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Popular belief has it the old SF Masterworks covers were better. Popular belief is wrong.

The more books you read, the harder good reading becomes. Not because you grow bored, but because there is a danger of becoming complacent. The regular reader, the reviewer and perhaps most of all the critic must constantly guard against employing the same old filters to brand new books. Many books yield relatively easily to the regular reader; the temptation will always be to take the path of least resistance, employing the tools and methods you’ve used before to good effect. The self-conscious effort required not to do so may be doomed to failure, but it’s the first duty of the reader. Few books are so discombobulating that they don’t encourage one methodology or another.

Of the stories of Gene Wolfe, on the other hand, that eminent critic and uber-regular reader, John Clute, once wrote: “They make me feel as though I’ve read or wrestled with a story way outside my grasp, that I’ve somehow been translated to the innards, and that once inside find myself clinging to the inside walls of a building by Escher built of Braille.” This is very much how I feel having read for the first time Wolfe’s linked trio of novellas, collected under the title The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I was inspired by Martin over at Everything Is Nice, who identified a similar gap in his reading. “I was reminded of Sacsayhuamán,” he wrote of the novel, “its interlocking parts constructed so seamlessly that it shouldn’t be possible.”

This, too, is just right. The three novellas – ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’, ‘”A Story” by John V Marsch’, and ‘V.R.T.’ – reflect and refract each other constantly. But the links are far from apparent – they must not just be teased but crow-barred out, ferreted and foraged for. I confess to pausing in my reading to trawl the web for secondary material, and in this I felt a little like the adventure gamer who sits at the screen with a walkthrough close to hand; but The Fifth Head of Cerberus demands re-reads, and, in the absence of those, what limited materials I found undoubtedly enhanced my appreciation of this tricksy work. At the same time, I’m not sure I trust the urge, most clearly exhibited in what I’ve seen by Robert Borski, to read The Fifth Head of Cerberus as a puzzle to be solved: where are the abos, who is John Marsch, what is Maitre? In his introduction to the new SF Masterworks edition, Adam Roberts (for it is he) resists this reading, and that is to his credit. The novel seems much stranger and more oblique than all that.

Wolfe’s prose style ranges, as Niall tweeted to me last night, “from dry to austere”, and this surprised me: everything I’d heard about the book, and my very experience of reading it, would have led me to expect elaborately, deliberately, rich language. Wolfe’s inspirations – Proust, Dante, the Bible – are indulgent in their use of language; The Fifth Head of Cerberus achieves a similar air of parable or poem without anything like the same technique. This is one of the many ways in which Wolfe defies the usual strategies of reading: though his novel has the feel of deeply symbolic myth, it is so matter-of-fact, so baldly itself, that it cannot properly be read as allegory or fable. There is something disconcerting in this, an uncertainty of understanding which is of course fitting for what can be read as a thoroughly ambivalent coming-of-age novel. The way the text shifts depending on your angle is a function of its refusal to be reduced to single readings and singular meanings: it is a novel full of duality, in which John Marsch is both human anthropologist and clandestine abo; this is its weird strength, the source of its impertience towards the usual methods.

I’m no fan of Seamus Heaney, but a line from his ‘Personal Helicon’ comes to mind: “I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” In the opening novella, Maitre, and all those clones before him, seek to achieve self-knowledge (and self-perfection) by endless repetition of themselves. What Wolfe achieves in his writing is a cacophonous echo chamber, in which allusion and elision repeatedly rebound around the reader. The darkness echos, then, loud and clear; but the meaning, the novel’s knowledge of itself, is one of eternally shifting shape.

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