Brief Comments on Some of Gene Wolfe's Short Fiction

Sun Dec 5, 2004

I’ve read an astonishing amount of Gene Wolfe over the last two years or so, and I just finished his most famous short story collection, The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. (Other than a few stories in Strange Travellers, some of Castle of Days, the Soldier books, Peace, Castleview, Operation Ares, Free Live Free, the Holly Hollander book, Wizard, and uncollected miscellany, I’ve read it all.) Wolfe’s short fiction is exceptionally cryptic and often disturbing. I’m still rattled by “And When They Appear” and “The Ziggurat” from the Strange Travellers collection, but I’m going to save my comments on those for another post. So here I present some scattered comments on the recently re-issued Island of Dr. Death collection.

“The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories”

My introduction to literature course next semester is going to focus on “addiction and necessity.” I’ll probably post more about this later, but the main texts are going to be Denis Johnson’s incomparable Jesus’ Son and David Foster Wallace’s incomplete (will we ever get to see the original ms for this?) Infinite Jest (about which I’ve published a short article I’m fairly proud of–if you ever wondered what the word “luculus” means in the book, look at the Winter 2003 Explicator). In any case, I’ve thought of opening the class with this story. The conceit seems straightforward; a young boy imagines characters from a lurid adventure story he reads to be real as a way of coping with the trauma resulting from having a mother addicted to amphetamines (and possibly other drugs). The various vignettes seem to correspond to things the boy saw but was unable to make sense of. There is a switch to second person which shows how the boy, or at least an aspect of his consciousness, is narrating his experience with the progressively more frequent interpolations of the adventure story being things he can only interpret symbolically. The subtlety of this technique is impressive, and I believe I recall reading an interview with Wolfe in which he lamented that people hadn’t appreciated its novelty.

The ending of the story is more difficult. The boy has just been told that his mother had a drug overdose and that’s he’s going to have to live in an orphanage. Afterwards, Dr. Death appears to him, scorched and bloody. The boy asks him if he will die at the story’s end. Dr. Death tells him that he will, but that if he starts the book again, he’ll reappear. He then adds that “it’s the same with you, Tackie. You’re too young to realize it yet, but it’s the same with you.” I interpret this as a recognition that the boy has developed a repetitive psychosis as a well of dealing with the trauma. He will eternally retreat into a stock fantasy when confronted with any given series of experiences, however varied. It’s a retelling of Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” in a sense.

I’m aware that a more optmistic reading of the story is possible, and I haven’t read through the Wolfe discussion list archives to see what that erudite band had to say about it, nor have I read through the (surprisingly little) published secondary literature on Wolfe.

“Alien Stones”

The key analogy here is that of the calculus, where one of the characters compares the original stones used in calculations to the alien ship they explore, suggesting that it too was only a device used for the emergence of a consciousness far beyond their ability to understand. It includes typographically represented glyphs (as opposed to just textually described–does Genette’s Paratexts have anything to say about these?), in which I have an increasing interest in (cf. Verne, etc.). The story also shows an interest in simulacra and the doubling of consciousness, ideas which recur with some frequency in Wolfe’s work.

“La Befana”

A heuristic for dealing with Wolfe’s fiction is that, if all else seems in doubt, assume that the point of the story is to display the universality of the Christ. Across alien consciousnesses, immense gulfs of time and space, and radically altered human modalities, this idea comes up time and again. There’re other things happening here as well, but I’m not sure I was able to follow them.

“The Hero as Werwolf”

Genetic manipulation has turned the human into something distinctly other, with incomprehensible technology and the ability to “live a long time with a broken neck.” It may be that some type of consciousness-transfer has taken place, in which the altered humans encase themselves in flesh not theirs. Something of this sort occurs in the Book of the Long Sun, and the monstrosity of that alteration might well be Wolfe’s point here.

“Three Fingers”

Reserpine, a sedative, is derived from the roots of plants in the genus Rauwolfia. I doubt that’s a coincidence.

“The Death of Dr. Island”

A sentient theraplanet abuses two mentally disturbed children to treat another. In some ways about eugenics, perhaps. The Eden metaphor is also very strongly hinted at, especially with the Hopkins epigraph.

“Feather Tigers”

This might be the most cryptic story in the collection, which is saying something. Humans have been devastated at least partially as a consequence of AI, it seems. The two main characters would appear to be alien xenologists, one of whom finds himself imperiled by a human superstition, that of the “feather tigers.” There is a sense of mental ecology here, which exists in considerable tension with the alien protagonist (and viewpoint). This story strikes as me as one of the most “New Wave” of Wolfe’s works.

“Hour of Trust”

How many libertarian fantasies have epigraphs from Proust? I have more to say about this I think, but not now.

“Tracking Song”

A theme similar to the others previous–the disappearance of the human through technological disaster and the general catastrophe of the human only to be redeemed. Considerable mysteries in execution.

“The Toy Theater”

Is the protagonist a puppet?

“The Doctor of Death Island”

As in the first story, there are intrusions of the narrated world within the represented, though here they are specifically Dickensian enough in execution that I’d have to do some research to feel comfortable enough to suggest an interpretation. Again, future, deprivation of spirit, attempts at transcendence, etc.


Another New Wave-influenced story, though perhaps even more cryptic than “Feather Tigers.” Discusses my favorite “all things exist in an infinite universe” paradox/idea. Note parallel with “The Toy Theater” of an artist seeking to master his craft, though here there is a more directly Mephistophelean context. Deneb is a star in Cygnus.

“The Eyeflash Miracles”

A secular narrative (Wizard of Oz) anchors the anagogic narrative within. Alteration of the spirit made flesh with evil consequences that are overcome, etc.

“Seven American Nights”

Those eggs and the claw of the conciliator have a lot in common, I think.

I hope to get to Endangered Species and Strange Travellers soon and perhaps expand upon some of the flimsier entries above.