BOOK REVIEW: The Land Across by Gene Wolfe
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An American writer is arrested while visiting the country he is writing about, and is forced to navigate a culture he knows nothing about.
PROS: Enjoyable to read and accessible; fun characters; a good place to start if you’ve never read Gene Wolfe.
CONS: Little to no payoff and the end; dialog is easily misinterpreted; not Wolfe’s best work.
BOTTOM LINE: An enjoyable and entertaining novel you’ll find yourself wanting to read again due to the subtle tricks Wolfe plays on the reader.
An American travel writer, Grafton, decides to write his next travel book on a rarely visited eastern European country. Even entering this country is a challenge, as flights he books are cancelled, and drivers are advised to turn back from mountain roads. He finally gets a train to the capital, but gets accused of being a spy, and is arrested. His passport is taken, and thus the plot begins.
The Land Across is written in first-person point-of-view, and in the opening chapter, Grafton tells the reader this is the book he wrote before writing his travel book. Interesting, isn’t it, that Grafton felt the need to tell us what happened to him in the country referred to as The Land, before advising anyone of tourist areas, and the best ways to get around, or neighborhoods to avoid. He has a fairly negative experience in his travels, so I’m doubly curious to know what exactly he put in his travel book since, other than a few nice restaurants, there doesn’t seem to be anything in The Land worth seeing. It’s impossible to know, as Grafton often states that he is leaving out conversations and events that he feels aren’t important to the story, so who knows? Maybe he drove past the most beautiful cathedral ever built, or museums of fine art are located on every street corner.
So Grafton is arrested, and instead of being taken to a jail, he’s taken to a home in a small city, and told if he escapes, the owner of the home, Kleon, will be shot. Grafton has nowhere to go and he needs to do research for his book anyway. Kleon’s beautiful wife Martya speaks enough German to communicate with Grafton. The town has no street signs and there’s no telephone to attempt to reach the Embassy in the capital, so it’s no surprise that escape isn’t on the top of his priority list. In very quick succession, Grafton rents a house rumored to have a treasure guarded by ghosts, interacts with a silent man in black who might be haunting the ancestral residence of Vlad the Impaler, has an affair with Martya, is forced to broadcast anti-American radio shows, is arrested again but this time imprisoned, befriends another American while in prison, and is forcibly recruited by the government to help investigate anti-government activities. I don’t feel like I spoiled anything for you with this list of “what happens”, since all of those things occur in the first hundred pages.
As the novel progresses, entire scenes are started and completed in the course of a few paragraphs…and then end abruptly, giving the novel a pace that can only be described as “jolty”. Events that happen at the beginning of the book are connected to what happens at the end, but I never felt satisfied with the reasons why things were happening, or why they were connected to other events and characters. Grafton just seemed to float along while events occurred around him. He never seemed overly angry at being arrested, or at being arrested again and then imprisoned for over a year, and then being forced to work for the government of The Land. It’s as if he knew, right from the start, that everything (including the hauntings, the Voodoo dolls, the secret societies, his affairs with Martya and then Naala, the silent character who keeps showing up everywhere, and more) would eventually work out in his favor.
In my opinion, the most interesting part of The Land Across were the tricks Wolfe played with language. Grafton of course speaks English, and also speaks a passable German. He doesn’t speak the language of the Land, and at first manages to communicate in broken German with anyone there who speaks a smattering of German, and only later learns their language while he is in prison. But the written dialog of the Landers never changes. Martya’s dialog is written in broken English, and later in the book, when it’s assumed that Grafton’s fluency has improved, Martya’s and Naala’s dialog is still written in broken English. Is this to imply that Grafton is doing a direct translation of what they are saying, keeping the different grammatical rules of their language intact? Have they picked up some broken English? Are they speaking in broken German? The reader has no way of knowing, and the broken English makes it very easy for Grafton (and the reader) to misinterpret what is said, which I think is the point.
The Land Across is fast-paced, interesting, and accessible, which makes it a great place to start with Gene Wolfe if you’ve never read him before. I’d tell you exactly what the book is about, about its twists and turns, but I can’t even tell you if there was a twist, or what exactly the point of the book was (and I don’t feel the slightest bit dumb to admit that). I enjoyed reading it, there were surprises as the story progressed, but little to no pay-off at the end.
As I finished The Land Across I remember thinking to myself “I’d read this again in a heartbeat”. It’s been a few weeks now, and I still can’t tell you the point of the book, or what I was supposed to get out of it, but I can happily report that I do indeed want to read it again. Wolfe closes the novel out with a badly named Appendix, which consists a half page of how wonderful democracy is, and how important it is to do your research before voting. Is this Wolfe’s appendix? or Grafton’s?
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