There is as great a contrast between Gene Wolfe’s third novel, Peace and The Fifth Head of Cerberus as there was between that book and its predecessor. This is nothing to do with the writing in this instance, which is as careful, organised and controlled as that of Cerberus, but instead the subject matter.
At a first glance, Peace appears to be, and on a superficial reading is, a mainstream novel, reflecting the distant memories of Alden Dennis Weer, a lifelong resident of the midwestern town of Cassionsville, successful businessman and apparent sufferer of a stroke. But superficial readings of Wolfe are not merely inherently limited, but also exceedingly dangerous.
Den, as he seems to be called, is reaching out through his memories to Doctors who have tended him in the past, who he wants to treat his infirmity, but dredging up a lot of memories from his childhood. Even those who want to treat this as a purely mainstream recollection will notice very quickly and Den’s reminiscences are constantly discursive, every memory arousing a digression, often lengthy, of no direct relevance, creating a dream-like feel to the logic of the story, and that both in Den’s own recollections but more especially in the stories adults tell from time to time, there are no answers, no endings. There is much more story in Peace than is there to be read, there are unexplained things, lacunae, unfinished tales aplenty. As always with Wolfe, the reader’s challenge is to read what is not there, to determine what they are not being told.
Of which there is much. One should take particular note of the several deaths that occur, none of which are explained and one of which is buried so deep in implication that it is not even acknowledged as having taken place.
Take heed of the opening line of the book, referring to the uprooting of a tree by lightning. It is a key to understanding that this book is really a horror story, about a family that is every bit as hellish as that of Maitre and Number Five in Cerberus: a widely read person aware of the origins of names, will find multifold clues linking the Weer family to the Devil, and Alden Dennis Weer is not merely a devil in himself, but he is dead, and this seemingly rambling story is being told by his ghost.
Wolfe divides the book into five long chapters, each of which deals with a different phase of Den’s life, and with a different figure in his history. Much of the story deals with his formative years when, as with Number Five’s account, what we see is filtered through the perceptions of a child focussed upon its own interests. But this is the adult Weer, a man in his sixties, speaking, and he makes no attempt to impose his adult understanding, or any future knowledge, upon the narrative he’s constructing.
The result is a partially seen picture. Weer alludes to the Bobby Black incident, which takes place somewhere in the year he is five, or maybe six. What it is is never spelt out, though I have a clear idea of what Wolfe conceals, what comes of it are spinal injuries, a childhood death, bad blood between families and the embarrassed fleeing of Den’s parents on a protracted European tour, one that we infer lasts years, leaving little Den – who might be seen to be the culprit – behind in the care of his Aunt Olivia.
And this undescribed incident is the fundamental event for Weer’s life, though only afterwards can the pattern be seen. Aunt Vi has three suitors, but marries a fourth, who is never presented as a suitor. Weer describes this man, Julius Smart, as the true central character of this book, though his presence on the page is limited until he almost becomes a peripheral figure. And Smart sets up the successful Cassionsville business that Weer ultimately inherits and runs.
The closer one looks into this story, the more obscure it becomes. Wolfe avoids any clear chronology, providing little with which to judge the year/years in which events take place, leaving the reader to intuit the time-frame from the atmosphere of Cassionsville. Time is used to indicate certain relationships between events, but even these create different effects. One carefully researched article on the timeline is forced to conclude that Aunt Vi’s death – about which no detail is given, nor context set, save that she was nocked down by a motor car driven by one of her ex-suitors – can only be placed within a five year span.
Aunt Vi’s death is another example of the indeterminacy of the novel. Not only is it presented with the absolute minimum of data – the account I’ve given above is the complete set of facts – but there is not a word about the outcome.
Except in one detail. Julius Smart, who has given young Den the job that sets him up to be the future President of the company, refuses to speak to him again for the rest of his life. Wolfe cannily gives us this is isolation, leaving us to debate internally the extent to which Weer may have been responsible for his Aunt’s death.
Or is that a complete illusion, a fantasy derived solely from an over-active imagination, seeing shadows and horror where none exists? Is Peace what it appears to be, the stumbling recollections of a stroke victim, trying to order his past? Is the horror unjustified?
You must make your own judgements. Gene Wolfe does not tell you what to think or how to react. His books contain endless puzzles, and there are no solutions, upside down, at the back. Be careful where, and how you tread, and know this: when you walk this way a second time, everything will have changed even as the words remain the same. What peace is that?