Hopefully, Michael Andre-Driussi needs no introduction for those interested in secondary resources on Gene Wolfe’s fiction. In the time before podcasts and easily accessible online forums, way back in 1994, the single best resource for information on Gene Wolfe’s most popular masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, was Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus. He has since released an even more comprehensive second edition, as well as The Wizard Knight Companion in 2009 and a guide to the further Solar Cycle in 2012’s Gate of Horn, Book of Silk. While he has also written more traditional essays on Wolfe, many of which were collected inside the brilliantly illustrated cover of Gene Wolfe: 14 Essays, the work under review here returns to the texts that made both Wolfe and Andre-Driussi famous: Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun: A Chapter Guide.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the critical discourse surrounding Wolfe involves how infrequently any two people will agree with each other. It seems each new voice adds something different, with an approach that is distinctive from others. Sometimes this results in wild speculation and interpretations that might sound like conspiracy theories, while at others it asserts a kind of post-modern multiplicity that can never be broken down into an objective, uniform reading. While Andre-Driussi acknowledges the complexity and allusiveness of Wolfe’s work, his writing has always seemed to me the most objectively grounded and easiest to digest (without the analytical equivalent of getting heartburn) of all the writers and analysts currently exploring Wolfe’s work. That doesn’t mean that Andre-Driussi does not occasionally stick his neck out for major interpretations, unifying ideas, or even minor theories, extrapolations, or goose chases, but his overall approach is grounded in the facts of the text.
Here, he shows his interest in the many works that lurk in the backbone and DNA of The Book of the New Sun, the literary progenitors invisible in the murky depths of the submerged Urth, the giants upon whom Severian and his entire commonwealth perch to stay afloat. Wolfe could be almost ridiculously allusive at times, and this book attempts to catalogue those influences and allusions as they are used throughout The Book of the New Sun.
As with any honest review, I must attempt to encapsulate the strengths and weaknesses of the approach Andre-Driussi makes, but you have my assurance that whether you agree with him or not in every detail, you will learn something from his chapter by chapter breakdown, from the influences working on Wolfe to minutiae about, say, the possible reason for Agia’s misspeaking of the word “machicolation.”
I am tempted to separate strengths and weaknesses, but in Andre-Driussi’s case, one of the hallmarks of his style actually encapsulates both. The book is a pleasure to read, easy to digest in well-organized fashion, with simple declarative statements and brief, objective summaries clearly delineated. He does not suffer from the problems of an interminable work (such as, say, Between Light and Shadow), which features twisty and confounding sentences that sometimes lose themselves as well as the reader. Andre-Driussi’s prose and style makes the book move quickly and surely. I will assert that this clarity and concision is one of the book’s greatest strengths. It is also its greatest weakness. This is his entire entry on the metaphysically sophisticated and ultimately confusing chapter 27 of The Shadow of the Torturer, “Is He Dead?”:
At the duel Severian is treacherously struck dead, but he rises up and his opponent panics, killing spectators in his attempt to flee.
Commentary: “The world was a great paschal egg, crowded with all the colors of the palette” (239). An Easter Egg, where Easter celebrates a resurrection.
Michael, give us more, please!
The book at times seems too brief, and some chapters without obvious allusions can feel rushed. There is a mountain of subtext to explore in the chapter I mentioned above, from the presence Severian feels behind him to the energy that sustains him, considering the nature in which eidolons and aquastors are created later in the book. Is this a genuine resurrection, as seemed to occur with Triskele and Dorcas? Then why do Severian’s later resurrections seem to leave an extra dead body behind? It would be impossible for Andre-Driussi to address every hobby horse for every reader, but I think I wound up wanting a two hundred fifty-page book. If this is the greatest weakness, that I wanted more, it is also, in my opinion, a great recommendation.
Andre-Driussi has considered the totality of what Wolfe has said about his influences, whether that be in obscure interviews, in an array of critical works, or even in personal correspondence. There are some things in the book that initially seemed unlikely to me until Andre-Driussi provides his full evidence. For example, he mentions that Wolfe is alluding to a pair of Algis Budrys’ novels in conjunction with details about the fate of Jonas. My initial reaction to this was something akin to “Well, that seems tenuous.” Andre-Driussi immediately anticipates my reaction:
So in addition to a Budrys novel about ambiguous cyborgs, Wolfe mentions a Budrys novel about deadly teleportation. If all that seems tenuous, please note that Budrys’s middle name was ‘Jonas’.
All right … you’ve almost convinced me.
In another example, he mentions an extremely obscure author and then manages to produce evidence from interviews and other sources that, indeed, Wolfe cared about that author enough to mention him as an influence.
Besides its chapter guide structure, Andre-Driussi provides essays titled “Postludes” that tackle some bigger themes and movements in the books, such as the implications of the existence of a First Severian as posited at the conclusion of Citadel of the Autarch, or an exploration of why the claw might only work some of the time. Whether you agree with his conclusions completely or not, it is nice to be able to follow those analyses to their logical ends.
Andre-Driussi also provides connections throughout that help to contextualize some of the enigmas of Wolfe’s masterpiece, like linking the steps that thunder in the mine at Saltus to the walking tower which appears in The Citadel of the Autarch (after all, when Severian and Jonas discuss the thing and its clanking chains, the question of how man-sized soldiers could possibly fight Abaia comes up, and the discussion soon turns to the defenses of the autarch, which Severian has good reason to remain somewhat silent about). However, Andre-Driussi never lets any theories overstay their welcome, and this also prevents the book from getting bogged down in the kind of speculation that would alienate readers.
This leads to how I really feel when I read Andre-Driussi’s work: I never feel the need to jump up and down and shout, “No, no, no!!”
The Book of the New Sun: A Chapter Guide is a worthy addition to the growing body of secondary literature treating Wolfe’s work with the serious study and dedication it warrants, and hopefully both Michael Andre-Driussi and other scholars will continue to do justice to the wonderful and complex oeuvre Gene Wolfe has blessed us with as his legacy.