Tuesday, May 17, 2016

More Light! A Review Of Book Of The New Sun

"My first thought was, he lied in every word"
- Robert Browning

Who are the great writers to use unreliable narration? Robert Browning, Vladimir Nabokov and Gene Wolfe. One can compare Gene Wolfe and Browning - Wolfe has a greater vocabulary, a finer education (Browning believed that "slughorn" was a real instrument and "twat" was once polite) and a larger scope. One can compare Gene Wolfe and Nabokov - Wolfe has greater imagery, less formality and (let's be honest with ourselves) more thrills.

The best trick of unreliable narration is basically moral. Nabokov's most famous book, Lolita, is about a child rapist who uses his erudition to avoid the reality of his monstrous actions. The careful reader has to find the seams, how he shifts Dolores's characterization from coquettish when she is trying to escape from him to - and I am phrasing this as ugly as possible to highlight the horror of the situation - slutty when she submits to his demands. The narrator dances around, shifts blame, waxes poetic, he does anything he can to avoid admitting his unforgivable brutality. I remember one writer describing Lolita as inspired by totalitarianism and from what I've seen of such regimes, Humbert differs from them only in writing better.

Indeed, what makes a great unreliable narrator? It is, of course, reliability.  An obvious con-man (such as the three card monte sharp) interests us for a second, then the feeling passes. But the great con-man or con-woman lies in how he or she says it, not at all in what is said. Sam Spade sees right through Brigid O'Shaughnessy's lies, but her delicately worded truths? Those are poison. The first line of "Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came" quoted above is an example. Roland is wrong: the old man gave true directions. It would be ridiculous if the poem ended with the revelation that the above was not his first thought, but he said it was! That would be unreliability, surely, but it would not be human.

The main character and narrator of The Book Of The New Sun is Severian, who we watch rise from an apprentice torturer to the "Autarch" (essentially, the emperor) of the land and go beyond. Severian is gifted with great strength, perfect memory, complete honesty and real courage - he is damned with the critical skills of a kindergartner, the cruelty of a tyrant and the self-control of an alcoholic. He lives on a world, Urth, where the sun is dying out (if I may be allowed an important spoiler, it is not dying of natural causes). Gene Wolfe calls Urth "the future where we sit around and wait for the money to run out.". It is a world so old and so lacking in innovation that mining is not done to get raw materials, but to fish up superior ancient artifacts. In this, it is very different from our world. It is a world where incomprehensible cruelty is ignored and those really responsible are never blamed. In this, it is very similar to our world.

Severian is easily, trivially manipulated - especially by women. One particularly determined peasant woman repeatedly cons him and eventually is crowned Autarch in his absence. Severian would torture and murder anyone if told to in a relatively stern voice, in fact he does so repeatedly. On the few occasions that he does take a moral stand, it seems to destroy his life. He often hallucinates respect when there is only fear. Severian was made this way - it is a useful trait in professional torturers and executioners. Like much else, Severian fails to notice even this.

"He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
- Matthew 3:11

Should I reveal the joke? Severian is, to a large extent, an inverted Jesus figure. I say this advisedly, in the complexities of Urth, land of the dying sun, he certainly is a savior - a Christ figure. Let's look at their most obvious traits as literary characters. Jesus was a carpenter, a creator of things. He even draws on beautiful carpentry metaphors ("A house divided on itself..."). Severian is a torturer, capable only of rending. That he understands the world through torture metaphors heightens our distance from him. Jesus was a preacher whose sermons are respected even by those who don't believe in his divinity, he often has to explain metaphors to his thick headed followers. Severian is a reclusive executioner who has great difficulty with abstract concepts - and even greater difficulty applying them. Jesus is tempted explicitly, but never commits a wicked act. He performs miracles, healing the sick and even raising the dead. Severian is capable of such things, but instead mostly maims, murders and perhaps even rapes, occasionally sneaking in a good act. Jesus was born in a miraculous virgin birth. Severian is a mostly forgotten orphan. Jesus was killed on a cross - Severian kills with a cross (Severian calls it an "iron phallus", a hilarious inverted Freudian thesis until you find out what iron phalli mean to him and imply about his world...).
Jesus was the son of the God of the covenant, who specifically promised to never drown the whole world (Genesis 9:11). Severian the unwitting servant of immensely powerful entities. When Severian brings the New Sun (I don't think that is too much of a spoiler for The Book Of The New Sun) and baptizes us in fire, it triggers a deluge.

"Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say ice."
- Robert Frost

One of the most interesting Severian never really understands the deeper conflict happening through him, between the secret masters who wish to control this world even as it freezes and those who wish to renew it with a new sun. Those who know anything about contemporary fantasy literature will notice that this is the exact theme of A Song Of Ice And Fire: the pointless cruelty of the Game Of Thrones has completely distracted those in power from the fact that the world is about to be destroyed by ice demons. Further, George R R Martin also uses first person unreliable narrators. If Martin ever said that he wasn't deeply influenced by Gene Wolfe, I would only wonder Martin lied this time (after all, he's told the truth before).

Before I move on, A couple running gags about Severian that I never see anyone notice: He can remember directions perfectly, but never once travels without getting lost. He seems incapable of being near large bodies of water without ending up underneath them (eventually the gods give up and give him the power to breathe underwater).

The world of Urth is beautiful, complex and mysterious. The plot of Book Of The New Sun only spans one year, but the powers behind the stage use multiple realities and time travel to stretch the story across tens of thousands of years. This is only one layer of deception. My favorite thing in speculative fiction is when an author is able to give the feeling of a vast world with a small line or one drawing. Gene Wolfe draws upon his immense vocabulary to do this. For some, this technique might be a distracting gimmick. But for me and Wolfe's dedicated following, this arsenal of words creates a world one can imagine living in. The smell of nenuphars will be forever ironically innocent. Gene Wolfe, a dedicated Catholic, uses the vast imagery of Catholicism (especially Medieval Catholicism) to imbue life into every aspect of Urth's culture.

As an aside, I honestly don't think a non-believer could make an inverted Jesus figure like Severian. Severian's massive cross-shaped executioner's sword - Terminus Est - wouldn't mean anything to someone who had no dedication to what the cross means. Another example is the official name of the Torturer's Guild: the Seekers Of Truth And Penitence. This name is meant to make clear that they are an inverted priesthood. But if one did not believe that the priesthood was not (in some sense) a guild of Seekers Of Truth And Penitence the inversion loses all power. To be clear: this is not proselytizing fiction at all. This is an artistic work deeply informed by Catholic philosophy and culture, but not of the Catholic Church.

Gene Wolfe's accomplishments in Book Of The New Sun are immense. He is the greatest living Catholic writer in the English language. If there is a greater living novelist of any background, I can't think of their name. In spite of all this and all that I have said, I can only say one thing in praise. Gene Wolfe often expresses bewilderment that Book Of The New Sun is so respected, even though he admits that he worked hard on it. What that means is this was a story that had to be told, not something that he wrote so that he would be appreciated. The whole of this book is built on that fundamental honesty, one necessary for all great art.

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