(urth) The puzzles

Roy C. Lackey rclackey at stic.net
Thu May 17 21:26:24 PDT 2007

Craig Brewer wrote:
no mysteries solved but more questions raised. If
we come to think that this book is essentially
knotted, that at least does give a very interesting
counter-example to the common notion that all of
Wolfe’s “puzzles” can be solved by discerning readers.
It also makes me question whether some of the puzzles
in the other works are supposed to remain so. That
said, it raises some other interesting questions about
the literary merit of “puzzles” like this: what
purpose(s) do they serve when they are solvable and
when they are opaque. After all, puzzles and ambiguity
have very different interpretive consequences.<<

Those are some nasty, nasty questions. <g> Any response I make is likely to
elicit yowls from one or another section of the Preacher's choir, but it
can't be helped.

There are puzzles and then there are puzzles. Do we really need to know that
Dorcas is Severian's grandmother in order to understand the surface story or
appreciate the author's thematic designs? No. But a certain satisfaction is
derived from figuring it out.

Likewise, do we need to know that Weer is dead? I think, yes. The difference
is that knowing Weer is dead, as opposed to, say, the disjointed ramblings
of a demented old man, changes our perception of the nature of his
ruminations. Who is he trying to fool in the frametale, himself or God?
Apparently Wolfe thought it important for the reader to know that Weer was
dead, so he planted the clue in the first sentence of the novel. When
critics failed to pick up on the fact of it he pointed it out, proclaiming
that he had provided the information fair and square to the attentive
reader. Well, yes, he did. <g>

I have little doubt that some of the minor puzzles in Wolfe's work are, in
effect, 'insider' references that few people could or would be expected to
understand. But I think the vast majority of his puzzles are meant to be
solved, that the pieces (scattered though they may be in unlikely places)
are there, or at least enough of them that the picture they form can be seen
clearly enough.

Wolfe *demands* more from his readers than many readers can -- or are
willing -- to supply, which is part of the reason he is not a best-selling
author. It is why the Urth list exists. Over the years I have engaged
people, on list and off, some of whom have published books and articles
about Wolfe's work, in discussions of his major and minor works. I *know*
from those discussions that *no one* has all the answers, and few even
pretend to. I have expended more words in exchanges about some short stories
than the stories contained -- and when all was said the questions still
outnumbered the answers.

The puzzles are meant to be solved, I think, but the problem is to
distinguish the puzzles from the deliberate ambiguities. Parts of 5HC, say,
are, I believe, meant to remain ambiguous. The puzzle surrounding that damn
trunk in Marble/Rose's attic was, I believe, meant to be solved, even if I
haven't done it to my satisfaction.

No one can accuse Wolfe of padding his works with a lot of window dressing.
Almost everything is in there for a reason, even if for no better reason
than the fact that Wolfe *wanted* it there (e.g., talus factory tour). To
supply a very minor example from CASTLEVIEW: When little Judy fetched
Excalibur from Morgan's cabinet, the tip of the sword was resting on "a
shabby little leather book that fell to the floor as she took the sword out.
Mercedes picked up the book, but had eyes only for the sword." (265) That is
the only mention of that book in the text. I can't name that book, but I bet
Wolfe could.

As for the "literary merit" of the puzzles, I don't know. But I do know that
FINNEGAN'S WAKE makes an excellent doorstop. <g>


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