You sort of expect Gene Wolfe's new novel The Land Across to be a pomo magical realist-y novel, with tinges of Kafka. After all, it's about a man who travels to a fictional country only to be ensnared in bureaucracy and weird magic. But The Land Across is something far more difficult to explain.
It's really hard to summarize The Land Across, but I'll try. A writer named Grafton wants to
write the first travel book about a small Eastern European country that nobody
ever visits, but when he gets there, his passport is stolen and he's caught in
bureaucratic nightmares. After that, Grafton is forced to become a propagandist
for a strange secret society, imprisoned with a maker of lifesize voodoo dolls,
and then deputized as a member of the secret police, investigating a Satanist
cult. There are ghosts, severed hands, phantom policemen and buried treasure,
in no particular order.
The book has a bit of a Kafka feeling towards the beginning, but quickly leaves that behind to delve into deeper and deeper layers of pulpy adventure, although you sense that there's something else going on beneath the surface.
In fact, the plot of The Land Across feels somewhat random, although it becomes incredibly elaborate in the second half of the book. Grafton stumbles on conspiracy after conspiracy, and uncovers tons of buried secrets, in the manner of a Raymond Chandler detective. At the same time, Grafton juggles jealous girlfriends and meets with secret wise men. Your head will probably be spinning by the end of the book, keeping track of just who is scheming against whom.
What makes the whole thing charming, not to mention thrilling, is the rough first-person narrative voice — Grafton is an impatient narrator, who often tells the reader that he's skipping over the boring parts of the story. He'll start to describe a conversation, then say something like, "And he told me a bunch of other stuff that turned out not to matter." Sometimes Grafton refuses to give some pieces of information, telling the reader to figure it out for yourself. His style is very much reminiscent of a dime-novel hero, too, with touches of Spillane at his most expressive — only the style is, if anything, simpler.
And yet, through the medium of this brash, impatient narrator, Wolfe manages some real poetry and some great moments of describing people. (Which, again, reminds me of Chandler.) Here's Wolfe describing the run-up to a major confrontation in a bar:
A dozen new people were coming into the bar while we danced and acting like they did not know each other. Only I figured they did. For one thing none of them looked like they belonged, and for another there was the same look on all their faces. When a cruel person is about to have some real fun, sticking it to somebody who cannot fight back and laughing about it, and doing it all over again only worse, he gets a certain look. It is not the same way a hungry person looks at food, but that is as close as I can come. You have probably seen it a few times. Think about it.
There are lots of passages like that in the novel — and when Wolfe says "Think about it," you actually do kind of stop and think about it.
Like I said, the basic plot synopsis makes it sound like The Land Across is going to be
the story of a victim — a man who's trapped in a strange country where nothing makes sense and the bureaucracy is out to crush him, alongside bizarre magics. But actually, once Grafton starts coming into his own halfway through the book, it's very much about his rise to mastery over his circumstances. As I said, he turns into a kind of master detective who figures out everybody's hidden motives and untangles the most twisted plots with an almost godlike acumen. By the end of the book, you might start to wonder if Grafton is really that clever, or if he's such an unreliable narrator that you're missing out on what really happened to him.
In any case, The Land Across will simultaneously feed you old-school adventure-novel thrills, baffle you with its complexity and refusal to cohere, and make you wonder just what kind of country this is. If you're still happy taking the novel at face value, Wolfe throws in one last confounding note — a postscript that will make you rethink the whole thing all over again. You might have to read this novel twice to figure it out.