The Land Across by Gene Wolfe
Kat and I both read Gene Wolfe’s The Land Across last week. I read the print version produced by Tor and Kat read the audio version produced by Audible and narrated by Jeff Woodman. I wrote most of the following review, but Kat insisted on sticking in her comments so she didn’t have to write her own review. That’s how this review became a conversation.
Bill: Let’s be honest. In an ideal world, nobody should be reviewing a Gene Wolfe book having only read it once. The guy just has too much going on, too much slippery subtlety, too much unreliability, too much word play and a sense that there is always a layer underneath the layer underneath the layer you think you caught a glimpse of. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and so despite knowing there’s a whole lot going on in The Land Across that we probably missed on our one trip through it, here goes…
Kat: Actually, maybe I’m a dunce, but I didn’t feel like there was anything going on that we missed. I think The Land Across is a different kind of book than what we’ve seen from Wolfe before. I don’t think we missed the subtlety, I think the book is missing it. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book — it was highly readable (especially with the excellent audio narration provided by Jeff Woodman). It was a weird trip through a strange world, and weird trips through strange worlds is something Gene Wolfe does exceptionally well.
Bill: Describing it as a trip is appropriate, as the book [we now enter the recap stage of the review] is told from the first-person point of view of Grafton, an American travel writer who decides to try and visit the titular (and unnamed) eastern European country, which is mysteriously difficult to enter:
Visitors who try to drive get into a tangle of unmarked mountain roads… Most drivers who make it through… are turned back at the border… Some are arrested. A few of the ones who are arrested never get out.
Persevering through several failed attempts by air (two canceled flights, one that cited bad weather as an excuse not to land), Gratfon attempts to enter by train and finally succeeds.
Kat: I think this was my favorite part of the book, when Grafton is trying to get into the Land but finds that “all maps are wrong.” I liked the surreal dreamy feel and felt like this was the most Wolfe-ish aspect of the book. Some of this dreaminess lingers for the rest of the story, but it is usually overshadowed by the thriller/ mystery/ police procedural / ghost story aspects of the plot.
Bill: I agree; this was perhaps my favorite aspect as well, both the entry into the country and the surreal nature of the city’s early descriptions and his imprisonment. I wouldn’t have minded more of this Calvino-like style. So, after he crosses the border, he is immediately arrested, and then imprisoned in this country’s unique fashion — he is sent to live with a man (Kleon) and his wife (Martya) in their home, and if he ever doesn’t spend the night there Kleon will be shot. As Grafton tries to wend his way through the baroquely absurd bureaucracy, and gain his freedom, we at first think this book is “simply” going to be a Kafkaesque/Orwellian sort of narrative as we can settle down into familiar territory while Grafton struggles to find offices (city streets are unnamed), suffers from sore feet (there are almost no cars), and gets caught up with the JAKA (this country’s not-so-secret secret police).
But soon Grafton is renting out a haunted house complete with ghosts, corpses, and rumors of buried treasure; conversing with a mysterious man in black who hangs out in a castle alleged to be Vlad the Impaler’s summer home and who is comfortable among wolves, and getting embroiled in the pursuit of a sect of Satanists. Throw in a some voodoo dolls, a mysterious man who may or may not be the Leader pictured on the posters around town, and a severed hand that crawls around of its own volition, and what we end up with is kind of The Trial /Roger Corman-Police Procedural / The City and the City / Lonely Planet.
Kat: It’s a really strange mix.
Bill: Yes. Yes it is. The narration, as mentioned is first-person from Grafton’s point of view, and one always has to be a little suspicious. It’s all done as a flashback and so at times he’ll reveal some point only to tell the reader he’ll explain later. He is constantly telling us he is leaving things out, skipping over unimportant or redundant points. Kat, were you suspicious of the narrator?
Kat: Gene Wolfe is famous for his unreliable narrators, but in this case I felt that Grafton was trustworthy and that he was merely trying to hasten the story by leaving out minor points. Perhaps my different perception came from listening to the audio version. The narrator sounded sincere and dependable, even when he told us that he was leaving stuff out. Jeff Woodman did a great job with Grafton’s voice — it’s probably what kept me reading The Land Across as eagerly as I did.
Bill: Hmmm, maybe I should learn to trust more. I didn’t think I was missing much in the gaps, but I did wonder about some of his perceptions. I agree though that Grafton has an engaging voice, and is mostly likable, though his youth and somewhat ambiguous ethics at times will give readers pause.
Kat: Oh, yes. There were two things about Grafton that kept throwing me out of the story. One was that he was so passive — he accepted all the unfair things that were happening to him. Most young American men wouldn’t. I suppose we could explain this away by saying that Grafton actually wanted to stay in the area because he was writing a travel book and perhaps his experiences with their government would be good source material. Still, I thought he was too accepting of the rules of a fascist government.
Bill: I also had some concerns about the ease and sometimes glee with which Grafton entered into a working relationship with what is basically a police state. Perhaps Wolfe is saying something with that. And I agree with his passivity. And when you say “young American,” it reminded me how I thought he was at times a bit all over the map in terms of how his maturity level was portrayed. What’s the other thing that bothered you?
Kat: I’m glad you asked. The way Grafton thinks and talks about women seems old-fashionedly sexist for a young man who’s sophisticated enough to be a world traveler. At first I thought that was because this story was taking place a few decades ago, but then he mentioned his iPhone and I realized that the problem was the way Wolfe writes about women and sex. It sounds like how guys talked back when Wolfe was Grafton’s age — not how they talk now. Wolfe has the tone and lingo all wrong. Don’t you think?
Bill: Yes, I also had some difficulty with the portrayal of the women. Women seem to throw themselves at Grafton almost immediately, whether they are married or high-level agents of JAKA. I didn’t like the ease with which Grafton found his way into their beds. I admit, this was part of my reason I wondered about how Grafton portrayed things as narrator, as it just didn’t seem that Wolfe would portray women in this light.
Related to this is that, in typical Wolfe fashion, characters sometimes, often perhaps, have not only hidden motives but unexplained ones, which can leave the reader feeling a bit at sea. Wolfe also plays with linguistics as characters often speak in languages not their own or in pidgin sort of speech, making the reader strain to follow the thread of dialogue at times. Between the unreliable narrator, the dialogue hovering just on the edge of clarity, the shifting storylines (broad satire to haunted house story to private investigator mode to classic ghost story etc.), the at times enigmatic motivations, not to mention of course the several underlying mysteries that can’t be clearly and quickly explained (because then they wouldn’t be mysteries) — who tried to kill X, where did the severed hand come from, how can it move, who is the leader of the Satanist Cult, what do they want, whose side is Martya on, is the JAKA agent Naala on Grafton’s side, etc. — the reader is rarely if ever comfortable.
Kat: Yes, and though I enjoyed listening to Grafton’s story, through most of it I was acutely aware that I had no idea where it was all going. There didn’t seem to be a goal or a plan. Just a journey.
Bill: I know what you mean, though I liked that lack of comfort, the richly absurd tapestry being woven and then rewoven into a different picture. And the mishmash of supernatural elements — the hand, the Dracula-ish character (I’m going to go with the land across being at least a version of Transylvania), the haunted houses and ghosts and witches — and enjoyed for the most part (at times it seemed a little padded) the detective story. I found the Satanist cult-plot/resolution less engaging than the journey itself.
Kat: I liked the lack of comfort, too, but now that I’ve finished The Land Across, I’m still wondering what the point was? Basically, what is the purpose of this book? It didn’t seem to me that all those elements came together to form something meaningful and/or enjoyable in the end.
Bill: I have to agree that The Land Across isn’t compelling; I picked it up and put it down several times which is a clear sign the book hasn’t grabbed me, especially with a sub-300 page book like this one that I would normally polish off in a single sitting if I were really enjoying it.
Kat: I think I found it a little more readable than you did but, again, I feel certain that this was due to the excellent narration of the audiobook. Woodman’s pleasant and enthusiastic voice kept me listening. But I was hoping for some big reveal in the end to make it feel like it was worth so much of my time.
Bill: Hmm, I don’t think I can argue that. As mentioned at the start, like most Wolfe novels, this one probably deserves if not requires another reading. In the end, I’d say that The Land Across mostly satisfies, is enjoyable enough, keeps the reader on their toes, is well and cleverly plotted, and makes deft use of the language/culture differences between the young American narrator and his host setting. At this point though, I’d call it a lesser Wolfe, but most would take that.
Kat: Absolutely true.
Marion read the book a few months later:
If it’s a Gene Wolfe novel, it goes without saying that things will not be quite as they seem. The Land Across is no exception. In this post, which is not an actual review, I’m going to weigh in on what I think might be happening in the book. Warning; I’m going to discuss aspects of the plot in detail. If you are worried this will spoil the book for you, I recommend you read Bill and Kat’s review (above), instead.
In The Land Across, a young American man named Grafton journeys to a small Eastern European country not unlike Rumania or Bulgaria. It is called only “the land across the mountains.” The land is extremely difficult for outsiders to visit. Those who take the roads find themselves stymied by washouts or landslides, or turned away at the border even though their papers are all correct. People who try to fly there have flights cancelled, or their planes are not allowed to land. Grafton, a travel writer whose father used to work for the U.S. State Department, finally catches the train from Vienna. After some strange goings-on with the train, he reaches the country, only to be removed from the train by two, or perhaps three, border guards. He is placed under a weird house arrest in a city that is not the capital. In a series of increasingly strange adventures, he hunts for hidden treasure, meets a ghost or two, gets abducted by inept revolutionaries, is imprisoned by the government, and ultimately becomes a member of the government’s secret police and helps defeat a coven of Satanists. He is aided along the way by a mummified hand of a witch, by a ghost or shade, and by the third border guard, who many locals appear not to notice.
In spite of my optimistic subheading up there, I have read the book twice now and I can’t really say with confidence what is going on. I do know that sleep plays an important part in the border passage into the country. I don’t mean that the whole book is a dream or even that the country is a dream-realm, but sleep is used as a transition for Grafton more than once, usually for important transitions. When he is on the train that will ultimately take him to his destination, on Page 3, Grafton says, “Now it seems to me that I must have been asleep a long time before I got into bed.” In light of what happens after, that’s an interesting sentence. Grafton is asleep in the observation car when the border guards accost him. He falls asleep in the haunted house, after trying to build a fire in the fireplace, and awakens to a cheerfully crackling blaze and the shade of the land’s protector, Vlad Dracul.
I think the magic and the ghosts in this story are real — basically, I don’t think the character of Grafton is delusional, dreaming or is going to awaken from a coma shortly after the book ends. Well, wait a minute. There is one area in which Grafton may be delusional, and that is his supposedly irresistible sexual magnetism. Martya, the unsatisfied wife of Grafton’s reluctant “jailor,” begins an affair with him immediately. Nala, an agent of the secret police, has sex with him. A girl he sees writing poetry with a red pen in a café moves in with him (more about her in a bit). Even the mummified witch’s hand lasciviously grabs his thigh every chance it gets. In this one area, I’m willing to concede that Grafton may be deluding himself just a tiny bit.
Grafton’s adventures are weird and compelling, but if you read the book at face value, he comes off as an unconvincing character, or at least an unconvincing American. If we believe that Grafton is a young American writer (he can’t be older than his very early thirties) and that this book takes place in the present or immediate past, then his behavior is incomprehensible.
Grafton is accosted by two — or perhaps three — border guards, shackled and taken off the train. (By the way, he is removed from the train by a series of conveyor belts, one of the most arresting scenes in the book, pun intended). He does not protest when they take his passport, or his iPhone. The iPhone is the most interesting object here. In the eleven pages before these events, Grafton has never mentioned his iPhone. He didn’t take a selfie; he never once checked e-mail or his itinerary. While Grafton worries about his passport throughout the rest of book, he never mentions the phone again. Under the weird rules of his house arrest, Grafton can do whatever he wants as long as he sleeps at the house each night. Grafton has an affair; he goes boating; he eats out; he hunts for hidden treasure. The one thing he does not do is try to find an internet café, to let someone — a father, an editor, a friend — know about his predicament. If he knows that it’s useless, that there is no such thing as the internet here (which seems to be the case) then one sentence would have taken care of that.
When a government informer says that the American Consulate in the capital won’t bother to help Grafton unless he is rich, or someone important, Grafton hastens to say he is neither, which is a bit strange, since his father worked for the State Department. Similarly, when Martya says that America is a weak country, Grafton agrees. Does this seem odd? This doesn’t sound like American behavior at all.
Martya and Grafton go out boating on the lake, and an old man tells Grafton that Vlad Dracul used to have a castle on one of the islands. Grafton visits the island, and, exploring the ruined castle, meets a dark, thoughtful man who communicates with him without speaking. Later, in the haunted house, Grafton has his second encounter with the shade of Dracul, who leads him back to Martya’s house so that he doesn’t violate the rules of house arrest.
Grafton comments that the third border guard reminds him of his father, and at the end of the book, the country’s autocratic and reclusive dictator, The Leader, awards him a large golden medal, while the others only get silver ones. Grafton also gets treasure and, at the very, very end, with little foreshadowing, ends up with a girl he saw in a café, writing poetry with a red pen. She has won an award for poetry and a scholarship to Harvard, and Grafton calls her “my lady.” Having slept his way up, from peasant-stock to government official, it appears that Grafton has hit the jackpot, and won the country’s poet, a representative of language and heritage, a princess in a land that doesn’t have royalty.
Grafton is never seriously interested in getting out of the country, even when he spends nearly a year in prison with the American wizard Rathaus. He is approached by the shade of the country’s historical protector and assisted by the third border guard before he officially becomes a government operative and defeats the Satanists, as if these mystical beings already know that Grafton is in service to the country.
If you turn this story ninety degrees, and assume that Grafton is a member of the secret police from the beginning, even before he enters the country, his behavior begins to make sense.
Why would a young American risk his freedom and even his life for a tiny dictatorship? Perhaps he’s a secret State Department agent. More likely, perhaps he has a family connection to the country… for instance, if the elusive and magical third border guard (who has another identity in the story) were, let’s say, an uncle.
Even this read, which goes a way toward making the story more sensical, doesn’t fix all the problems with the book. Wolfe has always been brilliant and somewhat out-there, but The Land Across does not hit it out of the park. The language is anachronistic in spots, and the depiction of the women as hotsy-totsy dames feels like the late 1940s, not the twenty-teens. When people speak the country’s native language, Wolfe employees a weird English pidgin that still reads as if they are translating into a second language, badly. I still believe that The Land Across was written, or at least conceived, a long time ago, maybe as early as the 1990s, and only rewritten or fully fleshed out recently. It’s a minor work, but still worth the read. Is Grafton a member of the secret police from the beginning, a prince in an unacknowledged monarchy? I think so. Is the book a wild, surreal adventure? Of that I’m sure.
Kat: Bill, it sounds like Marion’s clueless, too.
Bill: If Marion’s unsure too, then I feel much, much better . . .
Kat: I know. And now I don’t have to go back and read it again… which I really didn’t want to have to do.
Marion: Hey! Not clueless! I totally get it! I do. I… well, I kinda do. Well, I have an inkling… well, sorta…
Kat: I love how I use the word “clueless” and Bill uses the word “unsure.” That is so indicative of the differences in our personalities! (And why Bill probably has more friends than I do.)
Bill: well, that and my propensity to pay for friends . . .