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From: Damien Broderick <damien@ariel.ucs.unimelb.edu.au>
Subject: (urth) worn PEACE piece (warning: long)
Date: Sun, 29 Mar 1998 22:47:16 +0000

[Posted from URTH, a mailing list about Gene Wolfe's New Sun and other works]

Frolicking through the archives with my tongue hanging out, I find that the
matter of PEACE has cropped up several times.  Once more, then:

In 1986, I published some thoughts on the novel in an Australian fanzine
called THE NOTIONAL.  Its international distribution was... well, notional.
 So I republished the piece in the March 1996 issue of The New York Review
of Science Fiction, where it appeared alongside a tentative chronology of
the book by William M. Schuyler, Jr.  Since it seems that not everyone here
has access to the NYRSF, I thought I'd dump it on you forthwith, even
though several of the points raised are now commonplaces.  Apologies for
the length and its rambling ways:


*Peace* appears to be the extended written meditation of Alden Dennis Weer,
ailing elderly Midwest gentleman and president of a fruit juice plant.
Gene Wolfe has gone on record as saying that Den Weer more closely
resembles the author than most critics have realised.  Wolfe for years
wrote professionally for, and edited, a magazine called `Plant Engineering'
which dealt not with genetic botany but with industrial mechanical
engineering.  Weer's juice plant synthesises orange juice out of potatoes,
so successfully that Cassionsville and the Kanakessee Valley, its once rich
and various farmland surrounds, are blighted by monocropping, as its Irish
settlers' homelands had been several centuries earlier. 

The name of the narrator of Wolfe's *The Fifth Head of Cerberus*, never
given in that text, can be determined to be Gene Wolfe.  A famous story by
Wolfe is `The Hero as Werwolf'.  This apparent spelling mistake is
permitted by the dictionary, a volume Wolfe is not unacquainted with.  It
has been suggested that the lost `e' from `werwolf' lives at the end of the
author's name.  I instantly assumed that Alden Dennis Weer is, as it were,
a weerwolfe.

The first line of the novel is this: `The elm tree planted by Eleanor Bold,
the judge's daughter, fell last night.'  What does not fall until page 193,
in my 246 page copy, is the other shoe.  Miss Bold, now married to one
Porter, `wants to plant a tree on my grave when I'm gone.  That's her
hobby: she plants trees of endangered American species on the graves of her
friends.'  I had missed this absolutely fundamental revelation until Yvonne
Rousseau explained it, and I felt sick with shame.  Even so, at least I
knew from the first paragraph that Weer was *probably* dead: `I was afraid
I was going to have an attack, and then, fuzzily, thought that perhaps the
heart attack had wakened me, and then that I might be dead... it seemed to
me that the whole house was melting like the candle, going soft and running
down into the lawn.'  Yes indeed.  The house is his skull, pierced by the
roots of Eleanor Bold's now ancient, vast and fallen elm.

What, then, of his claim to have built a mnemonic house, each room the
replica of one from his life?  Alden does just this, in the chambered
cavities of his skull.  How do we know?  On page 217, in a poignant
quotation from the *Necronomicon*, that wicked book invented by Lovecraft
and here re invented by Wolfe, a man is called back from death.  `His eyes
were no more; their sockets seemed dark pits, save that there flickered
behind them a point of light...  I knew this spark for the soul of the dead
man, seeking now in all the chambers under the vault of the skull its old
resting places.'

*Peace*, then, is the peace of *requiescat in pace*.   

The book is, to a quite unparalleled extent, a tissue of lies, or at least
of substantial evasion.  Lou Gold, Jewish refugee and `rare' book dealer,
is, like one of Vonnegut's dubious saints, a fraud in search of deeper
truths than mere veracity.  If *Peace* is enlivened by many quoted voices,
each distinct and agreeable, many of them are thrown by Gold's
ventriloquist's throat.  Does this invalidate them?  We can't know.  Gold
tells Weer, and us, `The world shapes itself, I find, very fast, to what I
write.'  (And if to the writings of Gold the literary forger, so too, no
doubt, to those of Wolfe the sf speculator.)  `Or I write more than I know
 perhaps all of us who do what I do.'  It will surely occur to any
suspicious reader at this point to wonder if *Peace* itself is a concoction
of Gold's.  I do not think it is   but perhaps, on the argument just given,
it does not matter and could never be tested.

Certainly Wolfe writes more than *we* know, at least until we have done a
fair bit of digging.  Alden does some digging, looking for gold, which does
not exist because his source is a fabrication of Gold's. I quickly
speculated that he then finds the gold and kills the middle aged librarian
who has led him to it (and become his lover).  But is she dead?  Does Weer
become rich from this find?  As well ask who killed Weer's aunt Olivia, run
down by a car while crossing the street in search of a little something
from Dubarry's Bakery.  Alden himself?  Or one of aunt Vi's four suitors,
Professor Peacock, a man whose laces drag like a small boy's, though he's
agile enough; there is a clue concerning his ownership of a car which I
leave to you to hunt out for yourself.  Certainly Alden, as a small boy,
causes the lingering death of another child, Eleanor Bold's nephew
(conceivably the first of those planted under a tree), and the death by
freezing of a young workmate at the juice plant during a prank gone wrong.   

Wolfe teases and provokes us, but only if we are on our toes.  Gold's fraud
uncovered, Weer's potential denunciation is averted when Sherry, Gold's
saucy 16 year old daughter, unprotected against pregnancy, takes him to
bed.  Some 200 pages earlier, a little while later, Sherry Gold visits the
doctor.  `You seem to be putting on weight, Miss Gold,' Alden imagines the
doctor telling her.  A hairy dogman from a travelling carney writes Weer a
letter about the pitiful death of Doris, a new girl with the show, `a kid
that belonged to Mr. Mason,' Weer's informant tells him, `(whoever he was -
I myself never laid eyes on him...).'  Is Doris the bastard child of Weer
and Sherry?  There are reasons for doubting this (a mason is, of course, a
worker in stone, of which more anon), but nothing is certain or self
evident in this astonishing novel about identity and fabrication.

This theme of making, self-making and self-denying, is woven in a thousand
threads.  Three weeks after going to live with his aunt Vi, Weer read a
portion of a fairy tale in a storybook.   Because he nodded off before the
end, and felt it `a sort of desecration to begin an evening's reading in
the middle of a story,' he never finished it.  A princess is wooed
unsuccessfully by men of earth, sea and air; these are Vi's three principal
suitors, as it eventuates, and the lucky (?) fourth, so soon to be
widowered by the careless motorist who runs Vi down, is Julius Smart,
pharmacist, and founder of the juice factory Alden first works for and
finally owns.   Julius tells an extraordinary Gothic tale of his patron, a
paranoiac pharmacist whose concoctions turn people into freaks, including
himself.  The carney dogman is perhaps one of his productions; its mother,
whose hands spring direct from her shoulders, seems to be a natural
forerunner of those luckless victims of pharmacy, the Thalidomide babies.
I suspect that the chemist's fatal disorder (though this is never explained
in the book) is the fantastically rare genetic disease *myositis ossificans
progressiva*, which turns ordinary tissue into bone (or `stone') so the
entire body grows rigid, rather as a corpse does, before it liquefies.  In
short, natural and pharmacological causation is systematically and
fiendishly confounded, to our confusion and delight.  

As it chanced, I read and ferreted about in *Peace* at the same time I was
gnawing on Omni's 1985 `world's hardest IQ test', which offered 48 nifty
little nasties requiring expertise ranging from Greek mythology to the
theory of limits, etymology to the Periodic table of the elements.  The two
experiences, at a simple-minded level (so to speak), were not dissimilar.
But I certainly don't wish to reduce this complex and glowing book to a
series of intellectual gags.

In 1985, I raised some of these points with Gene Wolfe, who confirmed my
guess about `weerwolfe', which made me happy; agreed that Professor Peacock
was indeed Aunt Vi's motorised killer, which made me chuckle and rub my
hands together maniacally; and drew back in distress from my suggestion
that Gold's invented `gold' actually came into existence as a result of his
forged document, only to be retrieved by Alden.  No, no, Wolfe said,
pained; *Peace* is, on that level, a work of realism.  Alden is rich
because he is Aunt Vi's heir, and therefore crabby old Julius Smart's.

We swapped gifts as we parted.  I gave Wolfe a copy of my Aussie anthology
*Strange Attractors* which is dedicated jointly to him and to Ursula Le
Guin.  He gave me, in return, a pleasing morsel.  `What's the brand name of
Julius's synthetic orange juice?' he asked.  This hideous stuff is the
fluid which flows like a phony alchemist's fake gold through the entire
book; its name, never mentioned, was proposed by Aunt Vi, orientalist and
wag.  In fact I'd spent some time brooding on this matter, but had to
confess myself beaten.  `Why,' said evil Gene Wolfe, `Tang, of course.'  

Many strange little unanswered questions linger to tease the mind.  There's
that mysterious evening spent alone in a hotel room and its adjacent
hallway by Alden's aunt Bella, small town journalist.  Bella `beheld a
swimming and irregular glow' through the hotel's frosted windows, `as
though a thousand carriage lamps were moving to and fro in a mist...'
together with `roaring, babbling sounds... punctuated... by the braying of
savage trumps and bombardons...'  No one else heard, saw or reported this
extravaganza except the lady in the room which proved to be Bella's own
though Bella was in the hallway at the time the report was made.  A tiny,
beautiful enigma.  I'd like to hear what other readers have made of its


And still would...

Damien Broderick

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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