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A Borrowed Man cover

Slade House US cover

Slade House UK cover

There Are Doors into this Book, though it is no laughing matter to pass inside, and the main door is shut in our face for ever more. Once the stark impersonally staged rooms it's mostly told within have been traversed, one might almost be able to say this is the saddest story I have ever heard, even though A Borrowed Man, which tells a tale out of the old age of the author of Peace (1975), may not be quite the most adamantly terminal novel Gene Wolfe has ever written. But there is no light at the end of the tunnels interrogated by its eponymous narrator, Ern A. Smithe (an urn in which a smith resides, a maker you can rent), and just before his tale concludes—a tale he is telling us in retrospect: every word of A Borrowed Man is overdue—he is responsible for the shutting of a final door on the only light that could have possibly shone into this cruel world. The closing of that door—conveyed as usual with Wolfe seemingly en passant—darkens backwards the entire text, scrubs the tale free of any readerly assumption that the pervasive "torpidity" it depicts is laid down in error, is anything but the heart of the matter. A Borrowed Man does not escape from prison through doors; it is a prison upon which the doors have shut.

Here we run into a dilemma for readers familiar to anyone who has encountered Wolfe before: as this reviewer has said more than once over the forty years he has been attempting to lay down timely responses to Gene Wolfe's novels on their first appearance, there is no first reading of any of them. What may seem patently wrong with A Borrowed Man on a first run-through—its flattened affect; the transparent callus through which each character's inner being must be mouthed in a diction which has been censored; its adherence to the law that a detective novel should move from puzzle to solution to return, which in this case should not be confused with redemption—seems, on reflection, exactly to the point of the tale.

The story, told in the first person by a dead detective author named Ern A. Smithe through the distorting mouth of the "reclone" into whom or which scans of his personality have been embedded, more than a century after his original death, is not entirely simple. Deep into the twenty-second century, in a massively depopulated North America ruled by an agency called the Continental Government, Smithe is discovered inhabiting a bland, banal, immensely cruel world that his reclone seems to have been engineered to operate in without experiencing trauma or even serious affect. Smithe himself seems sufficiently isomorphous with his mask not to go mad in the cage he now occupies: though human by appearance, in this desiccated, fined-down world he is, for all intents and purposes, a kind of book. He has been sterilized. He resides upon a shelf (more like a large cubicle) in an archaicized lending library, in which he can be consulted, and from which he can be borrowed; if he remains unborrowed too long, library rules will require his incineration, while conscious (drugs may be costly). More than one copy of him may exist. He is a slave. (We are never told exactly how the world reduced its population to something like a billion now, with further reductions planned, but it is clear that eugenicist arguments, applied with a fervour and efficiency that puts to shame the actions of the Nazi government from 1933 on, have justified innumerable deaths. Even now, in the deathlike aftermath world Smithe adjusts to, "defective" human beings—we meet one who is mute—continue to be destroyed when discovered.)

Beyond an array of unspoken but diegetically conspicuous restraints on his behaviour, Smithe/reclone has been specifically engineered or conditioned, on pain of incineration (again), not to write: for nothing new is permitted in this world, nothing that might corrupt the product, disturb the terminal peace of this utopia. In the event, Smithe makes it clear that we (he calls us, or someone, "you") are reading a text he has in some sense written down, some time after the events it depicts. His explanation of what he is doing is not, perhaps, meant to explain:

Maybe I ought to stop right here and explain what I'm doing, how I'm writing this. Only what I'm doing is not really writing, which my brain is blocked on. (Or not all of it is. Only some of it.)

But this is not all. The reclone's "auto speech center" restricts Smithe's oral utterances to a rudimentary "formal English" modestly spiced with bits of archaic slang; only when he is writing down his thoughts, which he claims he is sort of not doing, can he escape, even partially, what must be a horrifying immurement for an author: to talk like a Joe Palooka stripped of idiolect.

The story begins, in palooka speak: murder "is bad, sure, sometimes awfully, awfully bad." Smithe, "a young guy behind an older guy's face" (our only real confirmation that Smithe did not die young a century before), is checked out by a woman named Colette C. Colbrook, who has been investigating the deaths of her father Conrad and her murdered brother Cob, and has come across one of his detective thrillers in her father's safe, where the secret of Conrad's sudden wealth might be revealed. She takes Smithe through an incoherently belated quasi-twentieth century Upper-New-York-like Truman-Show-ish landscape to a country place, where they talk (he sort of notices the ruralized trees and plants); then to her apartment, where they are assaulted, bound, and stripped (the scene where he unties her with his teeth lacks, presumably because of his engineering, any hint of the erotic); then to her father's highly Wolfeian house, which boasts several stories, lots of locked doors, and a garden more or less coterminous with its roof. Here Smithe more or less inadvertently works out that the contents of the novel he'd written more than a century earlier are in fact irrelevant, despite the mild mystery of its survival so long; but that its covers have been converted into electronic keys—as in early twenty-first-century hotels—with which he gains through an upper-storey door secret access to and control over a mysterious low-gravity garden world. Several characters are introduced, who contribute to detective-story-like confusions and solutions, and who at times—Wolfe has always had a tendency to follow the dots of sidebar—clutter up the action. Smithe is tortured more than once, which he describes in a controlled voice.

As the end approaches he learns some truths: that Colette's father's wealth comes from emeralds brought from this other green world; that the twenty-second-century dystopia he's trapped in has been smitten by the devastating varieties of entropic loss and resource depletion and spiritlessness visible just beyond the horizons of 2015; that, as already hinted, in order to survive its rulers have opted for a savagely enforced cultural and scientific "torpidity" which, for all its deathliness, may be preferable to the planet's experiencing again what, given sufficient new energies, Loki-fingered Homo sapiens might be capable of; and that, as in the SF of our youth, the garden world he has discovered is in fact a portal to the universe. At this point Wolfe quotes several lines from "The Hashish-Eater," a poem by Clark Ashton Smith:

Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million colored suns
Of secret worlds incredible . . . 

Bad poetry, perhaps, but it lies right at the sad iron heart of A Borrowed Man.

Smithe now solves Cob's murder; himself murders or, which is the same thing, effectively causes the terrible death of a person who has endangered him; and bars forever the door through the garden into new Edens to harvest. The denier of dreams, having buried deep his book, then returns to his library shelf, with a lot of money in his pants. We may guess that he may use some of this cash to game the system sufficiently to dismantle his conditioning so he can "write" the book we are reading. We may even guess he remembers where he buried the key. But we are not told if this is the case.

It will not surprise readers of almost any previous Wolfe novel that we cannot quite trust Ern A. Smithe—any more than we can quite trust the narrator of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915), who may have indirectly killed at least two people during the course of telling us the saddest story he had ever heard, without showing any awareness that the Good Soldier is him. Though he makes no serious attempt to hide the act, the murder Ern commits is also indirect. He hints that he knows all there is to know about himself; but hints too that he knows no more than some Good Soldier whose gift of gab flickers fractured through manufactured diction. In all of this he is of course a typical Wolfe protagonist, a crippled exultant speaking pidgin through a mask, a prisoner of the book.

What does seem new shines all the same through the near baby-talk Smithe is forced to use. Most of Wolfe's greatest earlier narratives—primarily the twelve volumes of the Book sequence—have each tended to close in on an aura of something like transcendence, sometimes nothing more manifest than a sense that the exultant teller of the tale has been recognized by a gaze from beyond the page, sometimes a slingshot that carries him beyond the prison of the book: "Good fishing!" Not here. A Borrowed Man is not a jeu d'esprit but a trap without exit. The world it depicts has been shut. It is the book of someone who has lived a long time, but who knows he is going to burn to death. Like the books of other old men and women, it may seem thrown-off, schematic, lacking the saeva indignatio poundage that booms the books of younger authors. But the casual buoyancy of A Borrowed Man is a trick of the lighting. The light is rage.

Almost the reverse might be said of David Mitchell's Slade House: because it is a transaction of seemingly illimitable darkness that turns to light. Readers unfamiliar with Mitchell's modus operandi, who may have begun to read what seemed to them—and for most of its length superbly accomplished the task of being—a tale of contemporary horror, may have been a tad disconcerted to find that the escalator carpet of Story had in this case debouched into open air, that the seemingly implacable almost-closed fist of the tale had opened into the vastly more amplitudinous sky-laced multiverse to which Mitchell's entire oeuvre to date has been spent taking the pulse of. No surprise, one supposes, for readers of his earlier work; but I'm not myself anywhere near sure this exposure to the light actually works as well as it should.

In a university town not far west of London—a slang reference to Paddington Station seems to clinch the general location—there is a narrow passage called Slade Alley. Through a door in the alley which is not always visible, once every nine years since 1979, at the end of October in each case, a victim passes into the garden of Slade House, a seemingly belated edifice stuck in the middle of what seems an inner suburb—a bit like China Miéville country. Each victim enters the house, whose innards seem unstable, a House of Leaves sensation out of Mark Z. Danielewski. Each victim soon dies in the same way, sucked dry of life force, which serves as fuel to keep alive the incestuous siblings who own Slade House, and who do not age. Each victim narrates his or her own story; each story reiterates a passage to the same terrifying death, and so the horror intensifies. But the siblings' Halloweenish grand guignol, which readers of a piece as bravura as Slade House might legitimately expect to climax with a virtuoso corkscrew twist into the vitals, is interrupted by something else.

Any reader familiar with Doctor Marinus from The Bone Clocks (2014) will know what is about to happen as soon as Iris Marinus turns out, in 2015, to be the sixth planned-for victim. My suggestion to anyone not yet familiar with David Mitchell's work as a whole is straightforward: read Slade House first, and take its ending as a slingshot into the maestoso, endlessly unpackable, orrery-within-orrery world of The Bone Clocks and its predecessors.

This way, instead of a jeu that dwindles, a jaw opens.

John Clute ( has been writing SF and fantasy criticism since the 1960s, and has been involved in writing encyclopedias since the 1970s. His novel Appleseed (2001) was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. His most recent book is a new collection, Stay, which includes both criticism and short fiction. He is currently working on the third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
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