Gene Wolfe’s First Four Novels: A Chapter Guide by Michael Andre-Driussi (2020)

There are two kinds of Wolfeian criticism: macro and micro. I tend toward the macro where I make broad claims about his themes and style and so on and back them up with specifics from the work. Michael Andre-Driussi offers the micro, noting all the small details, word meanings and origins, specific allusions, patterns and inconsistencies in plot, time-lines, and so on, things very useful to us broad-stroke people.

I have long used the iterations of his Lexicon Urthus as I spin my theories about The Book of the New Sun, and last year he produced a chapter guide to that work and its sequel. Now he has produced a guide to Wolfe’s first four novels: Operation ARES (1970), The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), Peace (1975), and The Devil in a Forest (1976). This guide will prove valuable to anyone who wants to explore Wolfe’s early work and, I hope, write about it.

Andre-Driussi suggests two ways to read the guide: read a chapter of Wolfe’s book, then the appropriate section of the guide; or read this book on its own, after, I presume, reading Wolfe’s. I did the latter, since I’ve read Wolfe’s work a few times already.

Each chapter of the guide covers one of the four books. The format varies a bit to accommodate the book under question. The chapter on Operation ARES begins with a short chapter by chapter description of events with a few notes on onomastics and allusions, followed by an appendix noting the history of the book’s writing, speculating about place names, spotting chess references, and commenting on undeveloped plot elements. In the briefness of the chapter, and its observations on plot holes, Andre-Driussi acknowledges the weaknesses that made Wolfe insist this novel not be reprinted.

The chapter on The Fifth Head of Cerberus is much more extensive, reflecting Wolfe’s arrival at mastery. Each of the three novellas has its own plot summary with notes on onomastics and allusions, and each is followed by appendices tracing particular puzzles or patterns. At the end of the first section, one of the two appendices lists references to the word “wolf” (the other appendix is just a few added notes). There are no appendices for the second novella but the the third novella, “V.R.T.”, has no fewer than eight appendices! All of these notes and appendices are not only quite helpful, but they illustrate how complex the novel is. Several of them move toward interpretation as they present their material: “Appendix 5HC1: Critical Appraisals” ends with Andre-Driussi’s own, “Appendix 5HC2: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” speculates about brainwashing, and “Appendix 5HC4: The Fifth Head–A Novel Solution” grapples with the novel’s internal author. The very extensive “Appendix 5HC5: Table of Elements” traces story events from one novella to the next, and would provide a fine launching pad for further macro-wolfenomics. Extensive as the appendices are, though, he didn’t include a chart of all the uses of the letter V.

The chapter on Peace is equally extensive, reflecting that novel’s complexity, ambiguity, and magnificence. Indeed, these two novels hold their own with the best of Gene Wolfe’s work, and that is saying a lot. Again the chapter guide is quite detailed, noting onomastics and allusions but leaving out overt interpretation.

I did find an actual error in this chapter, although it didn’t affect anything important: on p. 78, Andre-Driussi locates Adelphi University in Brooklyn rather than Garden City, New York. Big deal.

This time there are 11 appendices. The most unusual is “Appendix ADW2: A Touchstone from Ambrose Bierce”, which actually includes the text of Bierce’s story, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886), which seems to be a source text for Peace. My favorite is “Appendix ADW10: Peace and the TAT Cards” because it describes the cards and how they relate to the novel. I could have used this when, in my Starmont Reader’s Guide (1986), I described the possibility that the whole novel unspools from Weer’s taking the Thematic Apperception Test.

The chapter on The Devil in the Forest is quite short. That novel was meant for young adults and is more straightforward than most of Wolfe’s writing, but it is beautifully written and makes important points about the role of reason in faith. It could benefit from a more thorough exploration than Andre-Druissi gives it, I think, perhaps developing the novel’s affinity with that famous man of faith and reasoning, Father Brown. Nevertheless, it offers some very thought-provoking observations.

I hope readers of this volume will be provoked by these observations to write some macro-wolfenomic essays that follow through on Andre-Driussi’s inspiring guide, and that some of those essays might work their way over to the academic journals, Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and Foundation. And from there to classrooms both undergraduate and graduate, so that Wolfe’s work becomes as widely known as it deserves. While Wolfe will always be admired by other writers, by the coterie of fans represented by, the Rereading Wolfe podcast, and, of course, Ultan’s Library, I want even more.

So it’s clear that Andre-Driussi is doing very important work here, and I would like it to become more widely distributed for the reasons I mention above, rather than in these small publish-on-demand editions. But micro-criticism isn’t very lively to read, especially all at once, as I read it: useful to consult, but not fun to read. I longed for some summary statements, theories, evaluation, but this book is not meant for that. It provides the tools for others to use. Still, I would have loved for Andre-Driussi to cut loose. I’ll bet he has some good theories based on solid evidence.