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From: "Robert Borski" <rborski@coredcs.com>
Subject: (urth) Notes From Cliff
Date: Sat, 6 Jun 1998 17:09:48 

From my ever growing CAVE CANEM, I now submit its tentative Forward, "Notes
From Cliff: An Introductory Approach to THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS:"

Published in 1973, THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS was Gene Wolfe's second
novel, and it is a pure delight from start to finish. Ostensibly, it
appears to mine one of literature's oldest themes, the coming-of-age,
rite-of-passage story, told in the form of three linked novellas and cast
in the familiar tropes of science fiction--from interplanetary colonization
to cloning to first contact with an alien race. Each of the novella's main
characters--Number Five, John Sandwalker, V.R.T.--is under the age of
twenty; each murders an authority figure, who collaterally represents
acquired knowledge (a scientist father; the shaman Lastvoice; and Professor
John Marsch, respectively). Gene Wolfe, in other words, has appropriated
for himself a bit of archetypal terrain, one where he is both main
cartographer and leader of the expedition. And it is a wonderful world he
limns and extremely enjoyable, even on a very primary level, where's one
goal is simply divertissement, to spend some time stoking up that ol' sense
of wonder all good sf evokes, as well as perhaps meeting some interesting

But for all its genre trappings FIFTH HEAD is all so very, very, very much
more. And it has all the resonance and perspicacity of those works the
world now deems classic literature. This same dual quality of Wolfe's
fiction--works that are both (hush my oxymoronic breath) genre fiction and
classic literature--underwrites as well the very underpinnings and thematic
engine of FIFTH HEAD, in that the book is not so much one novel, but two,
each of which is not only the other's shadow, but its reflection. For
Ursula LeGuin, Gene Wolfe represents Mozart, but for me he is J.S. BACH,
weaver of contrapuntal and fugual majesty.

Readers old to Wolfe are probably more than well aware of the author's
naming stratagems. Quite simply put (for those of you who are new to the
man), the names Gene Wolfe assigns to both his characters and settings are
charged with extra significance. On one level they function as our own
names do--(I'm deliberately going to avoid the more formal grammars here of
linguistics and semiotics)--they identify us on a very surface,
easily-accessible level. In Wolfe, however, all names have an additional
associative or attributive value, and one of the great joys in reading him
is trying to figure out their provenance or etymological origins. Because
they do add to the richness and complexity of the novel, and often
immeasureably so.

Let us consider two examples.

One of the planets in FIFTH HEAD is called Sainte Anne. And while one might
think the name has been chosen because of Wolfe's ardent
Catholicity--Sainte Anne is mother to Mary--also knowing that much of the
novel's story takes place at a whorehouse located at  666 Saltimbanque St.
(the novel's other main Biblical reference, 666 being the Number of the
Beast, a numerical cognomen of the devil) allows us to look at the novel
from a slightly different perspective, especially considering how Number
Five, the narrator of the title novella, is as parthenogenetically
conceived as Jesus Christ. Not knowing this, of course, does not preclude
you from enjoying the work, but look how much more resonance FIFTH HEAD has
when you consider the additional information. Number Five as Anti-Christ;
can the apocalypse be far behind? (I'd tell you--but that would be

Another name that commends itself by example is that of Nerissa. In the
book she is a prostitute/ maid at the Maison du Chien. Where does her name
come from? Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, where Nerissa is the
flirty handmaid to Portia. Given the existence of several similarly-
derived names from literature--Phaedria and Marydol, each handmaids as
well--we are able to draw upon their provenance and glean a little bit more
about the world of Sainte Croix, where slavery is legal, and girls are bred
for bondship, and sexual ones at that if they're attractive enough. Again,
ignorant of these details, our enjoyment of the work is not so much
diminished, just unaugmented. As if we could only hear one strain in the
Wolfeian fugue, but no contrapuntal mode. Be that as it may, it still hums.

I'd also like to make the same case about the characters of FIFTH HEAD.
Each, I contend, has this same binary component--in that, not only are they
the people we *think* they are, they have an *additional significance,*
what in terms borrowed from chemistry I call isotopes or valences, though
sometimes the distinction between the two is arbitrary or blurred. Let us
consider several examples. Number Five is the clone of Maitre--an
isotop--but also has a valence: his real name, which can be worked out--is
Gene Wolfe. Mr. Million, the robot tutor of David and Number Five, is a
mechanical simulation of the very first clonemaster (isotope). The mother
of VRT--whose name is Three Faces--has still another name, Eve (valence);
Dr. Marsch is killed and then impersonated by V.R.T (isotope). These are
but a few examples; for more see the Glossary entries. But also keep in
mind that every single character in FIFTH HEAD has at least one isotope or
valence, the same way the names do--or werewolves, for that matter.

This same binary nature can be still further extended to the events which
take place in FIFTH HEAD. Yes, each does in and of itself advance the novel
to a certain degree, nudging it along the narrative timeframe, and can be
read simply as that, but like the names and isotopes/valences they can also
be read on a completely different level. In fact, this is probably where
Wolfe is at his diabolical best, because in essence he is trying to trick
us, except like most magicians, who use smoke and mist to disguise their
chicanery, Wolfe employs sunlight and the seemingly clear cut path. The
title of one of Gene's short stories, "A Solar Labyrinth," perhaps best
exemplifies this, and the notion of Wolfe-as-Daedalus is sweetly apposite.
But I still would be remiss if I did not caution you, because despite its
bright path and clearly designated exit ramps you *will* encounter the
minotaur and yet--such is the craft of Wolfe--you may not even recognize
you have met the beast at the heart of the maze--he'll have you conviced
it's merely Elsie the Cow. This is why many people are so perplexed by
Wolfe, while still others insist that what *seems* to happen in his books
is exclusively and entirely that--simple straightforward events, narrated
truthfully, and entirely supportable with citings from text. Wolfe is that
much a magician, dazzling you with his sophisticated patter; but like all
magic tricks there is a perceived reality and an actual order. And while
it's often fun to enjoy magic for simply what it aspires to be, please be
aware it's also just an artful form of showmanship based on illusion, no
matter how genuine it appears. 

Lastly, before I let you go, I would like to discuss the notion of Chekov's
Gun as it applies to Gene Wolfe's work. Chekhov's Gun simply stated says
"If you introduce a gun in Act I, you damn well better use it by the end of
Act III." In other words, don't introduce or mention something that has no
relevance to the rest of your fictional milieu, because this is chaff. I
firmly believe Gene Wolfe is a proponent of this practice, being extremely
tidy, perhaps even to the point of fastidiousness, although sometimes it's
hard for us to hear the gun off, because his work (to mix a metaphor) is
more trompe l'oeil than paint-by-number. Thus the mysterious lady in pink
Number Five mentions in the title novella must reappear somewhere before
novel's end, as must his conjectural sister. For Wolfe to mention them and
not bring them back would be a violation of Chekhov's Gun, and while he may
be a sly and Byzantinely deceptive writer I do not think he is a dishonest
one. My attempting to hear the gunshots and identify where they came from,
as well as trace out as many of the novel's secret penumbrae as possible,
is largely how CAVE CANEM came about; I wanted answers and additional gloss
on the various aspects mentioned above and thereby deepen my own
understanding of this most complex work..

Lastly then, this valedictory. 

Once upon a time, a not-so-young man read a book called THE FIFTH HEAD OF
CERBERUS by Gene Wolfe, enjoying it immensively, even if on a strictly
primary level, before he even understood the concepts of subtext and
echopraxis. Then along came a book called STROKES by John Clute, where he
learned FIFTH HEAD had a somewhat more sophisticated structure and that it
was even possible to deduce Number Five's real name, followed still later
by Michael Andre-Driussi's LEXICON URTHUS, with its rich amplification on
the baroque words and themes of the New Sun Universe. The now somewhat
older man was so entranced that he decided to do his own exploratory of
Gene Wolfe, hoping to add something of value to the appreciation and
understanding of this master writer.

You are now reading that attempt.

Enjoy it for what you will. And please *do* reread FIFTH HEAD in
conjunction with it, perhaps keeping in mind some of the notions I mention
above, even if you disagree with some of my later conclusions.

FIFTH HEAD's grand central theme, of course, concerns identity.

Perhaps not uncoincidentally it's where I found myself.

I hope you might be that lucky, too.

Robert Borski 


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

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