Monday, October 24, 2011

An Evil Guest

Gene Wolfe brings a fascinating combination of genres together in An Evil Guest, creating a novel that challenges the reader's expectations and skill. Elements of space opera, Lovecraftian horror, noir, and backstage romance come together for a challenging read that dances along the razor-thin borders between genre fiction and "literary fiction."

I've written in the past about how golden age speculative fiction often leaves a great deal unsaid, forcing the reader, if they so choose, to try to fill in the gaps of the plot by inference. I had not thought to make the same evaluation of noir stories, but after finishing An Evil Guest and reflecting back on its genre roots, I realized that a lot of the action in noir is dialogue-driven with many many levels of understanding. Characters play games with one another, alternately searching for and hiding the truth, making their own inferences and determining their validity based on interview and, sometimes, actual physical clues. With roots in both these genres, An Evil Guest is almost entirely dialogue, forcing the reader to weigh the truthfulness of what is said by evaluating the morality of the characters in the story. This process is made that much more difficult when we discover that the protagonist both does not trust her own observations and is more observant than the average character at the same time.

Our heroine is Cassie Casey, an actress who finds herself asked by the secretive Gideon Chase to help him with some detective work. We know very little about Gideon Chase other than he appeared to turn down the invitation to work on the case for which he solicits Cassie's help earlier in the novel. But here he is, promising her a large amount of money and to use what can only be described as his magic powers as a payment for her assistance. She accepts his offer, and high upon a mountaintop in the middle of the night, he promises to make her a star. Her assignment is to meet and shadow the nefarious William Reis, suspected of alchemy and thus leveraging the gold market to his advantage and then report his activities back to Chase. After studying photographs of Reis, Cassie learns that he is also known as Wallace Rosenquist, the angel for her next big production, Dating the Volcano God. And as you might imagine from the noir background, Reis/Rosenquist has his eyes set on Cassie as well.

The setting for An Evil Guest is a mix of fantasy and science fiction. Set apparently near the end of the 21st century, part of the plot's intricacies deal with the string of ambassadors to the only intelligent alien race humans have yet to encounter. While most of the descriptions of the urban settings feels like it could be lifted from the 1930s and 40s, every now and again the reader is reminded of current technology with cell phones and also future technology—"hoppers" or private space vehicles that can be used to travel to the other side of the Earth in minutes and even into space. At the same time, as Chase and Cassie look for evidence against Reis, they also have conversations about the existence of traditionally magical elements such as spells and shapeshifters.

The real meat of the story, however, is following Cassie's daily life as she works in the theater preparing for her new show and deals with the bouncing relationship she has with chase and Reis. There is a sort of instant chemistry between Chase and Cassie, one that is played up like a minor version of Bogart and Bacall with hints and allusions in their every conversation. But Cassie also feels an attraction for Reis despite her initial fear and distrust of him. It's later revealed that Reis and Chase know and respect each other, further cementing the triangle that is the heart of the novel. Eventually other agencies get involved in the complex plot, trying to impose their own will on the triangle and forcing unusual responses from Reis and Chase. On one level, the novel flows speedily past, made primarily of conversations that are entertaining on their own. But trying to piece together not only the interconnections between the characters but also following the crime aspect is daunting and multi-layered, forcing the reader to be attentive and dig beyond the surface enjoyment of the narrative.

Through it all, because of the apparent contradictions that the characters seem to resolve before the reader even becomes aware of them, the reader constantly asks himself "What's going on?" When Reis invites Cassie to become his high queen, and the true scope of what that means is revealed, the question is magnified severalfold. And then, when the repercussions of Cassie making her decision are played out and the novel takes another hard turn into a different genre altogether, the novel forces the reader to accept that the low levels of just enjoying the ride and the deeper levels of working it all out are really one and the same. Viewed from a higher remove, some aspects of the novel are ludicrous, including the deus ex machina (or would it be dei ex machina?) that drives the crisis of the novel. But that very ludicrous nature also allows Wolfe to play his narrative and genre games and impels the craft and pleasure the novel bears.

An Evil Guest is a challenge and will not satisfy a lot of readers, readers unwilling to set aside expectations and just go for the ride. Its craft is not so much in its language or style but in how Wolfe wedges in what are otherwise contradictory aspects of several genres. But as I finished, I found that I wanted to know more about this universe and especially about Cassie Casey, sure signs of the success of the novel.

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