I like Waggish's comments on Gene Wolfe's work - I admit, however, that I find his prose entrancing; I've reread The Book of the New Sun twice not only because I love Severian's picaresque adventures, and thinking about the riddles Wolfe seems to set us, but because of those winding sentences - because I love the narrator's voice. Is it right to point out that the games of the unreliable narrator are just games - that there is no reason why we are prevented from assessing the truth of what is told us?
This is what Waggish finds frustrating, and says has separated Wolfe from other genre writers who have won mainstream literary acclaim. At one point, I remember, Severian, the narrator, tells us he knows he is mad; I underlined the sentence as I read it; I thought: this is important; something will be made of this. But the end, nothing was; the fiction remains untouched by madness - how different, then, to Priest's The Affirmation (see Mumpsimus's remarks) which, like The Book of the New Sun, I have read three times in all.
I've always found Wolfe's preface to Endangered Species (a much weaker collection than The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, as most of his later books are weak) disingenuous: his stories are just stories told around the campfire that is the sun. As Peter Wright's thorough Attending Daedelus shows (scroll down the comments for a summary) I think quite convincingly, The Book of the New Sun and its sequel are about artifice, about fabrication. Even the hierodules are idolators, false angels imitating the Creation without being themselves creators. It takes Patera Silk of The Book of the Long Sun to come into contact with the one genuinely Outside. Severian never reaches the one called the Outsider - or not that I remember. Silk does - albeit in a series far weaker than the New Sun (I've never read my way through to the Short Sun books).
The Outsider, of course, is God. God beyond games, beyond the idolatry of Pas (of Typhon). And now I ask myself about Steve's comments on the relationship between literature and genre, wondering whether genre is content to remain fictional; to construct a world, to dwell with its characters in it; for event to succeed event in a rich linearity.
There is nothing wrong with this - of course not. But there is another kind of writing - and what Steve calls literature refers for those books for whom The Outsider is not God. For whom, then, fiction gives onto the unencompassable Outside as it names language, as it names the world. 'All works form a genre in coming into existence', says Steve. They form a body; they take on plot and character; they offer themselves to be read. But 'resistance to genre marks the literary': then plotting and characterisation must themselves be at stake in the fictional work. Then fiction, artifice must be shown for what they are. The writer is an idolator, not because there is a God, or that God could name the Outside. The writer is an idolator because of that Outside, which admits only of idolatry, that will not allow for any other means of approach.
Is this what Wolfe tells us in The Urth of the New Sun, when it becomes clear that the hierodules, whose name means temple slaves, are mere artificers, following an evolutionary imperative? Is it that there is only idolatry, sham creation? Or is there a way in which the Outside can speak itself via the same artificing - that it breaks the surface of the novel, as when we understand in The Affirmation that the fiction is only idolatry, even as it is the only way to bring the Outside to speech? A resistance to genre - I wonder if Urth, otherwise so unsatisfactory, rises to this when the hierodules are revealed to be botched makers like ourselves, not gods, as Wright's innovative and ingenious reading shows us? In the end, however, I think Waggish is right (see also his comparison between Priest to Wolfe in this earlier post): Severian may be a liar, he may be mad, but the book itself is terribly sane, remaining but a particularly lovely artifice among other idolatrous artifices.