“...that is to say, in all of this, I think, I believe in some sense much akin to the belief of faith, that I noticed, felt, or underwent what I describe – but it may be that the only reason childhood memories act on us so strongly is that, being the most remote we possess, they are the worst remembered and so offer the least resistance to that process by which we mold them nearer and nearer to an ideal which is fundamentally artistic, or at least nonfactual; so it may be that some of these events I describe never occurred at all, but only should have, and that others had not the shades and flavours – for example, of jealousy or antiquity or shame – that I have later unconsciously chosen to give them...”
Gene Wolfe is a notoriously slippery author, and ‘Peace’ may just be his most slippery work. In SF and Fantasy we are so used to the unquestionable authoritative voice, whether the competent, level headed first person or the infallible omniscient narrator. Gene Wolfe’s work works completely differently. His narrators, like Severian in The Book Of The New Sun, or Alden Dennis Weer in ‘Peace’, often explicitly announce their own unreliability fairly early on in the text, leaving the reader to puzzle out from inferences what actually is going on. But whereas in The Book Of The New Sun, for all its ambiguities, features lots of plot and action, ‘Peace’ is a much more unconventional work which is much less tied to SF and Fantasy traditions and tropes.
‘Peace’ takes the form of the memoirs of Alden Dennis Weer’s early years, growing up as a child in a sleepy Midwestern town and eventually becoming the wealthy president of an orange juice production plant. Weer’s narrative voice reveals him to be affable and talkative, with a tendency to talk around big events and an almost Ronny Corbit-esque talent for going off on diversions. ‘Peace’ features many nested stories, as Weer recounts tales told to him as a child, and one of the themes of the book is why we tell stories, and in particular why Weer himself tells, but never finishes, so many of them. Stories act both as a way we make sense of the world around us, and as a form of escapism. The stories Weer heard as a boy shaped the man he was to become, but now that he is an embittered old man, the unfinished stories represent both his desire for escape and his own frustrated potential.
‘Peace’ could just about pass as the incredibly well-written ramblings of a dying man, but this is still Gene Wolfe we’re talking about. There is something sinister on the margins of these pastoral reminiscences that’s actually kind of difficult to pinpoint. Weer is quite happy to insinuate romantic relationships with a whole host of young, attractive women, but he stops shy of saying it in black and white. Early on in the book, Weer tells us that one of his childhood friends died young, and it is only from details eked out later on that you discover that the friend was killed in an accident involving Weer. Mention of the boy disappears from the text soon after. In much the same way, characters appear, interact with Weer until he uncovers some deep truth in them, then disappear from the narrative until Weer casually mentions that they died some time back. You can’t help wondering if he killed them all. This also brings out a meta aspect of Wolfe’s text. The author exerts a god like power over the characters in their story, in effect killing them when they are dropped by the main thread of the narrative; being figments of the author’s imagination, without the oxygen of the author’s attention they cease to exist.
This is accentuated by the warping effect Weer has on the text. Does he have magical powers, or is he delusional? Either way it shapes the story he tells us, as he believes he can travel back to other points in his life to talk to characters who have long since passed away. When Weer catches the bookstore owner Mr Gold forging books, Mr Gold explains that when he forges an ancient text, reality reshapes itself around it to accommodate it. Rumours spread, and memory is more malleable and suggestible than we give it credit for, and so something that never existed becomes part of history. Multiple characters observe that history is merely biography, the selected and selective memoirs of the victors. Weer takes issue with both of these, and it’s ironic that he speaks for objective reality when these are the processes by which his story shapes what we perceive of his world.
And then there is the central ontological uncertainty of Alden Dennis Weer himself. He tells us that he is recovering from a debilitating stroke. But the event that starts the book is an elm tree falling over. Perhaps not full of import in and of itself, but we hear later on that it is a local custom to plant trees on people’s graves, the weight on their chests prevents their spirits rising. Certainly a lot of the stories Weer relates are ghost stories, and he claims he once attempted necromancy. There are other hints too, in the way Weer moves listlessly from room to room in his abandoned old house, and the way his house seems to melt into all the different places he lived and worked, the way he keeps circling around the deaths of those he knew, his compulsion to relive his past. And if you look carefully at the language throughout, but especially in that opening paragraph:
“I was asleep and heard nothing, but from the number of shattered limbs and the size of the trunk there must have been a terrible crashing. I woke – I was sitting up in my bed before the fire – but by the time I was awake there was nothing to hear but the dripping of the melting snow and 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 is possible that Weer is a ghost, unaware that he has died, for his sins denied the eponymous peace.