Monday, April 16, 2007

Doorways to Elsewhere III: Review of There are Doors by Gene Wolfe

Grade: A+ (what the hell)

"'You're a goddess.' It took some effort for him to force the words to his lips; he made the effort and they came. 'You live forever.'...

'There are many forevers'"

This is a beautiful book, a love story, a story of being lost and of lost love. Wolfe, recognizable here but playing somewhat against type, tries for lovely, whooshing prose, nailing the tone pretty much out of the gate. The narrative voice is lovestruck, lonely, bemused, but determined. It uses some strategic repetitions (you can see that above), touches some troubled or faulty memories, and never refers to the protagonist by name. These effects add to the somewhat ethereal sense of bifurcation, the airy remove of someone who's somehow watched himself step down the wrong path. There are Doors is less deliberately obfuscatory than some of this writer's work, but the plot moves about in a way that is like a coherent dream.

The story opens with a woman's goodbye. Her note, her farewell, tells the protagonist to avoid doors--it could be any topological hole really, anything closed on four sides, but some of these portals will be significant. Do not seek her through these portals, she says. He does anyway.

Given the title, and the opening warning, the theme of doors seems, at first, to be underplayed. It's one that holds some magic for me, that inadvertant passageways could take you somewhere quite unintended.* The woman is from a mirror earth, but Wolfe only presents a couple of the significant doorways to this Elsewhere world (much like our own, but with some nontrivial differences). But that's just the overt meaning--and with Wolfe you can usually delve a little--more deeply, doorways are how the plot works. On the other side, the protagonist travels through a lot of mundane versions of them, but each passage alters the setting dramatically. It's disorienting at first, as it's intended to be, as he ducks suddenly between psychiatric institutions, shops of Eastern medicine, theaters, cars, hotels, into and out of sleep. Between each portal is a little one-act play, and you can almost hear the behind-the-scenes clattering as some higher being seems to be swapping out the scenery for the next improvisational vignette. Elsewhere feels very much like a sophisticated, but ad hoc, set, transitions justified on the fly. Is his displacement a symptom of mental illness? Is his goddess real? I often like some ambiguity in these sorts of exploration, and I suppose there's still room to question the author's reality(ies), but Wolfe comes down as clearly as could be hoped for a story like this. If the explanations didn't gel at the end, this book wouldn't have been quite the same, not quite as good. It's so much easier to open mysteries after all. But for all that Wolfe can be episodic, he almost always knows where he is going. This one is well recommended.


*Damn you Gene Wolfe, you articulate bastard you. I wrote this story, even, almost, to the how and the why of it. Sure, the one I put together was pretty amateur, and you know, you wrote this one almost twenty years before that. But damn, it was my favorite.

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LentenStuffe said...

A nice review. For some reason it reminded me of a book entitled, Foxprints, by Patrick McGinley, which I'd highly recommend. There's little or no affinity between the two, really, but the thought struck me. I'd also recommend his Bogmail, where the murder weapon (without spoiling anything) is Volume 11 of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Very funny stuff!

Keifus said...

Thanks very much for the recommendations. On the list, as it were.


hipparchia said...

a+! must have been a good read! sigh ... one more to add to the ever-burgeoning list.

rwywl: real wallabies

Keifus said...

I was feeling generous, I think. Plus, early on, it hit me right in the mind (any book that makes me curse the author in the first three pages for having read my brain gets a pretty good hedge).