by Gene Wolfe
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 22, 2022
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Peace was Gene Wolfe's second novel, as different from his first, Operation ARES, as it is from the novella collection, The Fifth Head of Cerberus. It has more in common with the latter, but only in style, not subject matter. It is a stand-alone novel, and on the surface it would seem to be purely literary in nature. The reminiscences of an elderly Midwestern man, son of a prosperous but not overly wealthy businessman, who never married, but became prosperous in his own right. Or, it could be read as fantasy, with Alden Dennis "Den" Weer relating significant events of his life from beyond the grave. Or it might be crime/horror, with several mysterious deaths mentioned, but without details that could help us surmise the culprit(s). Once asked about his use of unreliable narrators, Wolfe said all narrators are unreliable, in fiction and in real life. They rarely offer up evidence of their own wrong-doings, but sometimes they slip up, and one can read between the lines.
This was the third time I've read it, or maybe I should say the fourth. I've been having problems concentrating lately, and this time through I re-read many paragraphs before continuing. Another interpretation could be that Den is not dead, yet, but fast approaching it, possibly nearing dementia. He thinks his consciousness is traveling back in time, into his body at earlier ages, and several times he talks to doctors about his recent stroke, which they dismiss as preposterous because he is a healthy young man, at least from outward appearances. His memories of things that happened when he was five years old, or as a teen, or young adult, are more vivid to him than recent events. Those memories, many of which include stories told by others, are presented in random order, most ending and moving on to other things without resolution. On the latest read I suspected some of the stories he says were told to him were actually part of his own life, or possibly that he had followed up on some of them for verification. One of those involved his supposed acquaintance with a "dog-faced boy" from a traveling carnival, someone we were previously led to believe was connected to a man who eventually married Den's aunt Olivia. Den lived with her for several years while his parents took a tour of Europe. There is a later implication they left to avoid a scandal, maybe related to one of the tragic deaths. Were they responsible, or was it Den, and if so, why did they not take him with them?
I normally don't read other reviews before writing my own, but in this case I have, numerous times, after each of the three readings. One notion that is prevalent is that the first sentence of the book tells us Den is dead, that it's his ghost relating the story: "The elm tree planted by Eleanor Bold, the judge's daughter, fell last night." The next time we read about her it is when she and Den are much younger, her maiden name being Porter. She vows that she will plant a tree on top of Den's grave. Did the fall of that tree release Den's spirit? That vow may have come from her suspicion Den was responsible for the "Bobby Black incident." Bobby was the son of Den's pediatrician at the time. We never learn the full truth about the incident, but it can be guessed that Bobby died, and even though how and why was never reavealed, Den might have killed him. Other deaths get such brief mentions it's easy to assume Den had something to do with them too. His aunt Olivia for one, and her husband Julius Smart, for whom Den worked, and from whom he inherited his business. Or everything is part of a muddled dream. Den mentions several times he is looking for his lost pocket knife, although he can never seem to find the room he thinks it is in. He is supposedly living in his grandmother's old house, but sometimes going through a door leads him to a completely different house, one he had lived in at a different time.
Peace received just one award nomination, the Ditmar (Australia), but not until 1986, which I guess was its first publication in that country. The lack of other recognition by voters might reflect how they didn't read it closely enough in '75, not realizing it was a genre work. If it sounds too confusing, you are in good company. Many people far more intelligent than me still struggle with deciphering all of its hidden meanings. I know I will read it again someday (I'd like to right now), but no matter how many times, I am sure I will still be puzzled about several things, particularly the fate of a certain librarian. Do not let my confusion deter you from at least attempting this book. Even if you don't finish it, you should be able to understand why many consider Wolfe one of our most accomplished literary stylists of any genre.
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