The Land Across by Gene Wolfe
Kat and I both read Gene Wolfe’s The Land Across last week. I read the print version produced by Tor and Kat read the audio version produced by Audible and narrated by Jeff Woodman. I wrote most of the following review, but Kat insisted on sticking in her comments so she didn’t have to write her own review. That’s how this review became a conversation.
Bill: Let’s be honest. In an ideal world, nobody should be reviewing a Gene Wolfe book having only read it once. The guy just has too much going on, too much slippery subtlety, too much unreliability, too much word play and a sense that there is always a layer underneath the layer underneath the layer you think you caught a glimpse of. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and so despite knowing there’s a whole lot going on in The Land Across that we probably missed on our one trip through it, here goes…
Kat: Actually, maybe I’m a dunce, but I didn’t feel like there was anything going on that we missed. I think The Land Across is a different kind of book than what we’ve seen from Wolfe before. I don’t think we missed the subtlety, I think the book is missing it. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book — it was highly readable (especially with the excellent audio narration provided by Jeff Woodman). It was a weird trip through a strange world, and weird trips through strange worlds is something Gene Wolfe does exceptionally well.
Bill: Describing it as a trip is appropriate, as the book [we now enter the recap stage of the review] is told from the first-person point of view of Grafton, an American travel writer who decides to try and visit the titular (and unnamed) eastern European country, which is mysteriously difficult to enter:
Visitors who try to drive get into a tangle of unmarked mountain roads… Most drivers who make it through… are turned back at the border… Some are arrested. A few of the ones who are arrested never get out.
Persevering through several failed attempts by air (two canceled flights, one that cited bad weather as an excuse not to land), Gratfon attempts to enter by train and finally succeeds.
Kat: I think this was my favorite part of the book, when Grafton is trying to get into the Land but finds that “all maps are wrong.” I liked the surreal dreamy feel and felt like this was the most Wolfe-ish aspect of the book. Some of this dreaminess lingers for the rest of the story, but it is usually overshadowed by the thriller/ mystery/ police procedural / ghost story aspects of the plot.
Bill: I agree; this was perhaps my favorite aspect as well, both the entry into the country and the surreal nature of the city’s early descriptions and his imprisonment. I wouldn’t have minded more of this Calvino-like style. So, after he crosses the border, he is immediately arrested, and then imprisoned in this country’s unique fashion — he is sent to live with a man (Kleon) and his wife (Martya) in their home, and if he ever doesn’t spend the night there Kleon will be shot. As Grafton tries to wend his way through the baroquely absurd bureaucracy, and gain his freedom, we at first think this book is “simply” going to be a Kafkaesque/Orwellian sort of narrative as we can settle down into familiar territory while Grafton struggles to find offices (city streets are unnamed), suffers from sore feet (there are almost no cars), and gets caught up with the JAKA (this country’s not-so-secret secret police).
But soon Grafton is renting out a haunted house complete with ghosts, corpses, and rumors of buried treasure; conversing with a mysterious man in black who hangs out in a castle alleged to be Vlad the Impaler’s summer home and who is comfortable among wolves, and getting embroiled in the pursuit of a sect of Satanists. Throw in a some voodoo dolls, a mysterious man who may or may not be the Leader pictured on the posters around town, and a severed hand that crawls around of its own volition, and what we end up with is kind of The Trial /Roger Corman-Police Procedural / The City and the City / Lonely Planet.
Kat: It’s a really strange mix.
Bill: Yes. Yes it is. The narration, as mentioned is first-person from Grafton’s point of view, and one always has to be a little suspicious. It’s all done as a flashback and so at times he’ll reveal some point only to tell the reader he’ll explain later. He is constantly telling us he is leaving things out, skipping over unimportant or redundant points. Kat, were you suspicious of the narrator?
Kat: Gene Wolfe is famous for his unreliable narrators, but in this case I felt that Grafton was trustworthy and that he was merely trying to hasten the story by leaving out minor points. Perhaps my different perception came from listening to the audio version. The narrator sounded sincere and dependable, even when he told us that he was leaving stuff out. Jeff Woodman did a great job with Grafton’s voice — it’s probably what kept me reading The Land Across as eagerly as I did.
Bill: Hmmm, maybe I should learn to trust more. I didn’t think I was missing much in the gaps, but I did wonder about some of his perceptions. I agree though that Grafton has an engaging voice, and is mostly likable, though his youth and somewhat ambiguous ethics at times will give readers pause.
Kat: Oh, yes. There were two things about Grafton that kept throwing me out of the story. One was that he was so passive — he accepted all the unfair things that were happening to him. Most young American men wouldn’t. I suppose we could explain this away by saying that Grafton actually wanted to stay in the area because he was writing a travel book and perhaps his experiences with their government would be good source material. Still, I thought he was too accepting of the rules of a fascist government.
Bill: I also had some concerns about the ease and sometimes glee with which Grafton entered into a working relationship with what is basically a police state. Perhaps Wolfe is saying something with that. And I agree with his passivity. And when you say “young American,” it reminded me how I thought he was at times a bit all over the map in terms of how his maturity level was portrayed. What’s the other thing that bothered you?
Kat: I’m glad you asked. The way Grafton thinks and talks about women seems old-fashionedly sexist for a young man who’s sophisticated enough to be a world traveler. At first I thought that was because this story was taking place a few decades ago, but then he mentioned his iPhone and I realized that the problem was the way Wolfe writes about women and sex. It sounds like how guys talked back when Wolfe was Grafton’s age — not how they talk now. Wolfe has the tone and lingo all wrong. Don’t you think?
Bill: Yes, I also had some difficulty with the portrayal of the women. Women seem to throw themselves at Grafton almost immediately, whether they are married or high-level agents of JAKA. I didn’t like the ease with which Grafton found his way into their beds. I admit, this was part of my reason I wondered about how Grafton portrayed things as narrator, as it just didn’t seem that Wolfe would portray women in this light.
Related to this is that, in typical Wolfe fashion, characters sometimes, often perhaps, have not only hidden motives but unexplained ones, which can leave the reader feeling a bit at sea. Wolfe also plays with linguistics as characters often speak in languages not their own or in pidgin sort of speech, making the reader strain to follow the thread of dialogue at times. Between the unreliable narrator, the dialogue hovering just on the edge of clarity, the shifting storylines (broad satire to haunted house story to private investigator mode to classic ghost story etc.), the at times enigmatic motivations, not to mention of course the several underlying mysteries that can’t be clearly and quickly explained (because then they wouldn’t be mysteries) — who tried to kill X, where did the severed hand come from, how can it move, who is the leader of the Satanist Cult, what do they want, whose side is Martya on, is the JAKA agent Naala on Grafton’s side, etc. — the reader is rarely if ever comfortable.
Kat: Yes, and though I enjoyed listening to Grafton’s story, through most of it I was acutely aware that I had no idea where it was all going. There didn’t seem to be a goal or a plan. Just a journey.
Bill: I know what you mean, though I liked that lack of comfort, the richly absurd tapestry being woven and then rewoven into a different picture. And the mishmash of supernatural elements — the hand, the Dracula-ish character (I’m going to go with the land across being at least a version of Transylvania), the haunted houses and ghosts and witches — and enjoyed for the most part (at times it seemed a little padded) the detective story. I found the Satanist cult-plot/resolution less engaging than the journey itself.
Kat: I liked the lack of comfort, too, but now that I’ve finished The Land Across, I’m still wondering what the point was? Basically, what is the purpose of this book? It didn’t seem to me that all those elements came together to form something meaningful and/or enjoyable in the end.
Bill: I have to agree that The Land Across isn’t compelling; I picked it up and put it down several times which is a clear sign the book hasn’t grabbed me, especially with a sub-300 page book like this one that I would normally polish off in a single sitting if I were really enjoying it.
Kat: I think I found it a little more readable than you did but, again, I feel certain that this was due to the excellent narration of the audiobook. Woodman’s pleasant and enthusiastic voice kept me listening. But I was hoping for some big reveal in the end to make it feel like it was worth so much of my time.
Bill: Hmm, I don’t think I can argue that. As mentioned at the start, like most Wolfe novels, this one probably deserves if not requires another reading In the end. I’d say that The Land Across mostly satisfies, is enjoyable enough, keeps the reader on their toes, is well and cleverly plotted, and makes deft use of the language/culture differences between the young American narrator and his host setting. At this point though, I’d call it a lesser Wolfe, but most would take that.
Kat: Absolutely true.