10/21/09

Castleview by Gene Wolfe


I don’t know who originally said it, but one professor used to tell my class that you don’t read Gene Wolfe; you reread him.

That’s probably the truest thing that ever came out of that particular professor’s mouth. (For your reference, he described himself as a “Zen Lutheran”) It’s also advice I followed with several of Wolfe’s novels and stories. Castleview probably needs a reread because I’m less sure about what Wolfe is getting at than usual. And it was a pretty quick read... for something written by Gene Wolfe.

The novel is named after its setting, a fictional small Illinois town named Castleview, which is named after its local phenomenon: a castle that appears in the horizon. The inhabitants of Castleview include such ordinary people as the Howards. Tom Howard manages some sort of plant or factory, and is selling the family home to relocate with a better job. We learn of his death in the prologue. His wife, Sally, is a homemaker. His son, Seth, is a starter on the high school football team. His father in law, Robert Roberts, is a car salesman, and getting a bit too old for his job. Recently arriving are Will Shields and Ann Schindler, and their chubby (at least in her own mind) teenage daughter, Mercedes Schindler-Shields. Will bought the car lot, and is Robert’s boss. Ann wants to buy the Howard home. Mercedes likes Seth. Seth at least likes Mercedes enough to make out with her.

But others live in Castleview too, like a giant man who rides an eight legged war horse, and according to legend, kills with his eye. There are unseen trouble-makers who terrorize Lisa and Wrangler, the owners of the girl’s camp Meadow Grass. A strange man named Mr. Fee seems to disappear and reappear at will, and professes a non-Christian religion whose church he would like to build on the Howard family’s property. The long-dead Long Jim consorts with the inhumanly beautiful Viviane Morgan, who might well be a fairy, and hates her brother even more than she loves him. There are sightings of a Sasquatch. And vampires.

Wolfe’s stated purpose for this madness is to show that the contemporary world has not changed so much from the immediate post-antiquity ages as we think, and that the people of what we broadly refer to as the Dark Ages pondered much of what we who consider ourselves sophisticated and urban also find ourselves thinking. He practically slaps the reader with these themes in certain passages, but just because this novel seems more thematically direct than his others doesn’t mean it actually is.

The events of the novel, starting with the appearance of a specter reminiscent of the king of Norse gods, are weird enough. When the illusory castle of the skyline apparently exists, if not as a shared hallucination, than as physical space, what are we as readers supposed to make of it? Is the author telling us that such things as ghosts and fairies actually exist, or that elements of contemporary are analogous to such things? Does Dr. Van Madadh speak for Wolfe in that regard? (Supposing Wolfe speaks vicariously through the mouth of any character is a dangerous move) It gets stranger with Mr. Fee, a character described in bizarre terms and even more bizarre scenarios, who seems to exist solely to cause trouble, both in the narrative and for the reader. What is the book that Mercedes finds with the sword? Preferring the sword, Mercedes forgets the book immediately and so does the narrative. Is Will Shields really the descendant of Arthur?

Nobody ever really clarifies the plans of the fairy people, or what they really hope to accomplish. The appearance of the Green Man at the end of the battle between the citizens of Castleview and the fey folk might be a clue, but if followed to (one of) its more reasonable conclusions, using this moment as a key to understanding the whole narrative makes Wolfe’s purpose for this book far more complicated than it would otherwise be. Castleview contains some of Wolfe’s most direct prose, and it’s still frustratingly obtuse.

But as a fantasy and a horror story, Castleview delivers on its promises. Assuming that you like ghost stories or contemporary fantasy, Castleview is worth reading simply because it’s about as well crafted as such things come. Be aware, though, that in its final chapters, the novel really demands that the reader know what the author knows about its various mythological subjects. Wolfe isn't frustrating because he thinks his reader stupid; he's frustrating because he apparently presumes that we're smart enough to figure him out.

And he's an acquired taste. As far as the Wolfe oeuvre goes, this is probably the deep end of the pool; I admit it is over my head. The Wizard Knight explores similar themes and contains a similar mix of Norse mythology and medieval romance, and is generally considered accessible, even inviting. But for those who fancy themselves Gene Wolfe’s followers, Castleview is worth a read. And a reread too.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment