The Land Across is a notable departure from Gene Wolfe’s earlier work. Most famous for his mystical science-fiction epics The Book of the New Sun (1980-83) and The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), Wolfe now offers up a paranormal mystery with elements of absurd postmodernism.
This is the story of an American travel writer named Grafton who visits an unnamed Eastern European country. Upon crossing the border, he is immediately arrested, and his passport confiscated. He is placed in a bizarre form of house arrest under the watch of two private citizens he doesn’t know. Before long he winds up in a world of cloak-and-dagger espionage, deadly religious cults and worse dangers from beyond the grave.
The Balkans have long stirred the imagination of those living further west. The region’s rich folkloric tradition gave us Count Dracula and other evil spirits. It has also produced far greater real-life monsters like Nicolae Ceausescu and Slobodan Milosevic. As such, it makes a fertile ground for a story blending the supernatural with the oppressive apparatus of a modern police state. Like Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (2011), Wolfe invents a country that somewhat resembles real ones, but allows his imagination free rein by not locking into a specific place.
Though the plot of The Land Across is nothing like Wolfe’s masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, the protagonists of the two works share a number of similarities. Much like Severian the Torturer, Grafton is an unlikely hero caught up in major events by seeming coincidence. They both are tall and claim to have near-perfect memories, though they seem to share a poor sense of direction. Women are also prone to throwing themselves at our heroes.
Both characters seem to find ways to change allegiances without betrayal, which raises questions about what they really believe. Without giving anything away, Grafton makes a commitment for reasons that are never made entirely clear and apparently without wrestling with the moral compromises the commitment requires.
The unnamed country is ruled by “the Leader,” who reminded me of The Book of the New Sun’s Autarch in a couple of key respects. Wolfe’s almost-ludicrous portrayal of the totalitarian dictatorship in the early chapters reminded me of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925) and Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979). But then Wolfe lets up, and the secret police that terrorize the population appear in a mostly-favorable light. This is in contrast to the Torturer’s Guild in The Book of the New Sun, which still seems horrible despite its portrayal by one of its members. The Land Across is missing that deft hand that made evil understandable without letting it off the hook. Wolfe anticipated this criticism and answers it in his appendix (a regular feature of his novels), but the failure to engage in serious moral questions is what separates a good book like The Land Across from a great one like The Book of the New Sun.
To be fair to Wolfe, The Land Across does not aim for greatness. It is an entertaining mystery, well-paced and solidly-plotted. The strangeness of the setting provided a number of amusing surprises. The characters were interesting, and their cultural and linguistic differences enriched the dialog. Wolfe weaves a number of strands together in a complex story that delivers in the end. [subscribe2]