One of the most prominent features of poorly written SF is the information dump, in which the author will leave the narrative hanging while he tells the reader certain significant expository information. Sometimes this is done as an authorial aside, or sometimes by having a character tell another character the pertinent information. One of the signs of a skillful writer in the genre is the ability to impart this exposition without letting the reader catch him in the act. Gene Wolfe has brought this skill to an absolute peak. He is so determined not to appear clumsy in the imparting of crucial information that many of his works become elaborate puzzles, in which the reader must tease out what is really happening because it has been hidden far beneath the surface. Peace may be Wolfe’s most elaborate puzzle.
On the surface it appears to be a mainstream novel in which the character Alden Dennis Weer relives various events of his life. The attentive reader, however, will learn that Weer is a ghost. How can he know this? The first sentence is “The elm tree planted by Eleanor Bold, the judge’s daughter, fell last night.” Why is this so important that the novel starts with the falling of this tree? At one point it’s mentioned that Eleanor Bold married and became Mrs. Porter. At one point during a conversation in the fourth chapter, Weer casually says, “Mrs. Porter? You heard her – she wants to plant a tree on my grave when I’m gone.” So the tree that fell in the first sentence was the one planted on his grave, and it has released his ghost, who is now telling his stories. Why is the ghost restlessly reliving his past life? This is a bit of speculation, but it seems he is in Purgatory and must atone for his crimes before he can be released to move on to Heaven. What crimes? On the surface there is nothing particularly bad he has done. Once again, the attentive reader can assemble a few clues, however, since his life is not told in chronological order (at one point Weer is passing time in a waiting room and says, “There is (as a matter of fact) a whole pile of Lifes before me, and I play the old game of trying to arrange them chronologically without looking at the dates, and lose.") and nothing is ever explicitly stated, much of it must be guesswork, although the clues, once assembled, are pretty convincing. Early in his life he meets Margaret Lorn, and at one point says that the two of them were meant to be together. However, they aren’t. Why not? Probably because Weer was a poor young man with no prospects. And why was that? Because he was the one who played a prank by locking another worker in the coldroom at the plant and then left him to die. Weer himself tells this story in the last chapter of the book. The first time I finished reading this book I had a feeling of anticlimax at the end, as though nothing has been resolved, but after repeated readings I came to realize the importance of this event, which shaped much of his later life. Of course this is a perfect example of how what is learned at the end forces a reader to reevaluate everything that has gone before.
And what of his relationship with Lois Arbuthnot? The two meet and take an interest in one another. Lois is trying to buy a diary for the library from the bookdealer Gold. Eventually, with Weer’s financial assistance she is able to make the purchase for $75. She reads in the book about a fortune in gold supposedly buried nearby by the Civil War raider Quantrill. She attempts to seduce Weer, inviting him to her apartment, getting drunk and letting him take off her bra before passing out, in order to enlist his assistance in digging up the gold. Weer’s assessment of her body as she lies half-naked on the couch is remarkably clinical, evaluating her as having a very good bust for a woman her age without imparting the slightest hint of eroticism. Anyway, the result is the two of them take a shovel and go to where the gold is supposedly buried and try to dig it up. Late at night, the shovel hits something that sounds like metal and Weer sees that Lois has a pistol. He never reveals what happens after that moment. However, he does say that there was no gold and that Lois has abruptly left. He confronts Gold accusing him of fraudulently writing the book himself in order to get $75 from the library. Gold acknowledges the fraud, but defends himself by saying that his frauds bring the people who purchase them happiness. Gold’s daughter comes to sleep with Weer (this time the seduction is successful) in order to convince him not to go to the police and in the process feels beneath his pillow and finds the pistol Lois was carrying. What are we to make of this? Maybe Lois just left town, leaving her pistol with Weer, although it is most likely that he shot her (perhaps in a struggle to take possession of the gun) and buried her body in the hole they’d dug. This is a story of great poignancy and emotional impact; no one except Wolfe would have chosen to tell it in this fashion, omitting the climactic moment and not allowing more than the barest hint of emotion. I might add that this story contains the only moment in the novel where I think I can catch the author in the act of deliberately dropping a hint, since it strikes me as out of character for Weer to keep the pistol under his pillow. Surely he would not have risked himself by keeping such a clue, and would have buried the gun with Lois’ body. But who knows, maybe Lois just gave him the gun and then left town. To quote his observation about a teapot Margaret Lorn shows him early in the book, “the artist's rendering of Jesus and the apostles as Chinese philosophers ... and his running together the various scenes ... resulted in a confusion that, though charming, was nearly impenetrable.”
There are many stories embedded in the book, most of which are left unfinished. These stories are told by a variety of voices and contain much very entertaining detail. They also tend to comment on the main action of the book. One of them is the story of a ceramic Chinese pillow in which a young man has a large debt he is unable to pay and is consequently very pessimistic about his future. He meets an old man who tells him many people are much worse off and then lends him a Chinese pillow, telling him it will fulfill the wishes of anybody who sleeps on it. The young man sleeps on it and proceeds on his way. The rest of his life is an uninterrupted series of triumphs. He spends forty happy years as a highly ranked officer of the army and then retires. One day he is hunting a wolf and gets lost. He meets an old man and tells the story of how he slept on the ceramic pillow, saying "If I could live only that one day again--". The old man is the same one who lent him the pillow, and he replies, "Fool! ... I have granted your heart's desire, and for it I receive your ingratitude!" The soldier runs out of the cave, but finds the cave is actually the ceramic pillow, and he is again a young man in the hostel. This story is referenced by the next to last sentence in the book: “It is time, I think, that I see the enchanted headrest of the Chinese philosopher looming behind me, and I wait its coming.” The implication is that he must begin reliving his life once again, and that he is trapped in an endless cycle. This is what makes it seem as though he is in Purgatory, and so long as he continues to evade repentance for the things he has done he will never be able to move on. Also, is it significant that his middle name backwards spells ‘sinned’?