Apparently this book is two books. The first book, the one that I read, is the sweet reminiscences of an old man, Alden Dennis Weer, who lives in a very strange house; he is amusing himself by writing his memoirs. Those are peppered liberally with engaging stories. Digressions, it would seem, but excellent nonetheless. The second book, the existence of which I was made aware of by Neil Gaiman’s afterword, is an eerie and disturbing tale by a narrator who may or may not be telling us the truth. Or be alive. I haven’t read that book yet. Though I’m told if you do a really good job of reading deeply your first time through you can read them both simultaneously. Mere mortals will have to settle for reading the first one until they can see the second. But Peace is a book designed for repeated reading.
Gene Wolfe is frequently billed as one of the greatest sci-fi writers of our time, but personally I found Peace closer to magical realism than what I usually expect from science fiction. There’s no advanced technology, no zombies or plagues, no apocalyptic scenarios. (At least, not in the first book. Maybe it shows up in the second?) Not to insinuate that it’s lacking in any way by not having those things, just to point out that if you’re expecting canonical sci-fi Peace won’t be it. Peace is little like The Book of the New Sun. Wolfe’s personal literary style shines through both, they both act in part as biographies for their narrators, and they are both speckled with stories seemingly unrelated to the main plot, but that’s where the similarities end. They’re like cats and dogs, similar in some ways but vastly different in others. Some people like both. Some one and not the other. And I guess some prefer goldfish. (I don’t know which Gene Wolfe book is the goldfish. I’ve taken this metaphor too far.)
Peace starts out with some wonderful, long, complex sentences. Let me drag up for you the one from page 15 that I had to read over nearly ten times before I could actually grasp what it was saying:
[The portrait] was, as I know from some occult source that, beneath the sleepless and probing lenses of the Cassionsville Spiritualist Society now so recently organized by my aunt Arabella, might be found to be Hannah (once my grandmother’s cook and now my mother’s)–it was, I say, painted almost precisely a year before his death.
Or this sentence, further down the same page:
Now, when I sit alone before my fire and look out at the wreck of the elm revealed by the lightning flashes, confused and ruinous as a ship gone aground, it seems to me that the garden-I mean little Joe’s garden, basking forever in the sunshine of its Tyrrhenian afternoon-is the core and root of the real world, to which all this America is only a miniature in a locket in a forgotten drawer; and this thought reminds me (and is reinforced by the memory) of Dante’s Paradiso, in which (because the wisdom of this world was the folly of the next) the earth stood physically central, surrounded by the limbus of the moon and all the other spheres, greater and greater, and at last by God, but in which this physical reality was, in the end, delusive, God standing central in spiritual truth, and our poor earth cast out-peripheral to the concerns of Heaven save when the memory of it waked, with something not unlike an impure nostalgia, the great saints and the Christ from the contemplation of triune God.
One sentence, guys. Some of them are a struggle to get through but the effort is so worth it! Weer’s memories and anecdotes and random little tales are so well crafted that with each new offshoot you forget there’s a whole novel existing outside the chunk you’re reading now. You can just keep reading it, over and over, peeling back another segment every time. An endless orange.
Administrative details: notes of racism (antique bookends), and the traditional unnecessary description of breasts. Irritating, but overall very minor. Strangely enough, I had fewer problems with the depictions of female characters in Peace than I did in The Book of the New Sun, in spite of Peace being older. Less space for Wolfe to flesh out irritating attitudes? I don’t know, but it was a pleasant relief. Even if there are hints that the women mostly don’t end well. I think that’s covered more in the second book. And like I said, I haven’t read that one yet.