I've now read this novel twice and I'm still not entirely sure what exactly is going on, or whether it's any good or not. Since reviews are largely in the business of giving readers a sense of what a novel is about and whether it is any good, this may prove problematic.
I don't want to overstate matters; on one level Wolfe's new novel is perfectly comprehensible. It's a sort of future-as-1930s-America soldering together of pulpy noir and Lovecraftian horror dusted lightly with some of the props of Golden Age science fiction. The main character is Cassie Casey, a not-very-successful actress in what reads very like Damon Runyon's Depression-era Broadway. There are two other important characters: Gideon Chase, who is a sort of wizard-cum-private investigator, and Bill Reis, a billionaire supervillain (or ... is he?). The U.S. government does not trust Reis, who has returned from the distant alien world of Woldercan having picked up from aliens there the ability to turn base metal into gold (though lethally radioactive gold, which seems to me of limited usefulness) and possibly the ability to shapeshift, either downwards from humans into wolves, or else upwards from humans into ... well, that's more ambiguous.
The U.S. government approaches Gideon Chase to investigate Reis. Chase in turn recruits Cassie Casey, winning her over by promising to make her a megastar. He does this by taking her to a Canadian mountain and using magic to awaken her inner charisma. It's sketchily described, but after the process Casey manifests a glamour previously only latent within her and becomes the starriest of stars, the toast of the town. She is then hired by Reis (who is using the name Wally Rosenquist) to be the female lead in a musical he is putting on called Dating the Volcano God. Indeed Reis has fallen in love with Casey, and wants to marry her. Gideon Chase has also fallen in love with her, as she has with both men, and this peculiar love triangle is the main structuring principle of the novel. If she were to marry Chase would she change her name to Cassie Casey-Chasey? What if her middle name were Jessie? Thoughts like these plague the heat-oppressed brain as it attempts to fathom the strange undercurrents of Wolfe's novel.
Because, as we all know, Wolfe's titanic reputation in the genre is mostly due to his novels' complex undercurrents, not to their often diffuse and awkwardly choreographed surfaces. My experience with him is that it is in re-reading his novels, and rarely just reading them, that they reveal their excellences. I worked my way dutifully through the New Sun books only to feel baffled at the praise lavished upon them. Then, a year or more later, and for reasons I can no longer remember, I picked them up again to reread them. It was a revelatory experience; these novels do indeed deserve their reputation. On the other hand, who has time to reread (and perhaps rereread) in these hectic days of ours? And in the absence of a reread, what sort of surface does An Evil Guest present?
The short answer is: a spotty one. There's a lot of stuff about putting on the show Dating the Volcano God, all the to-ings and fro-ings of musical theatrical production, that I found rather tedious. There's also a quantity of not very well handled noir-ish gubbins, mysterioUS men lurking in corridors with six shooters and the like, which failed to excite me. Fairly late in the novel the action shifts to an actual South Sea Island, and a series of rather puzzling events that seemed, after the longueurs of the first 250 pages, to zip by in a rather hectic manner. These events embroider variations upon a Cthulhuesque theme: perhaps star-spawn of Cthulhu/sunken city of R'lyeh-style stuff. I'm not sure. Actually I just wanted to write the word "Cthulhuesque"; and, having done so, I must say I like the look of it.
From time to time Wolfe attempts humour, something frankly beyond him as a writer. In the South Seas, Casey decides to phone her friend called India. India, in this context, being a person, not the country. Casey has a conversation with a telephone operator.
"Calling the States might be a bit costly, though..."
"I don't care," Cassie said. "I'm going to call India."
"Oh, you've friends in India?" (p. 227)
My aching sides. Or again, here's Cassie crossing the Canadian border, and causing us, the readers, to fall off our chairs with sheer hilarity at her mock-Russian accent:
The Mountie heaved a sigh. "Let's see some ID."
"I haf a tattoo." Looking up at him, she licked her lips. "Ees var' pretty. Tzum private place, da?" (p. 36)
Presumably Wolfe strains for comic effect because he believes the pulp-noir tradition requires it, but he can't manage it. There are other lapses of tone, too, as for example the (female) assassin who breaks into Cassie's bedroom, puts a gun to her head and utters the snort-worthy line: "My steel dildo is in your face. One moment more, and its ejaculation will blind an eye" (p. 252). There are jolting sallies into racist stereotyping: an artificial intelligence with a Japanese accent that says "arso" and calls itself "one artificiar interrigence"; or a clutch of South Sea Islanders straight from the Mumbo Jumbo Savages school of central casting. This is how Wolfe thinks somebody educated by the English school system talks: "Public school, you know. Eaton after and all that rot. Cambridge, only I didn't cop the gown. Pater passed so I did a runner" (p. 239). As an Englishman I'm here to tell you: not so. Really, for reasons too numeroUS to list here, not so. Perhaps Wolfe meant to write "Ceambridge."
Then there is the central character of Cassie Casey herself. Cassie is a flame-haired, green-eyed, curvaceous beauty (pictured there on the front cover) and is supposed, I guess, to come across as a feisty yet feminine "strong woman" throughout. I put strong woman in inverted commas there because it strikes me as a phrase now mostly hijacked by the reactionary forces of post-feminism. Casey is not a strong woman. She is a conservative's notion of a strong woman: an "Of Queen's Gardens" woman, permitted to explore to the very edge of her pedestal but not to step down from it. She is defined almost entirely in terms of her physical appearance and her effect upon men, and to a certain extent she colludes in this objectification. As she sets out for the South Seas, Gideon Chase tells her: "one day after you get to Kolalahi you'll be wearing a bikini that covers three square inches. And every man who sees you will foam at the mouth." Her reaction: "she giggled softly and sat down in front of the best mirror to put on makeup" (p. 217). The men in her life patronize her shockingly:
This is one of the things I love about you. You're not at all intellectual—we intellectuals are, for the most part, fools—but every so often you show the most marvelous penetration. (p. 222)
As I say to my wife most days: "although you are, of course, my intellectual inferior, your pretty little head is sometimes capable of pointing out things that I am too deeply engaged in profound cogitation to have noticed. Well done!" Of course, were I ever to say this to my wife she would beat me violently on a delicate spot with a meat tenderizer, and quite right too. She certainly wouldn't giggle softly and rush to a mirror to adjust her makeup.
Wolfe would of course not be the first significant novelist to have been rubbish at portraying women (we might mention, oh I don't know, Dickens, Melville, Lawrence, Forster...) and I'm not convinced, despite the amount of time she spends centre-stage, that Casey is really the point of Wolfe's novel. Chase and Reis are closer to that: the former an individual everybody thinks of as a fake wizard who is actually a real wizard, the latter an individual everybody thinks is a supervillain who may be a sort of hero. Though the surface of the book often struck me as insipid and even clumsy, beneath that surface are some suggestive and powerful elements, and the intriguing sense of unsolved mysteries. An Evil Guest stuck in my head, and worried away at my imagination after I'd finished it, for all that I had so many reservations about it. So I picked it up again.
A reread did not make the problems I mention above disappear, but it did bring out other qualities that may at least be put in the balance. Although the novel has no scenes set upon the alien world of Woldercan, we can intuit some things about it (with its dangerous forests and talking fish I take it to be a form of Fairyland) and it achieves a haunting and effective imaginative quality precisely because of its absence. There are a number of Lovecraftian-variety monsters, and there's one Big Fight between the army and colossal oceanic beasts that happens wholly offstage. Such special effects, by being kept largely in the margins, prey upon the imagination more effectively than they otherwise might.
A lot of the magic in the book boils down to shape-shifting: shifting lead to gold, shape-shifting a man into a wolf (or "lycanthropy"), or shape-shifting a woman into a theatrical superstar (or "celebanthropy"); and there's a lot of stuff to do with disguises, aliases, doubles and the like. Casey's occupation, acting, is precisely pretending to be somebody she is not: a kind of shapeshifting. Wolfe goes to some length (a) to establish that shapeshifting is limited by a necessary equivalence of mass ("The wolf was as big as he was," Gideon said, "because Al is ... when his cells have repositioned, they make a large wolf. I told you about that, too, once", p. 207), and (b) to detail the weight of key characters ("a picture [of] a younger William Reis than she had ever seen, [standing] next to an older man of about the same height who must have weighed at least three hundred pounds," p. 301). Readers may enjoy piecing together the clues to make a more coherent whole.
For instance, Reis and Chase never appear in the same room at the same time, possibly, though I'm not sure, in the same way that Don Diego de la Vega never appeared in the same room at the same time as Zorro. Certainly Casey loves both men, and I wondered if the sameness of much of the novel isn't actually a deliberate strategy—whether the novel itself is actually an oblique meditation on Aristotle's venerable distinction between substance and accident, a philosophical position of peculiar importance to the development of Catholic theology (the Council of Trent used Aristotle to explain how Eucharist bread and wine can shift its shape into the body and blood of Christ whilst seeming to remain wholly bready and winey). Catholicism is an important context for most of Wolfe's works, and may be at the core of what's going on in this novel.
I'm still unsure whether it's a good novel or a bad novel, but that fact alone seems to me to point to a distinctive and rather admirable fictional aesthetic. Like most of Wolfe's books, it's unlike anything else being written; and like most of Wolfe's books, it is profoundly suggestive, and persists strangely in the mind after it is read. Not necessarily for the best of reasons. It's a strange novel. Strange isn't necessarily bad, of course; but neither is it necessarily good.
Should I read it a third time?