I want to start this by saying that Gene Wolfe is one of my favorite authors. He was one of the best, most inventive prose writers of his time, irrespective of genre or field, with a thematic depth rarely seen. The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Book of the New Sun rank among my favorite books ever.
And yet… his writing can infuriate me. You see, Wolfe typically writes “puzzles.” I’ve found these often take the form of stories using a more extreme form of “iceberg theory” (an idea by Hemingway that by omitting certain events or information, a writer can strengthen a story) or have a surface story with a narrator who does not realize what is really happening around them.
Usually these stories improve with each reread (Wolfe even set out to do this–in a letter, he wrote, “My definition of a great story has nothing to do with ‘a varied and interesting background.’ It is: One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.”) However, my peeve with his work is that in practice the first read can feel like an inscrutable slog and it only becomes enjoyable after a second or third (or fourth or fifth…) read, an issue arguably more prevalent in his short stories.
Which brings me to The Best of Gene Wolfe, a selection of stories chosen by Wolfe (with one exception) in chronological order.
Featured are some of Wolfe’s classic stories from the 70s, like “The Doctor of Death Island and Other Stories”, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (the novella), and “The Death of Doctor Island”. I think those three show him at his best in the short form, for the simple reason that you can come away from your first read feeling like you’ve gotten your money’s worth. Sure, there might be a few unresolved plot points, some ambiguous images, but they provide satisfying experiences.
However, the same cannot be said about some of the other pieces, like the odd “Game in the Pope’s Head” or the surreal short “On the Train,” both of which Wolfe probably enjoyed writing far more than most people have reading them. (In both cases, rereads improved my understanding significantly, though not my enjoyment.) In some stories, like “Kevin Malone” and “Redbeard”, a first read had me mystified but certain Wolfe had laid an intricate but worthwhile trap, while a second read through left me feeling the pieces were simply banal.
Part of the issue is that in a difficult novel, it’s easier to just let the waves crash over you, so to speak. Let the mysteries intrigue you, marvel at the poetic density and verbal ingenuity of the prose, and just go along for the ride. No one has completely understood Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or The Book of the New Sun after one read (potentially, no one has ever completely understood them), but that hasn’t stopped many readers from appreciating them after completing them a single time. With shorter works, it’s different. It’s harder to lose yourself in a five-page story. It’s harder to not have enjoyment hinge on understanding. And it’s harder to lay out a worthwhile puzzle. You don’t want to have readers invest time into solving the mystery only to feel leave them with a solution not worth the time and effort.
That said, I did really enjoy this collection. The great stories (including a few that rank among Wolfe’s best work, up there with New Sun) far outnumber the disappointing ones. And it’s still Wolfe. Mediocre work by him is still mostly better than what many others can put out. Perhaps the lesser works here bother me precisely because it is Wolfe: I expect more from him, so that even when he arguably surpasses other writers, he is still disappointing.