Saturday, May 31, 2014


Gene Wolfe novels should come with a set of cheat codes, I sometimes think.* For The Land Across (a literal translation of the storied place name of Transylvania, kind of, except I think a better translation of that name would probably be The Forest Across, but hey), the text would then be full of useful hints embedded in the text like "this is probably Dracula" and "whoa, do you think that's the disembodied hand doing stuff again?" and "hey, dummy, if you haven't guessed, this guy's name pretty literally means town of the Count so he might also be Dracula or a close relative."

So yeah, in lots of ways, The Land Across is Gene Wolfe's Dracula story. And that's reason enough to run and go get it right away, right there. But there's more.

The Land Across starts out threatening to seem like a Kafka pastiche/homage. Our (as usual, unreliable) narrator is (supposedly) a travel writer who has decided to write the definitive guidebook on a tiny, unnamed, formerly Communist Central or Eastern European country that no one from the West has really visited yet (damned hipster!) but who gets arrested on an unknown and never explained charge right at the country's border, whisked off his train and forcibly billeted on a local married couple whose lives are to be hostage to his cooperation and good behavior. For good measure, the town (called Puraustays, a name I'm still reckoning with) has no street names and these nameless streets are not exactly straight and there's not much in the way of transportation aside from the good old shank's pony unless you're the cops, which, get ready for the cops in this story by the way.

And that's before things get weird. Because remember, Dracula is involved, although to what degree the individual reader will perceive his involvement/to what degree Dracula is supposed to actually be involved is, I think, going to vary wildly with the individual reader and the amount of interpretive work, discussion and digging he/she is willing to do for the sake of seeing just what the hell ol' Pringle's Face is up to this time.

Soon our narrator is involved in several efforts to unravel several conspiracies, some involving the police/secret police, some involving allegations of Satanism, some involving a long-ago murder that may have had direct consequences on our daffy, impatient narrator's own personal life, some involving the creation, dissemination and marketing of various voodoo supplies, and possibly some involving the overthrow of the government, or of Dracula, or of both because Dracula and the government might well be one and the same, or maybe Dracula is trying to stage a coup d'etat? Maybe? Kind of?

Further confusing matters is a whole new level of Wolfe messing around with language; if the reader is to believe the surface interpretation of the narrative, our narrator is an American abroad, writing in English for an American audience and just doing his best, as he relays the speech of the characters he has encountered in his adventures, to convey the flavor of their speech and the effect said speech has on his doubly-translating brain. The other characters mostly talk in their own language or German, and our narrator has tried to preserve the cadence, word choice and order of their speeches, resulting in things like "that would be most good" instead of "fine", for instance. That's a paltry example of what is saturating this novel and making it a strange read even before the dual ideas of the narrator not being who he claims at all and of machine translation are introduced. We might, in other words, be reading an extensive propaganda piece, imperfectly translated into English by a mystical or mechanical gadget. Oy.

Then there is a whole 'nother theme of possession. We meet one important character who, it turns out, is an exorcist, and lots of passages might sneak by the inattentive reader until he or she realizes that our protagonist doesn't always seem to be in control of himself, fearing, for example, to fall asleep at one point because he might shoot the lady he's in bed with if he does. Um, whut? But you know, what's a voodoo/vampire tale without a little of that here and there?

So, big surprise, this looks like another book that is going to reward careful re-reading. Just like all the rest of Wolfe's stuff. I'd better start researching longevity therapies, because I need a whole lot of time yet. Hurry up with those cheat codes, children.

*And if you think that would spoil the fun, well, don't look at the cheat codes, dur. Cheat codes aren't for everyone. Cheat codes are for people who want to experience the game's story fully but who lack the manual dexterity/time/skill to jump through all the hoops and overcome all the impediments (driving levels are my Achilles' heel, personally) to get to the end in their own lifetimes. Or who have a lot of other books to get through before the bucket at the end of the list gets kicked, yo. But yes, I like figuring some stuff out for myself also. So I took great pleasure in SPOILER ALERT seeing the possible metacommentary inherent in the name of one of the novel's many cafes, Cafe Tetrasemnos, being as it's located near the Church of St. Barachisius. Tetrasemnos basically would mean "four revered things" and St. Barachisius was martyred for refusing to worship four things: the sun, the moon, fire and water as the King of Persia commanded. I haven't had that much fun with researching weird religious ish since my first time reading Foucault's Pendulum, yo.