Book Review: Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

I’ll be sure to post more about Gene Wolfe in the future, as he is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers. Today’s book is one of his more famous standalone titles. In the early 70s Wolfe had managed to place a bunch of short stories in magazines and publish an infamously bad novel (called Operation Ares, he has done all he can to suppress it) when he wrote a novella entitled “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.” He presented at a workshop and an editor liked it so much he offered to publish it if Wolfe expanded it into a novel-length work. This prompted Wolfe to write two more novellas, vaguely linked to the first one, that when combined form a whole bigger than the parts and became Wolfe’s breakout work.

The “novel” or “collection” (whatever you want to call it) takes place on the double worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. Saint Anne once bore an indigenous population of aboriginal shape-shifters who were apparently wiped out by the humans, but an in-universe theory states that the first colonists may have been themselves overwhelmed by this species, that then shifted into looking like humans and forgot how to change back.

Against this backdrop are the three stories. The title one is about twin brothers growing up on Saint Croix in their father’s brothel. But things are more than they seem, and gene-splicing and murder bring the story to its exciting conclusion. An anthropologist, John Marsh, appears twice in the story, the first time to ask the narrator’s aunt about her theories (that the natives replaced the humans).

The next story has all the poetry of a myth and it might as well be considered one. “’A Story,’ by John V. Marsh” is ostensibly a reconstruction of an old tale by the indigenous people. This is probably the densest piece and although it can be enjoyed in its own right, patience is required to see how it relates to the other novellas. It is a dreamlike work about the coming of age of a native and the discovery of his long lost twin brother. Though this simple summary does the novella a disservice, to say more would just confuse people; the work needs to be taken as a whole.

The next story, “V.R.T.,” is again about John Marsh. Suspected of being a spy, he is locked away and a sergeant looks through his confiscated journals about his life on the twin planets and about an expedition he took to try to find any remnants of the indigenous population. His guide is a teenager with the initials V.R.T. and claims to be half shape-shifter. On a narrative level, this is the most intricate story here, alternating between descriptions of the sergeant and the various books he reads.

Fifth Head of Cerberus is definitely a book I’ll be returning to, partly because of how great it is, partly because you often have to read Wolfe multiple times in order to really understand what he’s saying. Many of his books are like puzzles. This is one of his more obscure ones, but it’s also one of his most interesting experiments. Just accept that you won’t get everything the first time around (or even the second…or third…), let it wash over you like a Pynchon novel, and you might just find another must-read author.

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Pulitzer Prize in Fiction 2016

So, the 2016 Pulitzer Prizes were announced today…and I was completely off.

Winner: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Finalists: Get In Trouble: Stories by Kelly Link

Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble

I’m kicking myself for not reading The Sympathizer sooner. It had a lot of buzz this past fall, but I just had too many other books to get to it. On the speculation website, it was ranked 9th, a bit lower than the winner usually is, but still in the top 10. Also, I’m sure every wannabe writer hates him right now. To win one of the biggest American literary prizes with your debut novel…that’s every writer’s dream.

Most years one of the finalists comes in from left field with not a single person expecting it to have been on the shortlist, and it appears this year the committee outdid themselves in that regard: both are completely unexpected. I had vaguely heard of Kelly Link before this, but I didn’t even know she had a book out this year. Get In Trouble is a collection of short stories that I assume are written in her signature weird/fantasy style (she’s won almost every major scifi/fantasy prize for novellas and short stories). The Verble is a complete enigma. It’s about Native Americans on an Oklahoma reservation in 1928. Maud, a teenager/young woman, goes through her monotonous, occasionally violent days when a stranger comes through one day and offers her a chance at a better life and at love.

While my library did not have Maud’s Line, it did have the other two, so look for reviews of The Sympathizer and Get In Trouble on here in the coming weeks.

As for the prize, while a part of me is sad The Tsar of Love and Techno didn’t win, another part of me is happy neither A Little Life nor The Sellout won (the latter of which I enjoyed, but, as I said in a previous post, I’m not sure how powerful it would be if it were not for contemporary events). And it brought some interesting books that probably would’ve slipped by me if they had not had the recognition. A lot of people have voiced their dislike for literary prizes in general, but as long as they keep introducing me to great books, I say the more the merrier.

Pulitzer Prize 2016 Predictions

Lately I haven’t been doing too good a job of keeping this blog updated. I recently started a full time job and am still figuring out the schedule, but I’m slowly working out the kinks and should have a few posts up this week. Anyway…

The 2016 Pulitzer Prize will be announced on Monday at 3pm. It’s easy to argue that it’s the US’s most prestigious literary prize (almost all winners receive a huge boost in sales and it’s gone to a number of classics in the past, such as The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird). Nevertheless, some people are not fans of it. William Gass has argued that the award reflects popular book club books rather than literary merit, and while there are a couple of works that make me disagree with him, on the whole I feel like this assessment is not too far off the mark. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, the 2013 winner, was amazing, while The Goldfinch and All the Light We Cannot See were just average (but bestsellers beforehand). But speculating is fun, so let’s see if I can predict the winner and finalists.

This website has created an algorithm to predict the winner. Twice it has correctly predicted which book comes away with the prize; usually the winner is ranked in the upper half of the list.

The Sellout is currently number one. See my review here. I think it’s a humorous, topical book, but maybe a bit too topical: some of its power comes not from the plot but from being released at the right time. Nonetheless, this would be a worthy winner, and in any other year I’d be rooting for it. But…

The Tsar of Love and Techno is also in contention, and it’s just too good to ignore. The Pulitzer Prize is supposed to have an American theme, so the Russian setting might work against this, but then The Orphan Master’s Son and All The Light We Cannot See were set in North Korea and wartime France and Germany, respectively.

I’ve been so busy with work and reading this year that I haven’t taken too good a look at the other possibilities, but if the prize decided to go the popular root again, A Little Life might come away with the prize. A tale of child abuse and its affects later in life, it is pretty much to 2015 what The Goldfinch was to 2013. All that’s missing is a Pulitzer.

I think that out of these 3 books, 1 will be the winner and 1 will be a finalist (1 of the 2 finalists usually comes out of left field, so I won’t even pretend to have any inkling as to what it could be). I really want The Tsar to win, but a part of me feels like The Sellout will be the winner and A Little Life the finalist. Unfortunate, but Anthony Marra, Tsar’s author, is quickly proving himself to be one of the best up coming writers, so I’m sure he will write an award winner (or, in the words of Gass, the Pulitzer board will give him a consolation prize).