--The Ineffable Art of Gene Wolfe

by Patrick O’Leary

"Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named." —Willa Cather

“Now, Dorothy, dear, stop imagining things. You always get yourself into a fret over nothing.”

Like most of us, my family had an annual tradition of watching The Wizard of Oz. We relished this improbable concoction of vaudeville and pop, Broadway and Hollywood, classic Children’s Lit and MGM’s formidable showmanship. Only problem was my family didn’t own a color TV until 1975. For years, I didn’t know Munchkin Land had all those colors. I didn’t know what I was missing. When I learned that most of the film was in color, I filled in the blanks. In either case I never felt like I was shortchanged. That is, until I had grown up and finally saw the film as it was intended to be seen.

For me, that was the equivalent of discovering Gene Wolfe.

Gene Wolfe is the Best Writer Alive. Let me attempt to explain why.

I can’t.

“Because, Because, Because, Because, Because…”

Because what makes him great is simply not on the page. It is somewhere tucked inside the heads of the people he has enchanted. There in those unreachable reaches of the psyche and the soul, you will find new landscapes, unapproachable by any other route. You will find terrible beauty and beautiful terror, mystery and comfort, hilarity and tricks and truth.

You will find the ineffable.

“This is a highly irregular procedure! This is absolutely unprecedented!”

What Wolfe does for me more than any other storyteller is provide that magical moment when your face passes through the membrane of a book and you are inside the story. Through the looking glass. Into OZ. How he does this is the subject I’m tackling here. It is a complicated if not impossible question to answer, because his craft is so transparently perfect that its effects are almost invisible on the page.

You could say this is because Wolfe’s work is rich and he operates on many levels: symbolism, suspense, hidden motifs like depth charges, slight-of-hand plotting where we have been directed away from something very important by the dazzling surface of the tale--misdirection if you will. The oldest conjurer’s trick. You could also say that this is because Wolfe hides his climaxes offscreen, or he throws them casually away, or he does them in a whisper, so that they are easy to miss. This is a writer who delights in defeating expectations while, paradoxically satisfying our hunger for narrative. No one mystifies and charms like Wolfe.

“Now, you'd better close your eyes, my child, for a moment - in order to be better in tune with the infinite.”

And yet. And yet. I will venture into dangerous territory and say part of the reason why we put up with this shell shuffling is because of something else going on. Something deeper. Wolfe always hides his story below the story. By never telling us directly what he is talking about, he plants the true superstructure of the tale in our minds. It is almost a sketch artist's trick, drawing the shadow not the form. And the shadow, which is to say, the surface, the thereness of the lead on paper is so vivid and enchanting that the true shape of the work often escapes us. The portrait suggested by this dazzling outline is not on the page. It is in our imagination. And when we’ve read well (and Wolfe does demand we read him well) we often find the afterimage of the tale rising up from our mind’s eye like a monster emerging from its hiding place beneath a swamp, or the photograph taking shape in the red light of the developing room, seeming to coalesce from a sunken flat bottom of pure whiteness. Most stories end and, if they’re good, we’re left with a powerful memory. Wolfe’s stories seem to linger. Days later we still smell them on our clothes. And it dawns on us that we are still reading them.

“I, your Wizard…am about to embark on a hazardous and technically unexplainable journey into the outer stratosphere.”

And yet. And yet there is more. For the story behind the story is not what is really happening in a Gene Wolfe story. What is really happening is something much deeper. Something I don't think I can talk about without sounding silly.

I think, to paraphrase Johnny Rotten, “He means it, man.” The true story of Wolfe’s work is always under the apparent story and still below the uncovered story. He is trying to tell the truth and any one who has tried to will tell you, it is the hardest thing in the world to tell. Which is simply to say he is a moral writer.

It is easy to take that for granted. Most popular art tells us what we want to hear, appeases us, entertains us with cotton candy notions which go down easy and will never disturb our most unconscious and unexamined values, as well as our most dearly held prejudices. Wolfe forces us to look at the unthinkable. His work is never simply comforting, never simply amazing. It does that rare challenging thing: holds up a mirror and dares us to see ourselves in it. Under the Gee-whiz special effects of speculation, under the impressive virtuoso techniques, and still under the deep and rich and satisfying pleasures of a sublime fiction narrative, Wolfe is playing for higher stakes. He is daring us to examine our lives. Or do we think he is talking about dragons and aliens, witches and demons?

This is the ineffable shape of the hidden book in every Gene Wolfe Story. It is risky stuff, for like any true work of art it carries the promise of catharsis, and it hides the virus of change: the chance to enlarge ourselves. His work demands a response so different than tears or laughter, surprise or contemplation--it requires neither an audience or a critic. It requires a soul reaction.

This is why I believe that his work, while resembling other fictions of various genres and often crazy quilting a pastiche of tried and true forms,  is a new thing in and of itself. He is creating original experiences you cannot get in any other medium while masquerading under the guise of speculative fiction.

“Oh, we dream lots of silly things…”

Perhaps the art of his stories cannot be translated because it is essentially dream stuff—personal, intimate, woven from the private fabrics of our individual unconscious, and it cannot survive the transition into waking. It will unravel. Because the most important things are what cannot be said. Once cast into the spell of words, they are not on the page; they are in you. You are the manuscript; you hold the secrets and the treasures and you are the map. In the realm of the fantastic the only exchangeable currency is wonder. And wonder isn’t something you can buy; it’s something you must invest in.

So. Let’s take a journey.

You are dreaming. You are transported to a realm where the impossible occurs daily. And you believe it. You can’t help it. Your eyelids are pressed open, which is to say: closed. Not always a pleasant experience, but it definitely takes you somewhere. And you rediscover the power of the only medium that is truly internal. There is no separation between what you’re seeing and what you’re experiencing.

Dreams are you.

Here’s what you see (The Sword Of The Lictor ):

You see a man being held upside down by the ankles over a terrifying gorge. The camera pulls back to reveal a two-headed monster is gripping him. Pull back further to reveal the held man is hanging like a tear in the corner of a huge empty stone eye, pull back further to reveal this eye resides in an enormous stone face, and further until it crowns a mountain: a gigantic carved portrait of one of the monster’s two heads.

Take a bow. That was nice camera work. Wolfe didn’t do it. You did. Do you see?

Here’s another ("A Cabin on The Coast," Endangered Species):

A man is standing in the doorway of a cabin on the Pacific. He is soaked in saltwater. He has spent 20 years in hell—one paragraph that feels like a novel—and he has finally returned to claim his love, the one he rescued 20 years before, the one he has dreamed about for two decades. He has lived for this moment. She hasn’t aged a blink. She is naked on the bed. She doesn’t recognize him—which shocks. She takes him for his father—which horrifies—imagine if your lover took you for your mom... And he has no words for all of this; she does all the talking.

“Oil can what?”

The scene is about misunderstanding. And what makes it so powerful are the looks on the man's face. Now get this: Wolfe never describes them! He has put a description of a man’s face on paper in three lines of dialogue that say nothing about how he looks. The only way we know is by his lover’s reaction to him. The reader must create the man’s face, the shock, and the overwhelming heartbreak. And what we come up with in our own imaginations will be much more powerful, will invest us in the story much more vividly than any eloquent description Wolfe might write. Do you suppose he knew that?

“Why, it's just like you could read what was inside of me.”

But wait there’s more. The tale has ended. Yet it’s not over.  It has what Kim Stanley Robinson has dubbed the prototypical Wolfean  “slingshot” ending. Here’s what happens next:

The man now must tell his lover an appalling story, a story impossible to tell, and, once told, all but impossible to believe. And in the end there are no guarantees that his lover, the one whose absence has sustained him during his long and lonely journey, will be his lover any more. And all of this, remember, is off the page. Wolfe did not write it, but it is crucial to the story. Do you see?

“Of course, I don't know, but I think it'll get darker before it gets lighter.”

Wolfe is about moments, moments that take you off guard.

Imagine a child in a house about to be burned down by rioters, going upstairs to his bedroom, knowing he must escape but needing to put on (you see, he’s a good boy and has been taught well) his coat and boots against the winter outside. And, as if that weren’t sad enough,  he insists on taking the most impractical toy available: a helicopter. (“And When They Appear,” Strange Travelers).

It is in these surprising moments of gentleness or violence, or sudden swings into desire and love that Wolfe captures that happenstance flavor of reality; where people do not act as characters in stories but as humans in life. These glancing, spontaneous, real moments that show us ourselves and say this is truth, this is what would happen. Do you see?

Here’s another ("The Map," Endangered Species):


A man finds a corpse floating on the river at night.

"It was a woman, naked and not long dead. Her staring eyes…her teeth gleamed faintly through half-parted lips. He tried to judge her as he had judged the women whose compliance he had secured for coins, to weigh her breasts with his eyes and applaud or condemn the roundness of her belly; he discovered that he could not do so, that in the way he sought to see her she was beyond his sight, unreachable as the unborn, unreachable as his mother had been when he once, as a boy, happened upon her bathing."

Something truly strange is happening here. Wolfe is describing a state of mind that is not happening, that cannot happen, a potential paradigm, if you will, that cannot be described, because the character cannot experience it. And he is describing something else. A hunger for something that isn’t there. Desire, in other words. An emptiness longing to be filled. Do you see?

"Come out, come out, wherever you are...."

Now understand all the while all these moments are happening, great prose is streaming along, wonderful images are cracking us on the head, witty puzzles are presented and solved, living characters are saying fascinating things, and, perhaps, more importantly, all this takes place somewhere which exudes context. Possibilities almost as vivid as actualities are trembling along the margins of the tale, like actors waiting for their cue offstage--you can feel them, you can almost smell them--anything is possible in a Wolfe tale. Because it has so much of the texture of life, we expect things to pop out of closets and truth to emerge at the most unexpected times. He is telling the tale of our lives which, truth to tell, might be and frequently is, interrupted. This sense of potential lurking is what I find missing in most of what I read. And it is something that Wolfe has in spades.

"I can't come back! I don't know how it works!"

There are no maps to this treasure. There are only rumors and words. Most of the poetry I read seems to make this mistake—it takes the words for the poem. A type of literary fundamentalism/idolatry which regards language as sacred in and of itself. So you get all these "word objects" twirling on ego, waiting to be admired, insulated in excellence. Wolfe isn’t fiddling with words. He never forgets that he is talking to a human who just changed the baby’s diapers, fantasized killing their boss with a hatchet, remembered the smell of burning leaves, forgotten how to love their children, admired their mate’s rump, sweated over the electric bill and had a flashback about the time they were slapped by someone they trusted. So much depends on that. If these precious words on paper share no connection to the real world of pain and joy we swim in everyday—they will not work. They cannot gain entrance. The reader will not swallow their magic. They are a banging gong or a clanging cymbal.

“Ooo - EE - hoo! YoOO - ho! Ooo - EE - hoo! YoOO - ho!”

Any musician knows that space is both the true medium and the most critical element of music. Not sound. Not what you play, but what you leave out.  In the same way you have to see past Wolfe’s words to find out what he's doing. You can’t read the notes of the score and forget you’re listening to music. It is as if Wolfe were playing a different sort of instrument than everyone else which nonetheless uses the same materials (metal, wood, skin and bone) and the same scales (do re mi...) and looks almost exactly like any other instrument (ink, pulp, typesetting and cardboard.) But he is playing an entirely different ballgame. When you get that, you get Wolfe, I think.

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"

Gene Wolfe is the Great and Terrible Oz. Approached with a trembling enthusiasm he gets cranky: "How dare you presume to question me! I will send you on a perilous journey and set for you an impossible task: to confront the most horrible creature, and I want you to steal her Volvo and bring it back to me!" And this terrible fantastic green god is, of course, like any storyteller, a fraud. He is, as we all are, a contract actor playing multiple roles: a fortuneteller with a heart of gold stuck in a godforsaken gulch in Kansas. He is a forgetful, sentimental gatekeeper of the Emerald City who cries a river at the drop of a hat. He is a cabby whose horse changes colors when you blink—not something you see every day. He is a great and powerful Martian apparition of smoke and flame and death—he knows why you’ve come! He knows all! He is a whimpering engineer behind a curtain: constructing wonder while covering his ass: hiding his true nature: letting us see, finally, the mechanism of his divinity. He is a marooned human being using all the showbiz tricks up his sleeve to get through his day, to live up to the impossible expectations of his followers. He is something like a university president addressing new graduates. He presents us with what we’ve possessed all along—now that is genius: a salesman who satisfies customers by giving them symbols of their most common possessions: hearts, heads, souls and homes. Ourselves, in other words. And last we see him he is floating clumsily away on a balloon of hot air.

“No, Aunt Em, this was a real, truly live place. And I remember that some

of it wasn't very nice - but most of it was beautiful.”

Imagine a writer who writes children’s books in disguise, because he has absolutely nothing to say to grownups. For, after all, what can you say to someone who has never seen the foggy figure of a ghost disappear at the head of the stairs, never felt the wet velour of a curious dinosaur tongue on their cheek, never played scrabble with an alien, never danced with a leprechaun, never fucked an escapee from Hell, never made a devil’s bargain with a vampire, never juggled in zero gravity, never been possessed by a very bad god, never wept for a blind robot, never lost a golden book that changed their lives, never been haunted by the forgotten memory of a stained-glass window, never tortured the woman they loved, never floated on a dirigible over a volcano whose yawning mouth resembles a lamprey?

Grownups know: these are just stories. Impossible. Ridiculous. Useless.

Like this one: a story which isn’t on the screen in black or white or color. When they were preparing costumes for the MGM movie of The Wizard of Oz they found the perfect Ring Master’s coat for Professor Marvel. In its pocket they discovered a dry-cleaning receipt made out to the costume’s original owner: L. Frank Baum.

Children know: There is another world. It isn’t far. It is as close as your own backyard. And it isn’t like school or church. Attendance isn’t mandatory. But, once you’ve entered, you will be changed.

This is what Gene Wolfe isn’t telling us: We already live there.

“But nobody can see the great Oz! Nobody's ever seen the Great Oz!

Even I've never seen him.”

“Well then, how do you know there is one?”


From OTHER VOICES, OTHER DOORS, a collection of essays, stories and poems.