In 2014, Gene Wolfe published his last novel, the underwhelming A Borrowed Man. Shortly thereafter, his bibliography in Wikipedia added Interlibrary Loan, a sequel, with an anticipated release date of 2016. Time passed. The date of 2016 disappeared to be replaced with a question mark. Eventually, the title of the book disappeared itself. From somewhere, I read that Wolfe had completed/was completing the novel but that it would only be for his own satisfaction. And in 2018 he passed away, depriving the world of one of its greatest writers ever.
Now it has been published, after an inexplicable, last-minute month’s delay to the hard copy, and I own the last Gene Wolfe novel there will ever be. This is a sober moment.
The book has already been reviewed, and received well, as a subtle and fitting end to Wolfe’s career. I do not have the same reaction. Like A Borrowed Man, the novel is narrated by Ern A. Smithe (not Ernie as on his previous appearance), the reclone of a former thriller mystery writer of a couple of hundred years earlier, who is not regarded as fully human but as library property, a resource available to be consulted and to be burnt, like any other book, if the interest in him/it drops below a certain level. In A Borrowed Man, Smithe secures his future by blackmailing a murderess into checking him out once a year.
This time, he and two fellow reclones, cookbook writer Millie Baumgartner, round and homely, and romance writer, Rose Romain, stylish and curvy, are sent out on Interlibrary Loan, to the small branch at Polly’s Cove. There’s already an older version of Smithe there, an earlier edition, though Smithe will only meet his other self when the latter is killed/commits suicide.
Smithe’s been requested by Adah Fevre, mother of Chandra, the girl she sends to collect Smithe, and wife/widow to Dr Barry Fevre, who may or may not be dead. As it happens, Millie and Rose have been requested by Barry, Millie to cook and Rose to fuck.
What follows Smithe’s arrival was another of those increasingly prevalent scenes in Wolfe’s later fiction where nothing actually happens but characters discuss circumstances at great length, analysing and guessing at alternatives. Normally, I would run out of interest before the sequence was done but this time I recognised that I could not summon up any enthusiasm to begin with.
The writing was uninvolving, and the scenario, what had happened to Dr Barry and was he alive or dead, held no real interest. Smithe, just as last time, and in several of Wolfe’s later books, is not an inherently interesting writer, a writer of plain language and limited sensibility, prone to treat the account he is writing as an oral tale in a way that worked counter to the development of the story.
And it did develop. It developed in strange and unusual ways. Smithe’s older clone dies in the Library, either by way of suicide or else murder by Dr Barry. Adah Fevre turns out to be a bipolar individual, subject to sweeping mood swings, at one extreme a violent and uncaring person who treats the reclones as property that she is free to damage or destroy at will: she has already multilated the older Smithe.
Smithe prompts the checking out of Audrey Hopkins, a writer of sailing books written from a woman’s perspective, the original of whom drowned when a raft broke up on the high seas. She and Smithe enjoy a sexual relationship but of course she sleeps with Barry Fevre as soon as she gets the chance, impliedly because he is human and Smithe, like her, is not.
Barry Fevre gets a lot of sex in this book. Adah accuses him of being unfaithful to her, and his tenured professorship depends in large part on the dissection of cadavers, an almost infinite supply of which he gets from a remote island in northern waters, who practice burial in an ice cave that preserves bodies completely, and indeed enables certain of these bodies to be returned to life, as in being removed from cryogenic storage. The prime examples of this are two bare-breasted blonde beauties from several centuries before.
If you’re getting the impression that this book is a bit choppy, without a consistent narrative drive, then I would regard that as accurate. A lot of the praise for the later Wolfe is for his skilful and subtle mixing of genres, such as An Evil Guest‘s abrupt transformation from a near-future mystery into a Lovecraftian monster-horror, but I think it’s time for me to say that I am less convinced that this is all under perfect and subtle control, than I am fearful that Wolfe is losing his grip on the integrity of the story.
To complicate matters further, Barry Fevre is murdered. His murderer is an alien from an alternate planet/universe, just as was revealed in A Borrowed Man, and Smithe and a female police officer follow the killer there and kill him, without any suggestion of a motive for the killing of Barry, who does not appear to be dead anyway.
What’s more, when the story is seemingly over, and Smithe is returned to his home library, he is checked out again, for purposes that are never totally made clear, by a new patron, one who has already checked out a writer of Westerns, who looks, acts and sounds like the most stereotypical of Western heroes, for no better reason that I can discern than it allows Wolfe to go off dialect-playing again.
And that comes to an end without any actual development.
What is clear in the book, though I question the extent to which it is of actual value, is Wolfe’s exploration of the actual humanity of reclones, or the extent to which they are now, and should not be treated as property. As in A Borrowed Man, I question the use of the very term: if there is a distinction between a clone and a reclone, Wolfe does not in either book make it.
Then again, the basisc principle behind a clone is that they are, or begin as, a replica of their DNA original. Reclones are specifically not: they are physical replicas but mentally they are restricted to taking in a certain manner, and inhibited from further writing. To what extent are they human? To what extent should they be treated as if they were nothng but books of leather and paper, as opposed to organic flesh?
Wolfe’s sympathies are clearly with the reclones, since we see and hear all of this through Smithe, though the limited natures of the reclones provide a counter-argument against full humanity, leavened with better treatment of them physically. I can’t go further myself in my sympathies because, stripped of true independence, the reclones aren’t ultimately human.
But all this is a first impression, of a book that failed to involve or cohere on first reading. I will read it again, and re-read A Borrowed Man beforehand, with a view to a more coherent response.
But really it doesn’t matter if this book is good, bad or indifferent, or in what proportion it is all of these things. What matters is that it is One More. It is One Last Trip to the Well that we have all of us visited uncounted times in the last fifty years, one final chance to sit at the feet of the master and hear him spin us one more tale that no-one else could have written. And it doesn’t matter if it is less than other things before it, no more than it matters that it is raining in the dark of evening when earlier it was sunlight. We are gathered here again, and after this there is only emptiness.