A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Land Across’


The Land Across was Gene Wolfe’s penultimate novel, which I have in an attractive limited signed hardback edition that isn’t signed and wasn’t promoted as signed. This replaced the hardback first edition that arrived just in time for Xmas.
The book is another first person narrative, this time from an American travel writer named Grafton (no first name ever disclosed). Grafton has ambitions to write the first comprehensive travel book about an unnamed East European country, impliedly a former Iron Curtain country, whose only geographical clue is that it is beyond the Mountains (which mountains? Don’t be silly).
The Land Across is a secretive place, almost impossible to get into and, as Grafton quickly discovers, next to impossible to get out of. Grafton is searched on the train, has his passport and visa taken and is arrested for not having a passport. So far, so Kafka. He is imprisoned in a private citizen’s home, in a city named Puraustays, where he can get his ‘gaoler’, Kleon, killed just by not spending the night there. Kleon’s younger, sexy wife Martya, persuades him into renting a deserted house in which treasure is supposed to be hidden but the first thing they find is a mummified dead woman behind a mirror.
That’s just the start. The story progresses in a herky-jerky manner, with abrupt changes in circumstances for Grafton and long delays that often are only mentioned in passing, such as the year Grafton spends in prison, sharing a cell with fellow-American Russell Rathaus.
I’ve read the book three times before, and generally enjoyed it, but this time I found it tiring and tiresome.
I think this is because I’ve just hit the wall on Wolfe’s unreliable narrators who are unreliable because they can’t write. Able in The Wizard Knight, Chris in Pirate Freedom and now Grafton, supposedly a successful and respected writer of travel books in The Land Across, who is completely incompetent at telling a narrative. And Grafton doesn’t even have the excuse of supposedly writing a letter to an intimate: Grafton is writing a story for public consumption.
All of them are writing as if this is a face-to-face conversation and that anything left out has to be told later, instead of just going back and rewriting to fit it in where it applies.
I know this is not merely a consummate professional writer but a highly experienced and skillful writer at work, but the more accurately that Wolfe impersonates a guy with no narrative ability whatsoever, the more the book is a story told by someone with no narrative ability whatsoever, and ultimately the effect is the same as reading a crap writer. It’s tiring, offputting and has the effect of detaching the reader. or this reader at any rate, from the story itself.
And it’s a deliberately ragged story. I have never actually read any Kafka, but this is decidedly Kafka-esque as I understand it. The Land Across is a hotbed of official and unofficial paranoia. Foreigners disappear into it with no recourse to their home countries, who seem not to care. People don’t even believe Grafton is American, or rather Amerikan as it is constantly put, they believe him to be German (German is the most commonly spoken and understood language after the native tongue) and ignore him when he says he’s not.
As I said, the initial set-up is that Grafton must sleep in Kleon’s house each night, or Kleon will be shot, but he rents the mysterious house, The Limes, where treasure is supposedly hidden. However, Kleon beats him up and throws him out after Grafton and Martya take too little care o conceal that he is shagging her (or, to use her original and rather charming euphemism, ‘tiring’ her).
Grafton spends two unchronicled months at the Limes before abruptly being kidnapped by the Legion of the Light, a quasi-religious, quasi-political revolutionary group that believes in eschewing Change. Grafton has to read their radio sermons/message, the idea being that an American apparently adopting their beliefs will bring support from America. After an undisclosed period doing this, Grafton gets to drop a clue as to where they are into one of his broadcasts, drawing down a Government raid.
He is shot, painfully but not threateningly, and put in prison without trial, sharing a cell with another American, the aforementioned Russell Rathaus, age 65, seller of Voodoo dolls (don’t laugh), who has been arrested along with his Rosalee (who we later learn is forty years younger than him, blonde and beautiful). Grafton and Russ share a cell for a year, before Rathaus escapes by a fantastic means.
Grafton is promptly released into the custody of Naala, a senior JAKA operative, they being the secret police, to aid in investigating how Rathaus got out, where he is, what he’s doing, and how much he’s involved with The Unholy Way. Is this making sense as logical progression yet?
I have, so far, not mentioned that Grafton frequently sees a man dressed in black that no-one else seems to see, who never speaks, who helps him from time to time and who bears a strange resemblance to this guy Grafton keeps seeing on posters (we infer him to be the country’s Leader, and we will be correct in this assumption: he also resembles Grafton’s father).
Unfortunately, all this set-up leads to a prolonged investigation, conducted at exhausting length, with much deduction as to motives, actions, relationships and whereabouts. It kills all momentum in the story dead, and gives the impression of being interminable. During this part of the book, my weariness with Grafton, and his self-satisfied modes of speech and his inability to tell anything like a straightforward story, boiled over from weariness into outright irritation, further dulling my ability to deal with the book.
Which has now developed a fantastic aspect. A dead hand, a woman’s hand that appears to have been used as a Hand of Glory is presumably satanic rituals, is taken from the Archbishop by Naala for examination. Despite her being about twice his age, Grafton is now shagging her, when the hand comes to life and tries to strangle Naala. It goes into hiding then reappears in Grafton’s coat pocket, acting of its own accord. Grafton accepts this as nothing unusual, keeps it secret and basically becomes its ally.
Naala and Grafton attempt to use Russell Rathaus’s also-imprisoned wife, Rosalee (age 24, blonde and beautiful, Grafton wants to make her) to get him out of hiding, but they’re a bit too clever over how they manipulate her and when a prisoner closely resembling her is killed in the dormitory – for no related reason – Rosalee takes flight and runs. Needless to say, Grafton finds her, though he won’t turn her in to Naala.
More deduction as to motives, actions, relationships and whereabouts determines that it is Martya who brings the hand to the priest, Papa Iason,that she’s done so on behalf of Russell, and the Russ is Iason’s out-of-wedlock father.
Grafton’s now committed himself so deeply to working for the JAKA that he’s made an Operator himself, with a silver badge and his own gun. Ultimately, his running around locates Rathaus, though this is actually only a voodoo doll of him. Finally, and I am leaving out a lot of detail I didn’t even want to try to solve, he and Rathaus between them shoot or capture most of the Unholy Way, but not their leader, the Undead Dragon, whom Grafton then works out has to be the Archbishop himself.
When he confronts this very old man, the Archbishop commits suicide by throwing himself off a bell-tower he climbs every day.
As a consequence, everybody is taken to meet the Leader, who is the man in black that Grafton keeps seeing where nobody else sees him, who he keeps referring to as the third border guard. Russ and Rosalee get to go home, Naala gets a medal, Martya gets returned to Puraustays to reunite with a pardoned Kleon (if anyone can actually catch him to pardon him), but she does get her third share of the treasure when Grafton uses the disembodied hand to locate it at the Willows.
Grafton gets a medal and his passport back, but stays an overseas employee of the JAKA. He decides not to write his travel book but to write this book instead, which is a very suspect decision.
I love Gene Wolfe’s work, and perhaps on another occasion, in isolation, I will have more patience with The Land Across, and be able to approach it with a more coherent analysis. I am not able to do so at this moment. This will have to suffice at this point in this long blog series, with only one book remaining.

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