Feb 4, 2011

Home Fires - Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe has the amazingly potent power to make me feel stupid. He doesn't do it on purpose, I'm sure, as nobody's really that mean, but he does it regardless. His newest novel, Home Fires, did that job admirably, but not in the most fulfilling way that he's capable of.

The story is - as is always the case with Wolfe - deceptively simple. In a future mildly dystopian America, Skip Grison "contracted" Chelle Sea Blue when they were both fresh out of college. She was bound for the stars with the army, to fight the mysterious Os over the few habitable planets that both races want, and he would stay on Earth and become a successful lawyer. Relativistic time meant that a few years for her would mean decades for him. Thus, when Chelle came back, she would have a rich contracto, and he - a young contracta. It is now 20 years later and Skip is pushing fifty. And the love of his life is due home. But now that they are separated by such a big age gap, will they be able to have the life they once both dreamed of?

Home Fires is a whodunit mystery, channeling a little of Wolfe's own Seven American Nights in terms of atmosphere. From the very beginning inconsistencies start piling up. To get a present for his contracta, Skip uses a company called Reanimation, which "raises" her dead mother by imprinting one of its employees with her brain scan - in short "uploading" her in a new body. Chelle, however, instantly recognizes her mother even though the body is different and much younger. Then they take a cruise on a big ship out at sea, and misadventures and strange meetings keep following them.

The book is exceptionally engrossing, the promise of a resolution to a shapeless mystery dangling in front of the reader like a golden carrot from hell. Every conversation is heavy with the energy of hidden meaning, and even seemingly casual and pointless remarks are made in a tone and using words that suggest more. Most of that is Wolfe's way of confusing you, as there can be no hidden meaning everywhere, obviously. Some of it isn't, however, and it is there that I start feeling stupid.

Because the actual mystery of Home Fires is resolved two thirds of the way, and the reader keeps expecting there to be more. And I am pretty sure there is more, only - unlike with Wolfe's masterpieces like Book of the New Sun or Fifth Head of Cerberus - this time I am not entirely certain whether this is based on the actual book, or my knowledge of the way the writer operates. There are threads left hanging, and there are characters whose presence in the novel remains unexplained. Meetings that could not have been coincidence or chance. Connections that should not be there. And yet it does not seem to amount to anything solid.

Wolfe uses his favorite positioning of the narrative - in the character's head, but outside of their mind; it is completely closed to the reader, and even though you look through Skip's eyes for almost the entire book, you are never witness to his thinking process. Home Fires is separated into chapters, each one followed by a smaller "Reflections" section. The chapters are in third person, while the Reflections are in first, and are exactly that - ruminations on what has just happened, suggestions, guesses and dreams, most of them - suggesting that Skip has figured out more than he lets on... and more than the reader is left with by the end of the novel.

So yes, I am a little frustrated. I enjoyed reading Home Fires, but I finished it with a feeling of being slightly cheated. I am not sure there were enough clues to what actually happens in the story, and for the first time in my experience with Gene Wolfe I have doubts that there might not be anything more than what's on plain sight. Still, the book is beautifully written, with dialogue that is - in an almost Philip Dick way - completely artificial and unrealistic, but at the same time weirdly appropriate to the atmosphere and the story, and flows like black water - opaque and hiding anything that might be lurking beneath its surface, but ensnaring none the less - or maybe for that very reason. Would I recommend that you give it a chance? Absolutely. It is Gene Wolfe, and that means it is always worth reading. I am just not sure I want to give it the reread it might need to be understood.


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