Video of the Day


Alex Carnevale

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen

Senior Editor
Brittany Julious

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

Live and Active Affiliates
This area does not yet contain any content.

Entries in gene wolfe (7)


In Which We Reclone Ourselves As Conrad Coldbrook

A Great Honor and A Real Pleasure


A Borrowed Man
by Gene Wolfe
304 pp. Tor Books

Colette Coldbrook is the only living member of her family. Her mother died several years back; it is suggested that she may have committed suicide. Her father died of a heart attack. Her only sibling, her brother Conrad, was strangled to death in her home. Solving this mystery, and a host of others, is the job of the reader of A Borrowed Man.

Before his death, Colette Coldbrook's brother gave her the contents of their father's safe — a book by one Ern Smithe titled Murder on Mars. What little we know of the book is gorgeous, but it is not the sublime contents of the book that matter: it is what makes the book important enough to be locked in a safe.

Part of A Borrowed Man is a elegy for what the printed word offers us, not for the limited physical fetishism that is so often argued by well-meaning simpletons, but what it means to have different collections of human knowledge in different locations and sizes. "If one guy could control all those scans, he'd have a lock," muses one character.

In the near future of A Borrowed Man, Wolfe is attempting to describe an entirely weird kind of nostalgia. So many science fiction writers devise thinly veiled critiques of what they perceive as the world's major problems: late capitalism, dull nationalism, a disturbing reliance on technology. None of these things are particularly a concern for Mr. Wolfe outside of economic inequality. He is prematurely nostalgic for what is great about the world now, what we do not realize is better than it ever was.

Colette's father Conrad is the Rashomon of A Borrowed Man. A polymath scientist/financial advisor, he was never a kind man. His identity revolved around his intelligence and avarice, which makes him a quintessential homo sapien of our time. On the fourth floor of his house was the laboratory he kept locked, secret from his wife and children. About halfway through A Borrowed Man, we find out what he keeps in one of the rooms, and it stuns us. In the other rooms are things far stranger.

Colette can't make heads or tails of the book her father clearly valued so highly. She does what seems obvious: finds a reclone of the now deceased writer of Murder on Mars in a library. She checks him out for a small deposit. This Ern Smithe is the narrator of A Borrowed Man, and there is a lot he does not know about the future into which he is thrust.

Colette explains her problem to the reclone, speaking to him in a private place because she believes she is being bugged. She lies to him about many aspects of her story in order to elicit his help, and he senses this, but it is still his fundamental duty to help his patron. Shortly into his acquaintance, Colette appears to be abducted and A Borrowed Man largely consists of Ern's efforts to locate her and find out the purpose of the book her father kept in the safe.

Like most of Wolfe's books, A Borrowed Man actually hinges on very little. Late in the story, like a proper detective, Ern makes an extensive explanation of what has actually been going on here. It is easy to be satisfied with how he wraps up the many mysteries of the novel, but there are several inconsistencies in the denouement that seem to contradict each other.

This is the hint Wolfe offers us to look back at what we have read with a more critical eye. The concept of the unreliable narrator, initially developed by Chaucer, has never found so intelligent a proponent. The concept of intelligence itself is a major theme here; Wolfe gets in a line about how it is generally confused with verbal felicity.

Ern Smithe opens one of Conrad Coldbrook's locked doors with his copy of Murder on Mars. The book seems itself a key — or is Ern the key? It is hard to believe Colette and her brother never tried the book on the door. Difficult as it is to admit when we are being lied to, it is too much fun to read Wolfe doubting every assertion, so you can make all the decisions about the real story yourself. That is the mark of the master, and why Gene Wolfe is the best American writer working today.

When Ern Smithe meets reclones out in what is called New America, he never identifies them in order to protect the innocent. We know that people can reclone their deceased love ones. The clones will have the memories of the people they were, but still be their own individual. That this is a characteristic of people, nations and families is the main idea in A Borrowed Man. I am tired, as Wolfe is, of being told this world is flawed and getting worse. Without the memory of who we all were, and how awful humanity was to itself before now, can we ever be happy?

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

"Too Late For Lullabies" - James Morrison (mp3)

"Something Right" - James Morrison (mp3)


In Which We Iterate Upon Ourselves

To Think Of While Writing

Setting it down is a difficult part, but not the difficult part for the writers who speak below. There is a world that surrounds what we read, and our inquiries into is are so often completely inadequate. Not the how and why of the creative act, but what remains after the writing has been consumed and forgotten like any other artifact.

In a sense there is an existence beyond the page, but it could never really compare.

Vernor Vinge

It was 1962. I was a senior in high school, and I wanted to write about the first man to have a direct mind-to-computer link. I even thought I might be the first person ever to write of such a thing. (In that, of course, I was wrong - but the theme was rare compared to nowadays.) I worked very hard on the story, applying everything I knew about writing, I put together a social background that I thought would make things interesting where the story sagged: cheap fusion/electricity converters had been invented (that worked at room temperature!), trashing the big power utilities and causing a short term depression. And of course, there would be experiments with chimpanzees before the IQ amplifier was tried on my human hero.

Having thought things out, I described the plot to my little sister (a tenth-grader). She suffered through my endless recounting, and then remarked, "Except for the part about the chimpanzee, it sounds pretty dull." What a comedown. Still… she had a point.

Diane Williams

Very early on, I had a vision of excellence and a sense of responsibility of monstrous proportions.

It is best if no one ever sees me again. (You will thank me.)

I will not go to see someone just because he or she is inconveniently located.

And, if you do that thing again, evil people will be ruined completely. Good people will feel great. Springtime will span the year because that's my decision. Anyone who would have preferred some other season may feel a not-so-serious mistake has been made.

When the good people begin their lavish new life, they will be especially indebted to Ira, who will provide everyone with a set of easy instructions to follow so everything turns out all right for them. Oh, they will be indebted to Ira.

I used to see a lot of this one woman. Ira will take care of her, because I've had it up to here.

Now, do you understand?

Hart Crane

For some time past I have been seeking employment in New York, but without success so far. It's the usual problem of mechanical prejudices that I've already grown grey in trying to deal with. But all the more difficult now, since the only references I can give for the last two years are my own typewriter and a collection of poems.

I am, as you probably recall, at least avowedly - a perfectly good advertising writer. I am wondering if you would possibly give me some recommendations to the publicity department of The Metropolitan Opera Company, where I am certain of making myself useful. I was in New York two days last week, trying to secure emplyment as a waiter on one of the American lines. I found that I needed something like a diploma from Annapolis before hoping for an interview.

A few years ago I registered with the Munson Line with reference to my qualifications for a particular position which every ship includes - that of "ship's writer" or "deck yeoman": but I always found that such jobs were dispensed to acquaintances of the captain or to office workers, and that my references were never taken from the file. I am not particular what I do, however, so long as there is reasonable chance of my doing it well. The Aeneid was not written in two years, nor in four.

Robert Creeley

You know the way people say we all have a story within us - something specific in our lives that would, if we could only get it said, be something worth hearing. That may well be true but I don't think art is particularly involved by it. Writing, for example, is an activity dependent on words as material. It may be felt that it matters what they "say" but far more decisive is the energy gained in the field or system they are used to create. In like sense, the "Chef's Special" may sound good to you - but it may be awful to literally eat, and you won't know what it is until someone who does know tells you.

Time is either an imagination or else a phasing inherent in the system, organic or inert (including abstractions). What is your life that you're going to write it down, or make films of it, or whatever it is you had in mind. The one thing clear about your life is that you are living it. Whitman was quick about it, saying, "Who touches this book touches a man."

Mavis Gallant

I still do not know what impels anyone sound of mind to leave dry land and spend a lifetime describing people who do not exist. If it is child's play, an extension of make-believe - something one is frequently assured by persons who write about writing - how to account for the overriding wish to do just that, only that, and consider it as rational an occupation as riding a racing bike over the Alps? Perhaps the cultural attaché at a Canadian embassy who said to me "Yes, but what do you really do?" was expressing an adult opinion.

The impulse to write and the stubbornness needed to keep going are supposed to come out of some drastic shaking up, early in life. There is even a term for it: the shock of change. Probably, it means a jolt that unbolts the door between perception and imagination and leaves it ajar for life, or that fuses memory and language and waking dreams.

The first flash of fiction arrives without words. It consists of a fixed image, like a slide or (closer still) a freeze frame, showing characters in a simple situation.

Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.

Mario Vargas Llosa

If the words and the structure of a novel are efficient, and appropriate to the story that the novel intends to make persuasive, this means that its text is perfectly balanced; theme, style and points of view are so perfectly harmonized, and the reader is so hypnotized and absorbed by what is being told, that he completely forgets the way it is being told, and is under the impression that technique and form have nothing to do with it, that life itself animates the work's characters, landscapes, and events, which seem to the reader nothing less than reality incarnate, life in print. This is the great triumph of technical skill in novel writing: the achievement of invisibility, the ability to endow story with color, drama, subtlety, beauty, and suggestive power so effectively that the no reader even notices the fabrication exists; under the spell of its craftsmanship, he feels that he is not reading, but rather living a fiction that, for a while at least and ad far as he is concerned, supplants life.

Harry Mathews

Unless I am hopelessly mistaken, it seems to me perfectly possible to write well in French simply by writing correctly - by writing well I obviously do not necessarily mean elegantly or brilliantly; I mean only that there exists a normative written language available to anyone who takes the trouble to learn it that will enable its user to write prose than can be universally read without objections. Such a "correct" language does not exist in America (or in England for that matter). Left to itself, merely correct American English tends to go flat. American writing of any kind has a kind of ad hoc quality about it, a quality of having been improvised for the occasion; and good writing invariably involves the admixture of a particular individual manner.

Gene Wolfe

At this point it is traditional to state dogmatically that every short story must show a beginning, a middle, and an ending - the lash employed by editors and other critics to flog writers. And it is true enough that every story should, although it is not of much use to know it. Authors (and they are very rare) who commit stories lacking one of the three necessities always believe the missing element present; and the truth is that a good story must have much more than that.

You are both a woman, amused by men, and a man, enthralled by women. You realize that is is only in our own time that life has become easy enough to permit a handful of us to abrogate our ancient alliance. Your lively imagination is governed by reason; you find it difficult to make friends, though you are a good friend to those you have made. At certain times you feel you are insane, at others than you are the only sane person in the world. You are patient, and yet eager.

How and Why To Write

You can find the first five parts of this series here:

Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)

Part Five (Rosmarie Waldrop, Joyce Cary, Fernando Pessoa, Martin Amis, Lewis Carroll, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Leguin)


In Which We Murdered Him By Firing Squad On An Ocean Planet

Fought In A War


Home Fires
by Gene Wolfe
Tor Books, 304 pp

Sometimes people will stop me in a grocery store or in a park or when I'm high on ecstasy and they will ask me, "AC, who is the world's greatest living writer?" What other reason would I carry around a portable pedestal for than this exact situation? He lives in Barrington, Illinois and his name is Gene Wolfe. Wolfe grew up in Houston and served in the Korean War. He was an engineering prodigy who invented the process that makes Pringles, and he edited the journal Plant Engineering for over a decade. In the military he had been a cartographer, and his extraordinary grasp of how things are in relation to each other is always on full display in his fiction. What other fabulist would you want making up your stories than the one who knows where everything is?

His latest effort Home Fires explodes on the page. Almost all dialogue, the book is nearly high on speed. There isn't a single moment that Skip Grison isn't involved in some kind of action, usually uncovering deception in one form or another. He is a lawyer, the first lawyer protagonist that Wolfe has ever used in his long fiction. Like all Wolfe's heroes, he is just as much a priest or godfather than anything resembling the finest of legal minds. The fact that he was able to write this novel indicates Wolfe could easily be a Supreme Court justice (Scalia with a handlebar moustache?), his grasp of the law is that rigorous. As a legal thriller, Home Fires would be fantastic in paperback for airplanes.

Because his characters always lie so ruthlessly, Wolfe's writing has been called hard to follow. The masterwork that made his name was the first part of his first quadrilogy, The Shadow of the Torturer, but there is precious little in the way of the high technology inherent in the work of giants like Asimov or Heinlein. It is Wolfe's narrative techniques which are state-of-the-art, not his settings.

I can't even imagine what someone must have felt picking up The Shadow of the Torturer in some bookstore in 1980 and expecting the same old generic paperback fantasy to read on the toilet. The story of aging Earth's last ruler read like someone had watched Star Wars and thought of how much better the future could be instead of the past, with dead spaceships plunged into the ground and reinvented as prisons. The Book of the New Sun's main influence is Marcel Proust; some parts of it are even gentle jokes on In Search of Lost Time. The book is so deep that it demanded its own guide, penned by Michael Andre-Driussi, in which the elaborate chronologies and geographies of the novels are revealed to their fullest.

Wolfe approved Andre-Driussi's work; he seems to realize that his books should offer some guide to those who embark on them, like any worthwhile amusement park ride. The Book of the New Sun in four parts was followed by his landmark The Book of the Long Sun. With Severian's tale The Book of the New Sun he had stretched out time to its very limit. Long Sun tightened the action, sticking it on a generational spaceship running out of gas in the far part of the universe. His Calde Silk figure was modeled after G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, and his admiration of Chesterton's devout belief in the presence of an all-knowing God is at its most entertaining in stories like "Bed and Breakfast", "Westwind" (his tribute to The Man Who Was Thursday) and "The Fifth Head of Cerebrus", a sister planets novella that some account as Gene's supreme masterpiece.

(When he was a young man, Wolfe corresponded with J.R.R. Tolkien. Where are these letters? Why haven't they been published by the highest possible authority - perhaps the government or Cory Doctorow?)

with neil gaiman (left) photo by beth gwinn

Last year's new novel The Sorcerer's House followed in the tradition of Wolfe's rewrites of themes taken up in the early 20th century work of Clark Ashton Smith and G.K. Chesterton that inspired him to write his first stories. Each time, in order to top himself, Wolfe rips all the naivete out of his work, making it that much more jaded and sinister. His concern in Home Fires is the meaning of war. It's not that Wolfe doesn't accept war – all his work seems thrust in the middle of a larger conflict the people in it can never quite fathom fully, whether it be Erebus and a mysterious undine in The Book of the New Sun, the espionage between our world and one where men die after they lose their virginities in There Are Doors, or the mysterious Os of Home Fires, who neither eat nor drink, but live among us.

Wolfe converted to Catholicism before he married his wife Rosemary. It is fun to analyze his books for various amounts of the faith that his characters truly show in God, which is the way believers judge a convert. After Wolfe underwent double-bypass surgery in April of last year, he put a literal God character in his new book, a man with a white beard and a long cane. Gene is always testing the unbeliever, seeing if the faith he embraces is a rewarding reality or a vicious lie. He regards this as the true test of the individual.

The premise of Home Fires is that Skip was dating Chelle when she decided to join the military. Due to the vagaries of space travel, she returns decades later having spent much of that time in coldsleep travel, where she did not age. She is so badly injured in combat that part of her is composed of someone else who died. Skip is now an older man and a partner in a law firm, and his "contracto" ("wife" and "husband" are terms relegated to history) is a vibrant young woman denied sex for biological decades. They "decide" to go on a cruise together; perhaps it is decided for them. Other events occur: picture Die Hard but with the world's greatest mystery lurking at the heart of it, and don't forget a cyborg, seven different types of handguns and rifles, mindwipe, and hard sex.

Wolfe at InConJunction IV, July 1984, photo by Michael Kube-McDowell

Skip tells us that he "kept the home fires burning" while Chelle was away, fighting the Os, an unimaginable alien enemy, off the planet Johanna. He feels, and he is right to feel this way, that she in her service made a sacrifice for him, and that he owes her something very specific. He dumps his secretary/girlfriend (usually called a Megan) and leaps to her aid out of a duty that is at once akin to love and other times resembles patriotism for a United States that does not exist in the future of Home Fires.

Some pine against interminable war, and they may be right to do so, but it is not as if there would be no fighting if our country abstained. We are in the middle of something that not even generals fully understand. Paul Ryan's budget didn't lower military spending even though we cannot afford it, or anything. Our financial situation as a country has never been more clear. But our spiritual condition: that is a different matter.

We eventually learn that Wolfe's soldier Chelle sets out for war because she does not really want to be a married accessory to a rich husband. She is attempting to avoid the very insignificance that so many of Wolfe's peers embrace, and so enters the military. The generation of authors who served in the armed forces because they had no other choice constituted the crucial heart of 20th century literature. Gene Wolfe and his protagonist took up a task that would knit Jonathan Franzen's balls to his asshole. Even if they are wrong to fight, we are nothing compared to them.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Charlotte Gainsbourg.

from the cover of Pandora by Holly Hollander"A Girl, A Boy, and a Graveyard" - Jeremy Messersmith (mp3)

"Riding for the Feeling" - Bill Callahan (mp3)

"Archipelago" - Quantic (mp3)