Discover why Jay Lake's novel Green reminds columnist John Clute of Gene Wolfe

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Just as I sat down this morning to ruminate on Green, I noticed an early obituary dedicated to the famous, nearly mute Indian sarod player Ali Akbar Khan, who had died 19 June 2009, aged 87.

As a child, several decades before the beginning of his sumptuous but life-long exile in America, Khan was subjected by his father to a learning regime as harsh as anything one might find in the works of Gene Wolfe, whose children, from the "Gene Wolfe" of The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) to the once-and-future Art of The Wizard Knight (2004), undergo penitential educations of the utmost severity until these instars of the black Wolfean god turn to stone and kill their fathers.

Khan's father, very much like the obsessed artificer who cloned "Gene Wolfe," would lock his son into a small room until the boy had mastered the vocal and instrumental mysteries assigned to him that day (or week). As Ravi Shankar—Khan's brother-in-law—recounted years later, the young Khan might spend as many as 16 hours a day being fined, like topiary, in his father's image; sometimes he would be tied to a tree—rather like the pomegranate tree Green is bound to in the course of the cruel education Jay Lake subjects her to in Green—and until he'd mastered the appointed lesson or rasa, which is the Indian term for the essence within the skeleton of a raga, he would be left to starve there, in the garden, next to the smell of food.

That Khan was left so damaged by this grafting of his soul that he rarely spoke in later years comes as no surprise.

That, on the other hand, Lake's savagely pollarded heroine never seems to shut her mouth should come as no surprise either, I guess: because it is clearly not part of Lake's belief system, or of his writerly strategy over the long consolatory pages of Green, to treat the savageries of immurement Green suffers as a child as ultimately deforming. Wolfe, whose example has clearly shaped Green, may be the only contemporary author of American fantastic literature consistently to treat damage as damaging; Lake adheres to a sunnier version of the costs of being born in prison: that spunk will unlock the barred door.

By the end of Green, a novel self-sufficient enough not to demand a sequel, his heroine has transcended her rage-driven inner daimon, and escaped the last gory fumes of plot, and turns her face to the healing hills:

I patted my belly and the child hidden within as I rode into the day, the sum of my years singing a quiet song of death and life upon my shoulders. My grandmother would have been proud of me.

Can we believe a word of this?

I think maybe so. I think we believe as much as Green tells us.

It's warmingly clear that Lake expects us to recognize his use of a story model closely identified with the work of Gene Wolfe. It is not a model that Wolfe himself created, of course: first person narratives couched in the form of confessions put on paper for us to read have been common since the 18th century, when they worked to affirm the truth of what was being told. There is no gap between the telling and the tale in Daniel Defoe. Nor did Wolfe create the unreliable narrator, a device of telling that becomes fully self-conscious in Club Stories like Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw" (1898).

Wolfe's innovation has been to inject a modernist problematic into all those elements that such narratives are ostensibly laid down to make clear: basic data about the narrator's true identity and parenthood and victims and lovers and true occupation and ultimate destiny are all unreliably conveyed; the engines of transformation that actually render a small child into an armoured and dangerous adult creature can be uncovered only through inference; the motives of the narrator's parents or owners behind the walls of the house or school or prison or skull are invariably left untold or lied about; and finally, the narrator's motives for making his story (in Wolfe the narrator is always male) available for us to read are similarly left dark.

The inner spaces created through these deeply intense occlusions can chill the reader beyond all normal identification with the teller. But something else happens, too: the reader, having been put on guard to assume that nothing can be trusted but that everything signifies, gains a kind of security from the unrelenting harsh serenity of the voice that tells a novel by Wolfe. In the first instance, we know that the teller of the tale has survived to tell it (not an insignificant message in a tale as cruel as The Book of the New Sun, or as intermittently savage as Green); more importantly, perhaps, we know the story counts.

We know Severian means what he says (even if he is lying through his teeth); and we know the same of young Green. By adhering to the Wolfean model for confessional tales about the growth and education of a young child through stress and torture and sadistic games of nescience, Lake has created in Green a story we immediately heed. We believe as much as Green tells us because we have been told to.

A small peasant child in a southern land is purchased from her father by a maggotty-pale tall man named Severo (we soon realize that he is not maggotty but white) who carries her away across the salt sea to the northern city of Copper Downs, which suffers under the rule of an immortal Duke, where she is incarcerated in a windowless edifice known as the Court of the Pomegranate Tree. Here for 100 pages she is as savagely educated as Ali Akbar Khan by cruel Mistresses who follow the orders of the unseen Factor whose only ruler is the Duke himself, who will take the young girl as a bed-warmer if she passes various tests. But first she must be trained not to batter herself against the blind walls of her destiny like a panicked fledgling; in the end—she tells us—it is likely only her sharp inquisitive mind keeps her alive, keeps her teachers intrigued at the swiftness of her learning.

One of these, the cat-woman known as Dancing Mistress who teaches her martial arts, also begins to educate her secretly to life outside the hollow skull of her master; and she begins to convey to the Secret Court of her ultimate readers some sense of the aboves and belows of the strange city of Copper Downs. The years pass. Just as she is about to have her first period, she is viewed by the Master with his dead eyes, who approves of her and gives her a name (Emerald) preparatory to her ascension to the side of the immortal Duke.

It is here we come to something of a sticking point, which is rage. The young peasant girl Green (she refuses to use the name her owner gives her), who has spent most of her life in a deep Skinner Box being shaped, refuses to accept her destiny. After all her travails, she tells us, "I was still me", and my heart sank. The person we have thought she was—the aleph self gaining some darkn noumenousness from her immurement in the heart of the Wolfean world she had been selected for as an infant—turns out to be a cloak that only half conceals a moderately sophisticated Liberal Humanist teenager from California with anger issues. Made berserk by the thought that she—a simple illiterate peasant lass from a subsistance rice paddy—has been bought and educated by immortals whose nature and purpose on the plate of the world we have not yet learned, Green kills one of her teaching Mistresses, scars her face so she cannot become a concubine, and escapes with Dancing Mistress into the City.

Here she learns that Federo and others had planned for her to kill the immortal Duke by uttering a dissolving mantra; and she agrees to go ahead with the scheme. She is duly arrested, and taken before the Duke, who turns out to be the Factor; and kills him.

End of novel?

Unfortunately—and fortunately—not. We are in fact only a third through the tale. We may have almost fatally lost the flow of things—it is not solely because of our interest in Wolfe that we followed the involved and involving tale of Green's education with such interest—and it may take Lake rather too long to get things going again, but there are compensations. Green's trek back to her home, which ends disastrously, is vividly envisioned, though the occasional smudge of poshlost—"Finally it came to me I was crying for the girl I could have been"—does remind one that Lake has not perhaps entirely captured the inner life of a ten year old peasant girl brought up in a windowless Skinner box by educationists.

And then we reach the middle third of the novel, which though it is technically digressive from the first and final thirds, brings Green to life again. The entrepot city of Kalimpura, where Green undergoes a second remorseless education, is copiously and generously envisioned. Lake's motives for spending 100 pages there are not perhaps easily discernible, but the richness of his rendering of urban life as tapestry is genuinely irresistible.

The final third embarks on (and concludes) the storylines that were abandoned when Green had her hissy fit; it is all competently done, and is full of revelations that those who hate spoilers hate to have revealed, and ends. More interestingly, there are several references to "theogenic dispersion", a term that makes one think the Wolfe is knocking at the door again, uttering his familiar gnostic lament: "theogenic dispersion" is a theory, confirmed by Green's ending, that the gods were once whole, but that something happened, and:

small fragments of their divinity were scattered through the plate of the world. Some of those fragments became the sliver of grace we all carry within us. Others became the gods and goddesses we know in this life.

This may sound tiringly like early twentieth-century evolutionary theology—half-forgotten sf tales like Ralph Straus's The Dust Which is God (1907) are full of similar stuff—but we do begin to see what Lake may have been trying to convey in this long novel, so shambolic but so full of joy, so coupon-cutter simplistic but so surprised by love of the things of the world. And we begin perhaps to understand why he lets Green out of prison so early, as though he could not stand to bar her way forth. I think he is trying to tell us this: that, even in her most Valley Girl moments, his Green Emerald, his hard glowing fragment of the aleph of the world, is all the dust we're going to get. Ring the bells that still can ring.