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The front cover of "Interlibrary Loan"

A Curiously Conflicted Book: Craig Brewer reviews ‘Interlibrary Loan’

Please note that, as with other reviews published in Ultan’s Library, this review intentionally contains multiple spoilers for the work under consideration.


The first paragraphs of Wolfe’s final novel Interlibrary Loan find Ern A. Smith looking back nostalgically on the adventure he’s about to narrate, enraptured by the memory of the wonders he saw, but also frightened of them and hoping that writing will somehow purge his need to remember. He wishes he could recall only the good things, “because I know that destiny and the world are not all dark,” but his memory cannot keep the bad from mixing with the good and troubling his mind.

Now it seems to me that writing down all the most important events here may help me clear my mind and let me think instead of the little empty things going on in this unmeaning museum now. Things over and done with when I have finished. If I ever do.

Or anyway I dare to hope that this writing may. (Interlibrary Loan, chapter 1, page 8 – this, and all other references, are to the Tor hardback first edition, 2020.)

Telling his story is simultaneously wondrous, cathartic, and also dangerous, because it threatens not to bring the closure he’s hoping for, forcing him to relive the uncertainty of the drama. Stories are tricky things because they may never really end, and, though we may love to retrace them, they can haunt us in ways we aren’t comfortable with.

It’s a curiously conflicted way to start a novel. But this is a curiously conflicted book.

As Wolfe’s final novel, it’s tempting to hold Interlibrary Loan to a higher, or at least more sentimentally inflected, standard. And, thankfully, along with its predecessor A Borrowed Man, Smithe’s world and stories are more engaging and, for the most part, less opaque than other late novels like Home Fires or A Land Across, where both the context and plot often shift with disorienting speed. A “reclone” of his original mystery-writer self, Smithe finds himself caught up in another mystery, one that begins a bit like a missing person’s case but eventually becomes a murder investigation. He gets transferred from the Spice Grove Public Library to the smaller Polly’s Cove Library, where he gets checked out by a mentally ill woman who wants him to find her husband. This Dr Fevre is a medical professor who, it turns out, often travels to a small island community that houses a cavern full of frozen corpses, which he apparently uses as fodder for his gross anatomy labs. But, of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, or of the ice cave.

As others like John Clute and Gary K. Wolfe have remarked, the future depicted in A Borrowed Man and its sequel Interlibrary Loan is recognizably bleak, tired, and indeed dystopian. The world’s population is dwindling, and only those with “perfect” genetics are classed as fully human, leaving reclones of natural people with recognizable flaws like Smithe to be literally disposable. Interlibrary Loan goes further than its predecessor, however,  in suggesting that the status of “resurrected” people is actually much more complicated than simply whether they are fully humans or reclones, and that figuring out exactly where one stands on this spectrum is actually quite difficult to determine. As such, these two books create an opportunity for Wolfe to explore familiar themes of identity and personhood from a perspective obviously applicable to an aging writer whose legacy and memory will soon be out of his control. When Interlibrary Loan confronts these issues directly, however, it is thoughtful and nostalgic, creating scenes where characters find contentment simply in one another’s present company when not having to deal with issues of status.

Unfortunately, the last third of the novel telescopes the problems familiar in Wolfe’s work after The Wizard Knight: the plot takes a series of seemingly unrelated turns, and making sense of the later events appear to be shrouded if not outright obscured behind missing or occluded connections. The prose itself becomes radically compressed, with the final nine chapters each remarkably curt compared to the earlier portions. Wolfe introduces new characters, settings, and motivations not even hinted at in the first two thirds, squeezing what could well have been half or more of the story into a summary of itself and, of course, this leads to the suspicion that Interlibrary Loan is simply unfinished. It’s hard to shake the feeling that these last chapters are more notes for a novel rather than the thing itself.

The text also has certain small continuity errors suggesting that it did not receive Wolfe’s usual attention to detail. (And here, I am indebted to Nigel Price for first noticing many of these problems.) For example, in chapter 13, Chandra Fevre checks Ern out of the library again, and when they return to her house, Ern sits in a chair with a brocade arm. But two pages later, in the same conversation, she asks him to sit, and he does (again?) in a different chair. In the same chapter, Ern seems to enter the house twice (once after noticing that someone upstairs was walking in high heels). And, it’s a small point, but he also uses the phrase “stiff-looking” twice in close proximity, a redundancy that almost all writers would avoid. These may be small details, but, as Nigel notes, they’re exactly the kind of points that Wolfe tried hard to clean up during revision (and as Nigel on a couple of occasions assisted Wolfe with editing drafts, he can attest to the kinds of issues he was on the lookout for). It suggests that Wolfe’s eyesight, health, and general energy level may well have been failing him as the book came to completion, even if, as appears to be the case, the manuscript was delivered to Tor before he passed away.

In spite of these writerly problems, the book retains a marked thematic consistency. Wolfe is much more concerned with Smithe’s experience as a subaltern reclone here than he was in A Borrowed Man. While Smithe often commented on his precarious status in the earlier book, Interlibrary Loan makes this the issue of the plot itself. The first chapter transfers Smithe and two other writers by an odd truck trip to a new library in a way that expands much of Smith’s world beyond what we saw in A Borrowed Man. We see the indignity and indifference he suffers as literal cargo, not even told where they are headed. The opening tone of these chapters, filled with physical discomfort as well as the frustrating lack of the courtesy of providing even basic information about their destination, is something that Smithe increasingly discusses and even becomes his motivation for getting involved in a final mystery. The sub-human status of reclones, while always in the background of A Borrowed Man, now becomes the novel’s central focus. So while it is true that Interlibrary Loan is concerned with questions of identity, like much of Wolfe’s work, the question of how to mesh identity with inclusion, both personally and socially, seems much more on Wolfe’s mind.

Interlibrary Loan, then, has a consistency in Smithe’s voice that gives the book a unity even in the later sections when the story seems to have gone in multiple new directions, and it’s tempting to say that we should classify the novel as a slave narrative. In fact, it follows a common pattern: opening with a blind transfer of himself and two others as human cargo, waiting to be lent out, and then suffering a series of patrons (or “owners”) who use them for their own seemingly selfish ends until finally he is given a chance to escape, literally by being bought out of his status as a reclone.

From this perspective, the book actually does present a unified story, even if the last sections seem to take the complicated tale of the Fevre family and its mysteries into new and previously unhinted directions. As Smithe’s story of how he gained his freedom, the details of the patrons’ situations seem to matter less, perhaps even to be intentionally inscrutable, since what truly matters is not what’s going on in the wider world but rather how a lost and historically displaced figure like Smithe can use those circumstances to find freedom.

In the end, Smithe succeeds in exploiting the cruel and confusing world in which he lives to gain freedom for himself, and even love, without really needing to understand all of its machinations. In this, there is perhaps something of a salvific hope, suggesting that even if life never seems to make complete sense, a person (or soul) can still put together a narrative of release in an otherwise strange and fallen situation. Perhaps in the end, that is why Smithe opens the novel by hoping to remember only the good in his adventures and not get trapped in the labyrinths of mysteries and details that make him lose focus.

To my mind, looking at Smithe’s tale as a slave narrative means that this novel can be called a success, even if it was truly unfinished, because it retains a thematic unity even when its plot is inscrutable. That is one of the unusual marks of Wolfe’s success as a writer: he can confuse us but still make us feel like we are not completely lost, so that we enjoy and understand the thrust of a story though some of its nuts and bolts remain mysterious. That is why so many people return to the Solar Cycle when they do not understand large portions of the story: it still has a narrative arc of redemption while many of the plot details remain puzzles. The arguments about so many of Wolfe’s later novels seem to hinge on whether there are sufficient reasons to keep reading even in the face of the weirdness, but Smithe’s stories are successes even within that framework. The book isn’t entirely satisfying as a reading experience, but as a conception of a complete story, I think we have enough to see where Wolfe was going.

In order to really make that case, however, we need to find a way to fit the final exceedingly confusing chapters back into the earlier story, and I’d like to offer one way to do so. Note, therefore, that the following section is filled with spoilers and assumes that the reader has finished the book at least once.

The final portion of the novel appears at first read to be disconnected to the rest of the story. But I think we can tie enough threads together to discover at the very least what the larger story might have been had Wolfe been able to flesh it out. I don’t think we have to do this through searching for special clues or by playing complex puzzle games, but rather by taking Smithe’s narrative arc towards freedom as the real aim of the book. (And, besides, what fun is it to comment on Wolfe without doing at least a bit of theory-spinning?)

I think it’s fair to say that the book begins to go off the rails from chapter 13 onwards, after Smithe returns to the Polly’s Cove Public Library from his trip to Cadaver Island. At this point, everything with which we had previously been concerned seems, for the most part, to be over. The next four chapters establish that Dr Fevre has been murdered, and his daughter Chandra checks Smithe out again to help solve this mystery. Instead of a murder mystery, Wolfe quickly takes us on an inter-planetary (or inter-dimensional?) romp following a huge, feathered-helmet-wearing man who has, ostensibly, killed Dr Fevre with a spear. A Continental Officer named Katrine Turner comes to investigate, and she forces Smithe to accompany her through a portal, apparently built from the “other side” to come into our world. On the other side of the portal, Smithe and Turner encounter giant trees which are used as buildings, trees which are possibly sentient creatures and which grow eye-bearing fruit, and grass that moves of its own accord. But even this story ends quickly: Smithe and the officer seemingly at random meet the man, kill him, and return to Polly’s Cover with nary a word said.

But if that wasn’t strange enough, the story takes another series of weird turns beginning in chapter 18, “Buck Bastion.” Smithe gets checked out by an apparently new character named Ms Heath. Ms Heath hires Buck Bastion and Smithe to help her hunt “ghosts” and search for treasure in her huge, self-expanding house. In return, she offers the two reclones a kind of freedom by not returning them to the library. When Bastion and Smithe are alone, Dr Fevre appears to them, and there is much talk about him possibly being the previous Dr Fevre’s brother or a ghost. Fevre claims to actually own the house, however, and he, too, wants help finding the house’s “treasure.” He seems to simply disappear when Ms Heath returns, however, and we are treated to a surreal sequence in which Smithe seems to dream but turns out to be sleepwalking through the house.

The next day, Smithe decides to convince Ms Heath to check out Audrey, the “woman captain” with whom he fell in love during the earlier adventures. He then encounters a new clone of Rose, the reclone that Dr Fevre had checked out previously as a lover, but she seems not to know quite who she is. Smithe reveals that he knows what and where the treasure is and makes a deal with Dr Fevre to remain checked out by him. Then, in the last chapter, Smithe greets a new reclone of Audrey, expressing his love for her despite the fact that this copy does not know him.

The final scene appears to summon the mysterious “green box” introduced earlier in the ice caves, and the closing lines of the novel are extraordinarily enigmatic:

“Death takes many forms, Mr. Smithe.” Though she spoke to me, Audrey’s gaze was fixed on the green box.

Thinking to safeguard both this Audrey and the box, I stood up. In that I was nearly too late. Audrey grasped it, too; I had to snatch it from her.

I triumphed, and reality reeled. (Interlibrary Loan, chapter 22, page 238)

On a first reading, I submit that almost nothing in the closing chapters of the novel makes sense. Wolfe provides fewer details than in the earlier chapters and offers almost no narrative commentary from Smithe (just as The Urth of the New Sun has surprisingly fewer asides from Severian than the previous four books). And he makes no attempt to bridge these characters or situations to the first two-thirds of the novel.

Nevertheless, I want to offer a possible reading that emerges if we keep our eyes on how this narrative functions as a tale of Smithe ultimately gaining his freedom.

It seems likely that the “treasure” Ms Heath and Dr Fevre speak of is none other than the green box. And it also seems likely the green box is somehow related to the various resurrections that occurred back in the ice caves (of the two “angel” girls Ricci and Idona, and perhaps Sven as well). It is similar to reclone technology but with an important difference. Earlier in the book, Smithe makes it clear that reclones are made from “scans” of an original. But the copies are all copies of the person at the moment of that scanning; whatever the individual reclones experience is not rescanned and added to the original recloning template, nor is it shared between the existing reclones. Thus Audrey talks about how she was scanned before her final trip, and so she has no memories of her last adventure or of dying when her raft broke up. Furthermore, Smithe is haunted by the memory of an earlier version of himself who seems to have suffered such abuse from Adah Fevre (and whoever else) that he cuts his own throat from despair. But, of course, our Smithe never acquires that version’s memories.

When we meet the new Rose in Chapter 21 (“A New Fevre”), we learn two things about this copy. First, she is so new that she has to ask whether or not she is fully human. And, second, she retains her memories of the trip with Smithe that opened the book, memories which of course occurred long after her initial scanning as a “fully human.”

This suggests that the “treasure” is somehow related to resurrections and reclonings which create continuity between copies of people. So, it seems likely that the “new Dr Fevre” is also a product of the “treasure.” In fact, his cageyness about his status when he jokes with Smithe about being something like a brother and something like a ghost of the “original” Dr Fevre insist that he is not a “reclone.” He even says that he doesn’t want to get back in touch with his daughter quite yet because the state would consider him her ward, and he seems naturally opposed to this. He also claims to own the house despite what Ms. Heath says, so Fevre would appear to be working toward hiding his status as a clone but also perhaps trying to create a new status of “copies” which is no longer inferior.

But if identities can now carry across different versions of people, it also seems possible that the strange Ms. Heath is not a new character after all. In chapter 21, Smithe tells Rose that he has been checked out by Adah Fevre, not Ms Heath. And Dr Fevre, too, insists that since his wife checked Smithe out, he can recheck him (which he does). Is it possible that Ms Heath is in fact a copy of Adah Fevre? Perhaps her mental instability is complicated by the copying, and the chapter even ends with Smithe and Rose talking about her “cycles” of madness. The new Dr Fevre also appears in the chapter called “At Home with the Heaths” in which only one Heath is mentioned: Ms Heath. But if she is Adah, then her husband is also, of course, a “Heath.”

We don’t know much more about the “treasure” than this, and Dr Fevre even says he needs Smithe’s help to figure out how it works and whether it can be made to work safely. So Dr Fevre may not really understand how he’s come back. But there must be some connection between the strange ever-growing house and the other planet. Smithe himself calls attention to this when she describes it:

“We live in a living thing, but not as parasites. We feed, protect and groom it.” [said Ms. Heath.]

Like living inside a tree, I thought; but it seemed best to keep the thought to myself. That thought had waked a dozen memories. (Interlibrary Loan, chapter 19, page 213)

Further, the fact that the spot on Adah’s map that seems to create hallucinations is a “green rectangle,” that the box is green, and that the other world Smithe and Turner visit beyond the portal is full of green living things is no coincidence. Something about this other world seems to allow for a better kind of recloning. Because this part of the tale is so compact, it’s impossible to know quite how Wolfe imagined this connection or what it was, but this sense of doubling or reflection or even copying at more fundamental levels of similarity seems to be important.

The rest is, I admit, highly speculative. But it seems likely that this section is pointing us toward a better end for Smithe than his world initially offers. The “treasure” would seem to allow these characters to emerge from an endless cycle of recloning, allowing their memories to actually remain intact, and we know how important memory and its continuity are to Wolfe throughout his career (from Latro to Severian to Able). The “treasure” would grant them all a continuity of identity that overcomes so much of the tragedy of this world. One tragedy is, of course, the idea that copied people who are not allowed to write (which is similar to not being allowed to create and retain new memories) are un-human and therefore disposable, repositories of information but not creators of meaning.

But there is also the more touching tragedy of the final chapter where loss of memory means a loss of connection. Smithe has fallen deeply in love with Audrey, finally realizing it in his sleepwalking dream around the strange house. But when the copy comes to him in the last chapter, she doesn’t know him. And the final scene is an incredibly pathos-filled and touching moment where Smithe expresses his love to a woman who cannot know what they had shared almost literally in another life:

I made myself draw a deep breath. “Once we stood together on the railing of the Three Sisters to look out at the sea. That was another copy of you, I realize; but this lonely copy of me. I love you still. If I were to meet a thousand copies of you, I might go mad for joy.”

“You’re sincere,” Audrey sighed.

“If ever in my life I have been entirely, utterly, sincere, this is it. All my life, ever since I was published, I have dreaded the Fire. Now I dread losing you.” (Interlibrary Loan, chapter 22, page 237)

One cannot but hear echoes of Gene Wolfe losing his beloved wife Rosemary to Alzheimer’s, which so cruelly takes not simply memories but connections and relationships with them. And here Smithe says that losing that connection is, quite literally, worse than death and hell.

For Smithe to achieve freedom from the slavery imposed on him by this world, he has to gain free and lasting connections to other people, to be completely and irrevocably interwoven into their lives. And we see the absence of that in so many other characters’ suffering in the book: Adah’s longing for her missing husband, Chandra’s longing for her absent father, even the strange resurrected “angel” girls’ odd dislocation from their lost families in the past, and Lichholm’s families suffering for lost family members only illusorily “preserved” in the ice.

What the treasure they all seek in the end offers is not simply immortality for its own sake, but rather the preservation of connections, connections to different parts of oneself and connections to other people. Smithe’s final desire to recreate that with Audrey through the green box seems a fitting image to end the book.

It needs to be acknowledged, of course, that one of the problems with this approach is that it does not on the face of it mesh well with the beginning of the novel, where Smithe recalls all these events from the relative peace of his library shelf back in the Spice Grove Public Library once again. The most likely explanation is simply the book’s unfinished state: as it stands, the story never sees Smithe return to the Spice Grove library, which appears, of course, like a rather giant plot hole. Since, on the surface, this seems like a simple contradiction, I have no doubt that Wolfe would have addressed it with further time and attention. But whether or not he would have Smithe end up back in the library or somehow escape this fate is an open question. Even if the story did in face end with Smithe back in some sort of captivity, it seems obvious to me that the direction of the story was focused on Smithe and the other reclones challenging their system, and not simply living within it as happens in A Borrowed Man. Of course, we will never know Wolfe’s real intentions, but the structure of what we have certainly hints at a happier outcome for Smithe.

The book leaves many other lingering mysteries, too. One that still bothers me is the name Fevre. Geroges Fevre in A Borrowed Man does not appear in this book, but, of course, Dr Fevre does. And the most we get from Ern on the coincidence of meeting two men with the same name is tantalizingly reticent when he comments that he should have recognized the name earlier. Otherwise, nothing is made of the connection. And, to make things even more complicated, in Old French, “lefevre” can mean “smith” as in a blacksmith. So are the “Fevres” related to the “Smithes” somehow? Unless someone can find further hidden clues, we may well never know. (Just as we may never know why Millie sees a small girl in white disappear into a wall in Polly’s Cove soon after they arrive…another odd detail never mentioned again.) These hints and ghosts may well remain just that.

Wolfe’s tale definitely has room to fill in many gaps about the relationship between the two worlds. But in many ways, Interlibrary Loan is more optimistic than A Borrowed Man. In his review in Strange Horizons (Strange Horizons – Scores, 2 Nov 2015), John Clute writes that despite the narrator’s geniality and the way the surface plot wraps up, in A Borrowed Man Wolfe has given us one of the most pessimistic novels of his career. Given that Smithe sees into an entirely new world, a thriving green and perhaps Edenic world with brilliantly green emeralds, but subsequently decides to lock the door to that world and throw away the key, Clute believes that Smith dooms humanity. In Clute’s mind, the dystopia of A Borrowed Man, where living beings are treated like paperbacks and eugenics obviously reigns, is a final judgment on how Wolfe feels about our future, our world, and our humanity.

But Interlibrary Loan reopens the door to that other, greener, world, both literally and emotionally. And, through the working of the green box that is somehow connected to that other world, Smithe finds real love and ultimately hope for real freedom. The fact that both hope and freedom seem intricately bound up with preserving the ever-difficult mess of human memory is a fitting way to end a career that has consistently explored memory’s powers and dangers. As I said before, this is a curiously conflicted book, but at least it is conflict in a direction that we can recognize and appreciate, making this final work not simply a coda to Wolfe’s career but an integral part of its working out of some of his most central concerns.


A Weird Mystery: James Wynn considers Gene Wolfe’s ‘A Borrowed Man’


Micro-Wolfenomics: Joan Gordon reviews ‘Gene Wolfe’s First Four Novels: A Chapter Guide’ by Michael Andre-Driussi

1 Comment

  1. Michael Andre-Driussi

    An excellent, thoughtful piece.

    While Craig Brewer sides with the “Edwin Drood” interpretation (where author Dickens died before the serial mystery “Drood” was completed), we can be certain that Wolfe knew the “Drood” situation and was probably playing to it. Which brings to mind the “Arthur Gordon Pym” model (where author Poe did not die before completing the novel, but it seems, contrary to logic, that the narrator did), which inspired Jules Verne himself to write a Pym sequel. And Pym’s story has spooky icy weirdness at its fabled end, which seems rather more on target to “Interlibrary Loan” than, say, “Treasure Island.”

    So the paradox: Drood or Pym; Pym or Drood? Craig Brewer says Drood.

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