A Great Honor and A Real Pleasure
by ALEX CARNEVALE
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.
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