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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Book Review: Facing the Bridge by Yoko Tawada

In recent years Haruki Murakami has become THE Japanese writer. Everyone knows him, everyone reads him. His fiction, with its loneliness and surrealism, has found an audience all across the world. Which is why I am annoyed Yoko Tawada has not caught on. She can be uneven. She can be too out there. She can be too vague, too obscure, too unsatisfactory in her endings, but when she is on point, she does what Murakami does, but even better. Her novellas and novels, often depicting outsiders lost in foreign landscapes with few if any landlines, are also riddled with loneliness, and while Murakami dips into odd scenarios, Tawada is like Kobo Abe turned up to 11.

This is one of her better books available in English. It consists of three novellas. The first tells in parallel stories about a European slave stolen away from Africa who finds himself sponsored to study and become a professor, and a Japanese student living abroad in Germany. The second stars a German resident (formerly from Japan) who spontaneously decides to go on a trip to Vietnam and feels her sense of identity slip away. As for the third, before I go into it I should explain what I’ve heard about Tawada.

I saw her give a performance in Boston and while there I talked to a professor who explained that Tawada thinks of herself as a literary DJ, taking old stories and remixing them. Some of her stories that follow this format can be enjoyed without knowledge of the other work, but for some, it is vital. The third story here, about a translator on an island off the coast of Africa trying to do some work, is a retelling of the story of St. George and the Dragon and falls somewhere in between. It can be a pleasant read with no knowledge of St. George, but if you’re familiar with the original, it adds a whole new dimension to the Tawada.

Some biographical material might also help: Tawada was originally from Japan before moving to Germany after university, where she has lived ever since. She writes in the languages of both countries, sometimes flipping back and forth during a draft, and language is an important theme that runs through all of her works.

Her endings don’t always work, but these stories taken as a whole are haunting. They read almost like fables that spiral out of control.

Any fan of authors like Borges or Kobo Abe (or Haruki Murakami) will find a great new author here. After reading a few of her books, I think either this or her collection THE BRIDEGROOM WAS A DOG are the best places to start with her. If you choose the other collection, be warned: the title story is…quite lacking, but the other two novellas more than make up for it.