Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Gene Wolfe
Completed 9/28/2018, Reviewed 9/28/2018
4 stars

This was a hard book to read and a tough one to rate.  The prose is masterful.  No word seems randomly picked.  The story and the form however, are really complex.  The book is a collection of three novellas that take place on the twin worlds of St. Anne and St. Croix.  There is a common character in the three stories.  Dr. Marsch is an anthropologist who is a minor character in the first, the writer of the second, and the main character of the third.  The stories seem unrelated until well into the third novella when things start to tie together.  It should be noted that the first story was published first.  Wolfe’s publisher then commissioned him to write two more related novellas so it could be published as a whole book.  This result is this heady mix of unreliable narrators, hallucinatory journeys, and what seems to be intentional obfuscation to create a powerful but difficult experience.

The titular story is the first.  It’s about a boy who lives with his brother, father, and aunt in a high-class brothel.  He seldom goes out and is tutored by a robot.  Known to us only as number five, his father begins experiments on him that involve psychological tests and drugs.  Five and his brother David meet a girl who hangs out with them and they get involved in some light stealing.  Then there is a twist to the story which throws Five and David’s lives into chaos.  About this time, Dr. Marsch shows up looking for the author of Veil’s Hypothesis.  It’s about the aboriginal people of St. Anne and what may have happened to them when the first colonists from Earth arrived. 

The second story, called “’A Story’ by John V. Marsch” is a tale about the aboriginal peoples of St. Anne.  It is about one such Aborigine, John Sandwalker, who is looking for his twin who was separated at birth.  He meets the Shadow Children, who you get the feeling may have been from Earth, and were perhaps the first colonists to arrive.  Then he gets captured by the marshmere people and once again, there are strange twists of fate.

The last novella is V.R.T.  It is a collection of writings and recorded interviews by and with Marsch.  He has captured on St. Croix and is accused of being a spy from St. Anne.  The form of this story is that an inspector is randomly reading through the writings and listening to the tapes to glean from them what Marsch’s true mission was.  They don’t believe he is an anthropologist from Earth.  Through his research, we get more on the quest to discover the truth about the Aboriginal people, as well as some topics from “Fifth Head”.  This may be the toughest of the three to read because it is not a straightforward narrative.  It jumps in time and content making for a tough experience even if you are paying attention.

Reading this book takes a lot of energy.  It’s hard to tell where the first two novellas are going until the end.  During the first one, I thought there was no plot for most of it, until the end.  During the second one, there seemed to be a plot, but between his dreams and the mysterious Shadow Children, it felt like hallucinatory journey.  By the third story, I was pretty lost, so I cheated.  I read a slew of reviews.  I found out that this story helps tie together the first two, so I read it with a little more aplomb, and got the big payoff. 

I give the book four stars out of five because to write this way takes a lot of talent.  You just can’t sit down and write a book like this.  It takes much careful planning and intention.  Many reviews I read either gushed over the book, or described a horrific reading experience.  I myself felt lost, but relished in the amazing prose and tried really hard to pay attention.  I think this is a book that takes multiple readings to get all the nuances and hints in the first two stories.  You can’t be tired when you read it. 

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