Let sleeping dogs lie: Gene Wolfe’s “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (review)

Buy this book as a trade paperback (Gollancz SF Masterworks edition) or a Kindle ebook.

Trust is a slippery prospect in Gene Wolfe’s collection of interconnected novellas, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” — and while the oft-unfortunate characters that populate the book certainly have their own issues of trust, confidence and reliability, the one who is really left grasping after truth, and even a genuine sense of reality within this singular narrative collection, is the reader.

This is by no means a bad thing. As a work of speculative literature, Wolfe’s 1972 breakout book is an extraordinary read. The prose is detailed and vivid; its intricacies invite the reader to linger, and savor a darkly lyrical text that is full of puzzles and mirrors.

Figuring out the truth of the telling is part of the pleasure.

The twin planets Sainte Anne and Sainte Croixe are where we lay our scene. They have been subject to waves of colonization, both Francophone and Anglophone, and at least one major interplanetary war.

There are also rumors of aborigines — shapeshifters who, if they ever existed at all, have either been driven to extinction in the traditional manner, or have so utterly infiltrated colonial society as to have replaced the colonizers and, possibly, to have forgotten who they actually were in the first place.

The culture that has emerged from this fecund melange is sophisticated but deeply retrograde, romantically Gallic, and profoundly decadent, founded on an intersection of chattel slavery and genetic engineering that produces situations of remarkable cruelty and degradation.

Wolfe’s ability to present this from within the culture is so fully realized and immersive, that it’s chilling to the reader who, browsing through the depictions of ordinary life amid the expanding backdrop of mystery, suddenly recognizes the degree to which monstrosity has been normalized in these worlds.

Yet it is hard to look away. Before too long, we realize that Wolfe has made us voyeurs — astonished, appalled, but riveted. The author commands our gaze and has his way with us, even makes us complicit; we can’t remain innocent by the end, because, after all, it’s only ourselves, and our own human capacities, that hold us spellbound. 

The novellas — there are three — seem, at first, only superficially related, by time and setting. But they are in fact riddled with deep-structured cross references. Some of the scenes and narratives are witnessed from the first person; others, as if we are peering through a closed-circuit camera. Again, the voyeuristic thrill and fascination is hard to shake.

I suppose at this point it’s important to note, besides the small matter of truth and trust, the other key literary theme of the book — identity.

We are not using that word in the prosaic sense that it is employed today — as a means of situating oneself in the world of politics, heritage, and self representation. Our concern is instead the far more basic issue of actually being sure any of the narrators are who they say they are — either due to their own dishonesty to themselves or to us, or as a result of any psychological delusion or fugue, or the amnesiac passage of years, or by the effort of any third parties to deny them self-knowledge in the first place.

Misgivings about identity and trust in the three narratives are compounded by the nature of the shape-changing aboriginals as mostly legendary, the subject of rumor and tall tales. If they have ever existed at all, they may be specifically anthropomorphic — or far more elemental and protean, responding to and deriving meaning from their environment according to its stimulus.

It’s said you can tell them by their lack of capability with tools. At times they seem by their nature similar to the fey folk of Earthly folklore. They may cross the line between the material and the immaterial, walking from lucid dreams into the waking world.

This is all in play, is to the reader glittering and coherent like a school of fish — yet we are unable to reach out and fix our grasp. Like the propagation of light through water, language and the intention of the narrative seems to refract and bend.

The book’s final novella, “V.R.T.,” exemplifies this. It’s a layered set of first-person narratives, interviews and testimonials by (one presumes) an anthropologist searching for evidence of the legendary aborigines. It’s situated variously in the outback, in a Kafkaesque prison system, and, as seen here, in and among the original French colonies: 

Self: Can you tell me the approximate date on which your grandfather last saw a living Annese, Monsieur Culot?

M.C: A few years before he died. Let me think … Yes, three years I think before his death. He was confined to his bed the year following, and his death took him two years after.

Self: About forty-three years ago, then?

M.C: You do not believe an old man, do you? That is cruel! These French, you said yourself, they cannot be trusted.

Self: On the contrary, I am intrigued.

M.C: My grandfather had attended the funeral of a friend, and it had depressed his spirit; so he went for a walk. When he had been but a little younger he had walked a great deal, you comprehend. Then only a few years before the last illness he ceased to do so. But now because his heart troubled him he walked again. I was playing draughts with my father, his son, and was present when he returned.

What did he say his indigene look like? Ah! (Laughs) I had hoped you would not ask that. You see, my father laughed at him as well, and that made him angry. For that to my father he spoke his bad English much, to make my father angry in return; and he said my father sat all day and consequently saw nothing. My father had both his legs gone in the war; it is fortunate for me, is it not, that he did not lose certain other things as well?

I asked them that question you have asked me — how did it appear? I will tell you what it was he responded, but it will cause you to mistrust him.

Self: Do you think he may have simply been teasing you, or your father?

M. C: He was a most honest old man. He would not tell lies to anyone, you understand. But he might — speak the truth in such a way as to make it sound impertinent. I asked him how the creature appeared, he said sometimes like a man, but sometimes like the post of a fence.

Self: A fence post?

M. C: Or a dead tree — something of the sort. Let me really recollect myself. It may have been that he said: “Sometimes like a man, sometimes like old wood.” No, I cannot really tell you what he meant by that.

By the end of the book, almost every detail becomes profound. Even the movements of a street cat or a bird landing on a windowpane arouse suspicion. Uncertainty and doubt are built into the telling, and the longer you read, the deeper your intrigue.

By way of spoilers, in the form of brief summaries, we’ll keep it brief, for the benefit of your pleasure as a reader. (Similarly, you are not encouraged to read any forward or introduction to any edition of this book until you’ve actually read all three novellas. There will be time for that later.)

The first, eponymous story, which sets the book’s overall baroque tone, has Wolfe showing his hand in an almost uncharacteristically overt manner, setting what at first appears to be a simple boy’s narrative of childhood in a large house at 666 Saltimbanque Road.

Well. There’s a pleasure-garden on the roof; an aunt of sorts whose black skirts, apparently without any feet beneath, appear to levitate a few inches off the ground; a pair of siblings; a father remote in manner and surely obsessed; and, one comes to realize, some implication of a terrible crime still to come. Throw in a statue of a certain three-headed dog, a brothel, a slave market, clones and a segmented robotic tutor called Mr. Million, and you’ve merely dipped your toe in the water. Have fun.

The middle tale, “‘A Story,’ by John V. March,” is a folkoric fever-dream, or a walkabout in a dreamtime that recalls (from our Western understanding of it) the waking-life mythscape of Australia’s aboriginal peoples. It’s completely immersed, and so are we; even the introduction of meta-perspective — through discourse with what may or may not be ghosts of prior colonists — is completely inadequate to the task placing the proceedings at any specific time or place within the larger collection of novellas. And yet, as in the book’s other stories, with their presumptions of sophistication and civilization, there’s extraordinary beauty, some real moments of human kindness, and, of course, great cruelty. Plus cannibalism. Dream on.

It is only with a third story, “V.R.T.,” and the culminating conundrum in Dr. March’s Kafkaesque imprisonment and abuse, that we begin to see how all three works may in fact come together.

A combination of first-person narratives from the field and from within prison, plus the aforementioned “closed circuit TV” perspective on the instruments of justice (such as they are), the story is ultimately a set of strangely nested reveals. Peel one back and it only gets weirder, more full of implication, more demanding in its depictions of human cruelty and caprice.

As such, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” is a moral book. Yet I am not sure it produces a resolution by its ending.

It’s more a puzzle-box that may achieve a harmonized whole, but can’t really be “solved.” The questions it asks us, about our dual citizenship in both the physical world and in the created worlds of culture, stories and mind, are provocative, uncomfortable and gorgeously represented. It is possible you will be put off by the veils and shadows, by Wolfe’s deliberate misrepresentations. You might put it down just to return to it, more than once. You might love it, reread it, perhaps annotate it, and certainly browse the small but intriguing field of interpretive and critical essays that have cropped up around it.

What a pleasure. Reader, beware. 

Joshua Wilson

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