Although virtually unclassifiable, Gene Wolfe’s 1975 novel, Peace, was chosen for inclusion in both David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels AND Jones & Newman’s Horror: Another 100 Best Books. While the novel certainly does have shadings of both the horrific and the fantastic, it will most likely strike the casual reader — on the surface, at least — as more of an autobiography, telling, as it does, the story of Alden Dennis Weer, in the first person.
Weer, a 60-something bachelor who has suffered a stroke shortly before he begins his tale, and who may or may not be a ghostly spirit, gives us the story of his life, in piecemeal fashion, withholding much and skipping about in accordance with the vagaries of his consciousness. A product of small-town America, somewhere in the Midwest (the fictitious burg of Cassionsville) of the early 20th century, Weer has many interesting incidents to think back on and ponder. The town where he spent his entire life, and his relatives, friends and coworkers, are revealed to us, “Our Town” fashion, but with innumerable digressions and tangents of tangents.
I should mention right here that Peace is hardly an easy read. Its story is certainly nonlinear, its anecdotes always interrupted by Weer’s side thoughts (he constantly leaves his tales unfinished, in favor of some other tale that has just popped into his head), his side thoughts seemingly inconsequential and meaningless. He is just as likely to ramble off into the telling of a fairy tale that he read as a boy, in the middle of one of his narratives, as not. Even Pringle has to admit that it is “definitely not a book for the impatient,” and Roz Kaveney, writing about Peace in the Jones & Newman volume, tells us that the book “hops back and forth through [Weer’s] life without resolution and without any clear sense of who ultimately he is.” And that last statement is absolutely true. Weer, we get the feeling, is holding much back from the reader, and though we come to like and admire the man, we never get a clear picture, with all his circumlocutions, of who he is. His pinball consciousness may be hard to follow (but still, isn’t this representative of how most of us really think… nonsequentially, with other thoughts and snatches of song and extraneous images constantly intruding?), and the man/ghost remains a cipher by the novel’s end, but still, we sure do learn a lot about Cassionsville by the telling.
Or do we? In a key statement early on, Weer tells us that some of his remembered events “never occurred at all, but only should have, and that others had not the shades and flavors” that he has chosen to give them. He is an unreliable narrator at best. Still, the tales he tells us are fascinating ones. We learn of his eccentric Aunt Olivia, a lover of all things Chinese, and her three suitors; of Weer’s job at a synthetic orange drink factory; of the local druggist’s experiences with a man who is slowly turning to stone; of the local bookseller who is engaged in a very peculiar sideline; of Christmas at his grandfather’s house; of Olivia’s quest to obtain a rare porcelain egg.
Many of Weer’s tales seem to lack a payoff, although that payoff may come 100 pages later, while he is telling another tale. Other stories are seemingly the pointless ramblings of a meandering mind. Still, Wolfe writes beautifully, in this, a change from his usual sci-fi/fantasy epic format. Peace (that title is a troubling one… if Weer really is at peace when he writes his life story, that peace certainly does not seem to bring him any real solace) is a book that almost demands to be read slowly, and then reread in parts. Many casual statements and even characters that at first blush appeared unimportant acquire a greater significance at second glance. I’m not sure that I agree with Pringle when he declares the book to be “a masterpiece,” but have no problem with his declaration that it is “moving and delicately written.” It certainly is different, and, as I suggested up top, a completely sui generis experience. Mysterious, atmospheric and tinged with nostalgia and the grotesque, Peace is a book not easily shaken off.
Gene Wolfe’s Peace (1975) is a book that both invites and defies analysis — to the point where there is a small cottage industry devoted to competing theories of the meaning of the literary allusions, offhand clues sprinkled throughout the text, and the recurring fairy tales embedded in this seemingly innocuous memoir of Alden Dennis Weer, who grows up in a small Midwestern town in the early 19th century.
Wolfe is notorious for his tricky, elusive, and symbol-laden stories, invariably featuring an unreliable narrator who may be confused, hiding facts, embellishing, or outright lying about the events of the story. In Peace, he takes this to the extreme by fragmenting Alden’s memoirs into a non-linear jumble of memories from different stages of his life, stories he read as a child, stories he was told, and stories told by other characters. Not only that, but the perspective, characters, and time periods switch from paragraph to paragraph without the slightest warning.
Ostensibly, Peace is a series of memoirs told by Alden as an old man in an empty house. He awakes at the sound of a tree falling outside in winter, and wanders the house, dragging one leg, having trouble finding the room he is looking for. He makes a cryptic comment in the opening paragraph that immediately alerts the reader that things are not as they might appear:
I remember that my heart pounded and I was afraid I was going to have an attack, and then, fuzzily, thought that perhaps the heart attack had wakened me, and then that I might be dead.
He visits the doctor‘s office, casually mentioning, “There is this to be said for doctors: they may be consulted though dead, and I consult Doctors Black and Van Ness.” This sentence, like so many in the book, can be interpreted several ways. Is Alden dead, the doctors, or everyone? The story then launches into a series of interlocking reminiscences, starting with his 5th birthday party at his grandmother’s house. We meet a series of his family members, and as he looks at a portrait of his father’s dead brother Joe in a Tuscan garden, painted when Joe was a sad little boy of four, the elder Alden muses:
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 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 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 the 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.
I include the above passage at length to show both the narrative structure, complexity of thought, and spiritual themes of Peace, a novel that continuously cycles through the vagaries of Alden’s life, always avoiding overt conclusions, skirting around key events, dovetailing into Gaelic and other fairy tales, only to veer away to a new thought before reaching the end. This stream-of-consciousness approach requires untiring concentration from the reader, so for those looking for a relaxing afternoon escape, this is the wrong book! There are so many themes lurking beneath Wolfe’s narrative that the story really belies description. In Marc Aramini’s analysis Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986, he describes Peace thus:
As I said, Wolfe often writes with absence foremost in his mind, but there is still a guiding principle that can be discerned by piecing together his symbols, clues, and syncretic habits. Wolfe has mastered structure through absence, where at times the didactic or symbolic meaning is clear but the real practical application is entirely opaque and difficult to discern. All of these fairy tales and the narrative stance of Weer indicates that somehow this small town rural American life undergoing the throes of extreme modernization is a fairy story, with the immigrants and characters actually becoming the sidhe, firbolg, and mythical creatures to a glimpsed but off screen future.
Before you decide that Peace sounds more like a painful literary exercise than a rewarding reading experience, let me say that Wolfe writes with great skill about the life of Alden, and once you get used to the sudden shifts in time and perspective, the story he tells is a fascinating one. There are many episodes in the novel that constitute mini-stories on their own, such as Julius Smart’s sublimely horrifying story of his apprenticeship to the alchemist Mr. Tilly in Florida, including his encounters with some carnival freaks. At one point, Alden admits, “It has suddenly struck me, after scribbling for days here, that Julius Smart, who will scarcely appear in it again, is actually the central character of this book.” This segment comes closest to horror, all the more effective for revealing key information in passing, meaning you have to pay close attention to the most innocuous-seeming details.
One of the other central figures in the book is Olivia Weer, Den’s aunt who cares for him while his parents spend years traveling Europe. She is his surrogate mother, an attractive, sophisticated, and intellectual woman who is out of place in the small Midwestern town of Cassionsville. Because of her bold personality and inherited wealth, she attracts the attentions of four suitors: Professor Peacock, who takes her and young Alden on a drive to explore an ancient cave in the hills; wealthy banker Stewart Blaine; James Macafee, the owner of the local department store who pursues a singular Chinese porcelain egg with her in an extended humorous sequence, and finally Julius Smart, a pharmacist who courts Olivia and eventually wins her hand.
Alden’s story is also interesting, as he eventually works for Julius Smart at an orange juice factory as an engineer. His encounter with librarian Lois Arbuthnot, bookseller Louis Gold, and Louis’s daughter Sherry represents another major story arc that has some of the biggest shocks and surprises of the novel, all the more chilling for their subtle reveals. It’s no wonder that Neil Gaiman describes Peace this way: “Peace really was a gentle Midwestern memoir the first time I read it. It only became a horror novel on the second or the third reading.”
There are so many elements at play under the surface and implied in the absences of Alden’s memoirs that a single reading is not adequate to fully examine them. In addition to Marc Aramini’s extended essay quoted above, there are also essays such as Robert Borski’s “The Devil His Due: Gene Wolfe’s Peace” (Sirius Fiction), Damien Broderick’s “Thoughts on Gene Wolfe’s Peace” (New York Review of Science Fiction), Mordicai Knode’s “Gene Wolfe’s Peace Will Leave You Anything But Peaceful” (tor.com). Any book that creates such a dedicated and obsessive following indicates that Peace will appeal to readers who love riddles, literary allusions, twisted fairy tales, elements of horror, stories of small-town America, and a searing examination of the corrupting influence of temptation and evil that lurks beneath the surface of Alden’s unreliable and fragmented memories.