Those even slightly familiar with Gene Wolfe’s prolific work may recognize its persistence in theme and style. Critics, colleagues, and readers in general praise his unique voice, which is often challenging to penetrate with its unconventionality, but usually end up making his stories hugely rewarding experiences. Despite the now conventional expectation of idiosyncrasy in Wolfe’s prose and plots, he somehow manages to keep stories inventively unpredictable and engrossing.
Recently released in trade paperback format by Tor Books, Wolfe’s 2013 novel, The Land Across, is typical Wolfe: a young, possibly unreliable narrator, evocative descriptions, shifting plots that play with expectations, sophisticated incorporation of the political and religious, and beneath it all a perpetual sense of foreboding.
An American travel guide writer named Grafton enters an isolated, enigmatic country in Eastern Europe by train and quickly finds himself experiencing the whispered rumors about the secretive nation and the difficulty of getting safely in — and out. His passport confiscated by national police who immediately proceed to detain him for failure to have documentation is just the start to Grafton’s orientation into the corruption and bureaucracy of this strange land and culture. Under house arrest in the care of a local couple, Grafton slowly begins to learn more about the powerful forces at play in the country for the daily existence of its native population and the fate of its visitors.
Grafton’s journey by train into the mountains of Eastern Europe at first evokes the tones of Dracula, and the underlying horror that creeps from the opening pages continue through the novel. Wolfe writes The Land Across in a very interesting way. The language is straightforward, alternating between a more evocative formality (not unlike a travel guide) in parts and a simple conversational tone in others. Perhaps more approachable to readers compared to Wolfe’s frequently dense prose, the simplicity here in sentence construction hides the more convoluted and shifting tones and plot of the novel. Even beneath the straightforward words, readers quickly discern something very inexplicable and apprehensive lurking. Regarding Grafton’s initial run-in with the national police force, Wolfe has his protagonist recount:
I got my passport out of my jacket and showed it to him. He passed it to the third border guard without looking at it. After that, they made me stand up, patted me down, took my iPhone, and tied my hands behind me. I guess I was scared, but mostly I was stunned.
The boss border guard marched along the upper deck of the observation car, motioning for me to follow. I did, noticing that the railing (which I knew darn well had been there when I had climbed to the upper deck) had been taken down. Steep little steps led from the upper deck to the main floor. The boss border guard trotted down them and I did my best to follow him. I was about halfway down when somebody pushed me. I fell, bumping into the boss border guard. I believe he must have landed on the lower steps. I rolled over him all the way to the bottom. He got up cursing and kicking. I could not understand his curses, but I knew what they were all right. I had never been kicked before and had not really known how bad it is. I think I must have blacked out.
The next thing I remember is being taken off the train, trying to walk and stumbling a lot while someone with strong hands held my arm.
The train had not slowed down but was roaring along beside a narrow black conveyer belt that was going even faster than it was, so that the shiny steel bands the sections were joined with looked like they were crawling slowly past us. We were waiting for the other two, or that was what it seemed like.
Wolfe, through Grafton’s point of view, gives the information matter-of-factly, but loaded with the uncertainty of memory: ‘I think’, ‘I guess’, ‘I believe’. What starts out as an unremarkable description of train travel in the previous pages suddenly shifts into the realms of the unexpected, almost supernatural. A railing suddenly vanishes; a strange black conveyer belt appears next to a moving train. The physical crossing over the border into this land is accompanied by crossing the border into the world of the surreal.
The underlying horror to The Land Across, in the sense of unease, is particularly fitting for anyone who has ever experienced culture shock, of trying to manage routine activities normally taken for granted, now in a foreign culture and unknown tongue. This classic, gothic vibe to the novel continues as Wolfe takes the story into a direction that could resemble something from Poe or a story by Albert E. Cowdrey, with talk of hidden treasures and specters. But then Wolfe throws a curve at these expectations and the novel goes into another direction that (while still with hints of the supernatural) more closely resembles a spy novel, or something that would fit into the Hard Case Crime series in plot and conventions. Amazingly, Wolfe keeps the novel as a whole coherent amid these shifts, and the mystery of what exactly is going on here, what is this land, who is Grafton, who are these people he has met keeps the reader engaged.
Ultimately a reader will try to come to some kind of conclusion as to what the meaning is behind The Land Across. The back cover description for the novel states: “Gene Wolfe keeps us guessing until the very end, and after.” Whether Wolfe has any particular meaning in mind, or many, is irrelevant. I certainly have my interpretations, but I don’t think by any means that they are the only ones possible. The strength of Wolfe is his ambiguity, of trusting readers to manage building their own realm answers from what he has provided. Not all readers look for this in a book, but it surely is what art is meant to engender. And Wolfe is a genius at constructing a world for readers to practice this joy, and to discover things new upon rereading.
From one solitary read (mostly while traveling at airports, with which this goes well) I was personally struck by how the character of Grafton is particularly passive, accepting of his predicaments. Starting the novel as one kind of person who is suspected and accused of being other kinds of people, he ends up something entirely new by the novel’s close. It is almost as if the nature of the land has molded Grafton into something else, the politics and culture of where one finds oneself shaping who you are more than any intrinsic part of yourself.
This is just one of many tracks that a reader’s thinking may go down through Grafton’s surreal, sinister journey. This may not be the best Gene Wolfe book to try out if you are completely new to him. But if you’re willing to see where a journey into The Land Across may take you and have any prior appreciation of Wolfe, you shouldn’t regret stepping through its borders.