I’m not impartial when it comes to Gene Wolfe. He’s my favorite author, and I admit this. I’m one of those people who really like Castleview, about which I’d heard little but bad things. Even so, what seemed like an overwhelmingly negative reaction to An Evil Guest concerned me enough that I put off reading it until somebody eventually gave it to me as a gift. So I start reading it, expecting a 1920’s pulp pastiche, which is what everybody said it was, while finding something that’s treading the line between that and a parody of itself until the final act which becomes something akin to a men’s magazine adventure story and Lovecraftian horror tale in one. Somehow, it still reads entirely like Gene Wolfe.
The novel opens with The President of the United States of America and his counsel attempting to hire philosophy professor-wizard-private eye-problem solver Gideon Chase to track down Bill Reis, the former emissary to the alien planet Woldercan who is now interfering with United States interests. Chase sorta-agrees to do so for a price. He finds a thirty-something red-headed actress named Cassie Casey and enlists her to help him trap Bill Reis. In return, Chase is to make Cassie into a star, which he does... with magic!
The narrative follows Cassie from this point, as she closes one show and is immediately scouted for a new one, the (one assumes) farcical “Dating the Volcano God.” The producer of this show happens to be Bill Reis, hiding behind the name Wally Rosenquist. He immediately tries to take up with Cassie, who remains in limited contact with Gideon Chase who has also fallen in love with her. In spite of this, when Reis wants to whisk Cassie off to a South Seas island to rule as a queen, Chase advises that she should probably go. Chase is a wizard, but, you see, Reis might be too. He’s certainly scary and creepy as shit, according to Gideon Chase and the United States government. And he can make gold out of base elements and disappear at will.
Up to this point, Wolfe has been playing off the style of pulp thrillers. The dialogue is plodding, though appropriate to his stylistic purpose. There are ethnic stereotypes which fit what Wolfe is going for -- a Japanese character says “arso” enough to have made some readers uncomfortable and British dialect comes through as hilarious, nearly incomprehensible “pip pip, cheerio” silliness -- but they are among the elements that raise suspicions of the whole exercise being a self-effacing joke. The setting that seems to be a future trapped in the land of the fictional nineteen-twenties (Lamont Cranston gets a mention as a real person) is actually stranger than the fantastical elements, but not as strange as the number of government agencies working against each other with questionable tactics.
The novel shifts in tone and style when Cassie actually goes to the South Seas Island Reis promises her. The inhabitants of said island also come right out of the big book of potentially offensive stereotypes. The first two acts were a pulp thriller; the finale is an island adventure with Lovecraftian horror. Cthulu makes an appearance in the margins.
All of the government agency backbiting, wizardry, Cthulu gods, and casual misogyny really baffled critics when they reviewed An Evil Guest back in 2008. There are things that annoyed me about how the men in the novel treat Cassie, including the ones that claimed to love her. Both Reis and Chase are awfully condescending towards her. And again, it is part of the whole aesthetic thing, but it’s not like there’s any real set of rules that Wolfe is obligated to follow. After all, I don’t recall Philip Marlowe driving a spaceship car or doing magic.
But I think some critics treated Cassie unfairly. Adam Roberts claimed that “Casey is not a strong woman. She is a conservative's notion of a strong woman…permitted to explore to the very edge of her pedestal but not to step down from it.” No. Cassie is Adam Roberts’s assumption of what Adam Roberts’s idea of a conservative would consider a strong woman. I don’t say that to obfuscate, I say that because I don’t think that Gene Wolfe intended her to be read that way. Idnn in The Wizard Knight is probably closer to his idea of a “strong woman” (if we must use the quotes) or perhaps Ann Schindler from Castleview, to a lesser degree. I don’t think either of those women would let a man tell them that he was planning to destroy them just to make a point but would rather do the nasty with them instead. Cassie isn’t strong. She tries to be brave, and she’s rather charming in a ditzy way. But she’s nobody’s idea of strong.
It’s also not fair to read a pulp pastiche and then criticize it for actually being a fairly accurate pulp pastiche. Wolfe’s colossal reputation as a writer of depth probably skews expectations of An Evil Guest, which seems to lurch between segments that fit into the reader’s expectations and something spectacularly silly. To paraphrase a friend's reaction after my failed attempts to explain the plot to her, it’s difficult to tell in this novel when the author is going to be serious and when he’s just writing stuff for shits and giggles. Either the aesthetic isn’t living up to what Wolfe wants to say, or Wolfe can’t help but write his novels, even the silly ones, as a reflection of the way he apparently sees everything: a mosaic made out of fragmented classical myths, literary conventions, historicity and the broken, inadequate memories of his own characters -- all arranged in a way that evokes the icons of his intense Catholicism.
Wolfe’s novels draw only the negative space of what he’s really describing. It’s a labyrinth that he wants his readers to navigate and then see with benefit of distance, but reading him on a first try is like being lost in a maze. Re-reading helps. But while An Evil Guest was interesting and even fun at times, I can’t say that I want to go back to it any time soon. Part of that is because I can only see the fuzziest of pictures coming out of the way Wolfe has arranged his fragments this time. It’s worth reading for the same reasons as any of his other novels and stories. This one just didn’t work for me.
But I really want a hopper. In fact, I want Gideon Chase’s spaceship-car.