fewer safe places to turn to for community, people get mixed up in risky situations, turning to drugs, gangs, cults, communes, terrorist groups, etc.
(For the record, I am skeptical of Putnam's thesis, and I love Coca-Cola.)
|"Suzanne Delage" first appeared in|
Le Guin and Kidd's Edges; you
can read it for free at Lightspeed,
This story is the reminiscence of a retired man. Spurred by a passage in a banal novel, he thinks about an odd experience in his life, how he has never met Suzanne Delage, a woman his own age who lives in his own town, is the daughter of his mother's close friend, and attended his high school. Due to various strange coincidences, he has never seen Suzanne Delage--he's never even seen a photo of her. A few days before penning this memoir, he saw a pretty teenage girl, slender with shiny black hair, clear skin, and an intelligent, vivacious look on her face; a friend tells him that this is Suzanne Delage's daughter.
This one is a stumper. Could Suzanne Delage be a vampire? This would help explain why her photo does not appear in the narrator's high school yearbook. Also, why a bitter old widow who lived across the street from the narrator hated Suzanne's mother, so much so that the narrator's mother was afraid to invite Mrs. Delage over. (Mom and Mrs. Delage met elsewhere, and went on excursions together to look for old quilts and embroidery.) There are no mysterious deaths, though, or any other evidence of a vampire preying on the populace. Maybe there is no traditional SF content to this one.
It's possible I just have the loneliness of post-war American society on the brain, but somewhat like "Sweet Forest Maid," I think "Suzanne Delage" is about how in modern life people don't know each other. The narrator talks about how in high school many students (including himself) segregated themselves into insular cliques, and, perhaps more importantly, how some students were not in cliques, and were, perhaps, alone. Instead of getting to know new and different people, we modern Americans stick to our little groups and/or focus on our own limited interests, which leaves many people lonely.
It may also be significant that the narrator has had two failed marriages--both wives "bored" him. Maybe the crux of the story is that Suzanne Delage was the narrator's "true love," or "soul mate," and a series of unfortunate coincidences kept them apart.
|"Kevin Malone" first appeared in|
Ramsey Campbell's New Terrors,
and can be found in
The Best of Gene Wolfe
A young upper-middle class couple has fallen on hard times, the narrator having lost his job at a brokerage firm. In response to an odd newspaper ad offering vaguely defined employment to an attractive educated couple, they go to a fabulous old estate, The Pines, that is served by a staff of more than a dozen servants. The "job" is to simply inhabit the mansion, to take the place of the family who once owned the estate; the current owner, Kevin Malone, wants to feel "at home" at The Pines, where, as a boy, he lived and worked alongside his father, the estate's "man-of-all-work" (another character claims he was the stableman), and his mother, the parlor maid. Malone won't feel at home unless the place is occupied by a young couple, as it was when he was there as a kid.
Malone was forced to leave the estate for an orphanage at age twelve after his father murdered a maid and then committed suicide. The maid's name was Betty Malone, and it is unclear if she was Malone senior's wife, or daughter, or just some unrelated woman with whom he shared a last name. It seems likely Betty Malone was Kevin Malone's mother. Through luck and hard work, Malone became a rich businessman, and he purchased The Pines. Instead of making himself master of the estate, as you might expect, he decided to live over the stables, as he did in his youth.
When, weeks after moving in, the mystery behind this weird job and weird boss (whom the narrator speculates may be a ghost, or possessed in some way) is revealed to the narrator, Malone relieves him of the job, but, and this is the craziest part of the story, the narrator's wife Marcella stays on, abandoning her husband. We already know Marcella is not a reliable person or a model wife--we learn early in the story that she is a drunk and was disowned by her family, and throughout the story she is deceptive and petulant with her husband--but it is hinted that there is something more going on than her staying with Malone simply because he has money. When the narrator asks Malone if he owns the house, Malone replies, "this house owns me," and Marcella quickly chimes in, "It owns me too." The last time the narrator ever sees his wife, she is doing some dusting--she has become one of the servants! Is Marcella descended from someone who lived or worked at The Pines? Could she be possessed by such a person's spirit?
The efforts to relive one's childhood depicted in the story do not seem very successful or healthy; perhaps the horror of this horror story is how strife in the family at a young age can psychologically cripple a child, stunt his or her growth, keeping one obsessed with the past and hindering efforts to build a happy family and productive career of one's own.
There are also class issues in "Kevin Malone," of course--at one point the narrator suggests that it would be logical for Malone, the son of servants who was educated in an orphanage, to hate Marcella and the narrator, who grew up privileged. Maybe Malone's employing Marcella as a servant is some kind of revenge? There is not much evidence of Kevin Malone resenting the rich, however, though it is suggested that Kevin Malone's success in business was heavily reliant on luck and deception.
This brings us to the gender issues of the story. If Malone resents anybody, it seems to be his father's victim, Betty Malone, whom Kevin Malone declares "a tramp." He almost seems to condone or excuse his father's act of murder. I got the impression that the narrator (and Wolfe) were drawing some kind of parallel between Betty Malone and Marcella. For example while they are living at The Pines, Marcella and her husband sleep in separate rooms, and the narrator wonders if his wife has been having sex with one of the servants (i.e., is a "tramp," as Betty Malone is accused of being.)
There seem to be lots of clues whose significance I am not picking up on. The butler is named Priest, for example, and the narrator refers to Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, writers I am not nearly as familiar with as I should be.
So, there is my attempt to figure out three of Gene Wolfe's two hundred or so short stories. Now to Google around and see how far off base I am.
This is MPorcius Fiction Log's 300th post. I can barely believe it myself; half the time I post these things, I wonder why I am really doing it.
Thanks to all the readers and commenters, and to all the people who have supported this quixotic endeavor with links and retweets and in other ways. Without your encouragement I would never have read some of the things I have read nor thought about them and enjoyed them so deeply.