Review of An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe

“Money is an evil guest.”

Gene Wolfe can write in any genre he desires, I suppose. This book was a noir with subtle science fiction elements. The blurbs and book jacket call it Lovecraftian horror, which is a lie. You can expect 95% dialogue, well-polished, for about 250 pages, and the final 50 pages reward you with a surprising, even shocking, ending.

The best part of the book is the main character, Cassie Casey, who is a well-rounded (voluptuous), smart, funny, charming, likeable, up-and-coming actress, who stumbles into a conspiracy of cosmic significance. Her run-ins with rich bastards and slick sorcerers, and later, vicious islanders, make for an occasionally harrowing drama. But for the bulk of the novel you will be piecing together the plot elements through Wolfe’s effective dialogue, which only reveals enough background to draw you into the tale. What it does on the surface level is establish deep characters, with complex motivations – enough for any fan of pulp noir.

Written with the simplicity and pace of a Philip K. Dick novel, Gene Wolfe afficionados and neophytes alike will appreciate a breather from his near-incomprehensible world-building. This was a refreshing, easy, compelling and surprising read, even if it lacked the abyss-like depth of Wolfe’s masterpieces.

A close examination of his themes and devices reveals far more hidden meanings in the characters’ names and “metamorphoses” than I gathered from my reading – as usual, I had to look them up. Wolfe, the sorcerer himself, doesn’t disappoint on this score. But one can’t help but wonder about Woldercan and many of the unexplored “islands” of this book. How much of the interior and exterior universe do we actually get to see? Very little. He maintains a close perspective, and limits himself to cast an aura of historical nostalgia. It would be a simple matter to dismiss this as a minor work, a mere curiosity in Wolfe’s disturbing cabinet of secrets.

Yet, the dialogue-heavy explication does undermine the author’s typically genius plot cues. We are given an Idiot’s Guide through the characters’s anxious dialogues. Cassie is still figuring out the scenario along with the reader. But I think this is more playful sleight-of-hand on Wolfe’s part. How are you supposed to notice the influences outside the narrator’s field of vision? Luckily, we are presented with a wider view at the end of the book. I think this abrupt shift in perspective saved this book from being ordinary, though it will bother some readers, who were enjoying the simplicity preceding it.

A memorable, exciting and still profound book by a grandmaster of the bizarre.

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