Sunday, April 25, 2010

the sorcerer's house: analysis, part 1

Gene Wolfe's newest book, The Sorcerer's House (2009), is not his best work but that's an unfair assessment.  After all, Wolfe's tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, might be the best science fiction ever written - of course everything he has published since seems faded in comparison.  But like all his fiction, The Sorcerer's House is a puzzlebox that haunts you upon completion.  It's a fun and vigorous read but so much is left unsaid and unwritten, that if you want to get the most out of it, you need to re-read and spend some time analyzing. I'm going to share my thoughts on this blog as I go through my second run-through, and perhaps by writing these ideas out I'll clarify some mysteries for myself.

First, some basic assumptions.

1.  I am going to assume that the "compiler" is not Bax.  If the compiler is Bax, then analysis of the story almost becomes meaningless, since everything is questionable.  So...

2.  The following people are, at the least, real:  Bax and George (twins), Millie, Orizia Pogach (the psychic), Sheldon Hawes, Martha Murrey, Zwart Black (and Alexander Skotos - may or may not be the same person).  This is based upon their mention in the final Compiler's Note.  I also assume that Dorris Griffin and Kate Finn are real.  Many other characters may or may not be real (for example, Thelma "Naber", whose last name sounds like "neighbor" could very well be a Bax fabrication, meaning that the whole Thelma & Martha twin story is a lie; similarly, "Jake Jacobs" could be another joke by Bax).

[There are 2 more complications which make identification of "actual" people difficult:  1) the compiler states that he/she has changed some names within the text "to protect innocent persons" and 2) there is a "Significant Names" chapter at the very end of the book.  How are we, the reader, to take this final section?  Was this put together by the compiler?  Or was it put together by Wolfe (the Author, with a capital "A")?  If the latter, should this be taken as a clue that these characters indeed exist?]

3.  Bax was well-educated (claiming to have 2 PhD's:  one in English literature, the other in ancient history) and had been convicted of fraud against his brother and some of his brother's friends/associates.  The story presented in this narrative begins soon after his release from prison.

4.  George is very wealthy.  We know little else of his personality, background, and behavior.  If we are to believe Millie's letters to Bax, he's arrogant, demeaning, and at least somewhat abusive.  Most everything we see of George is filtered through Bax, who, presumably, hates him and is toying with him for some nefarious reason (the two most likely possibilities being money and revenge).

5.  Letter 44 strongly suggests that Bax has somehow rid himself of his twin brother, George, and is impersonating him.  The Compiler's Note indicates that Bax was successful at this identity theft for at least several years (although I suppose it's possible that Millie saw through his disguise right away but either didn't care, or was too afraid to do anything about it).  It is quite possible that this was Bax's plan from the beginning, and indeed, something he was plotting while in prison.

6.  Bax, following his release from prison, somehow came into possession of the "Black House," the Skotos property, and Martha Murrey's house.

7.  Something or someone in Medicine Man killed a number of people in particularly gruesome and brutal ways.  The "Hound of Horror" is not a Bax fabrication, insofar as the local newspaper did print several stories on a series of local killings that were blamed upon a large dog or wolf.

8.  We may assume that the most, if not all, of the content of Bax's letters to his friend, Sheldon is truthful.  It is notable that he never mentions any supernatural phenomena to Sheldon in these letters, although it is possible that he only avoid these topics because he suspects that would make him look like a "sucker" or someone who is mentally deranged.  Therefore, on this 2nd reading, it will be important to pay attention to the exact content of his letters to Sheldon, as well as Sheldon's replies.  As I recall, these letters confirm the existence of someone who is likely to be Alexander Skotos.  And that someone was actively asking about Bax.  I believe this is a major hint as to how Bax ended up with these properties in the first place.

9.  Any letter written by Bax to either his brother, George, or to George's wife, Millie, is suspect.  As these letters contain the vast majority of the plot of The Sorcerer's House, the reader is left to determine what actually happened.  Hence, this analysis.  I will assume (although this could be dangerous) that the majority of letters written back to Bax are genuine and were not substantially altered by him (although he may have acquired a certain expertise in forgery).  Millie's letters indicate her naivety but also suggest that George is not a paragon of humanity (as might be expected in the "good twin").  Pogach's indicate that she did visit the Black House and interact with Bax.  Doris's indicate that she became emotionally involved with Bax and, later, quite confused.  It is notable that both Pogach and Doris mention supernatural phenomena in their letters.  Doris's letter "A Terrible Mistake" (#42) is particularly interesting and will require several close reads.  George writes only one letter (I believe) to Bax, and that is "The Challenge" (#37).  This letter is written in such a style that it may very well be a forgery by Bax, done so to implicate George.  However, this interpretation is complicated by the fact that Bax assumes George's identity at the end.  Why would Bax try to paint George as a possible murderer out for revenge just before taking on his identity?

[One additional issue that concerns me regarding the authenticity of these letters is the following:  once Bax assumes George's identity, he theoretically comes into possession of all the letters that he previously sent his brother.  He could, at this point, engage in a great deal of editing.  However, what would be his motivation for doing so?  He would only do so if he believed that someone would later discover these letters and read them.  For example, he might edit if he was worried that the police could eventually come into possession of these letters.  However, I don't find this line of reasoning plausible since there is a great deal of "unsavory" information in these letters.  E.g., he squats in the Black House, he shoots a wolf-thing in the face and it later becomes a human man, etc.]

That's as far as I will go now, as you can see I'm already starting to drift away from my initial assumptions.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of Wolfe, I just started a new forum dedicated to Wolfe and his fiction. It is called "Useful Phrases" and is located at:
    I hope to see some of you there.