Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Upcoming paper: "Gene Wolfe’s 'Seven American Nights' and the Ethics of the Open Text"

In a couple of weeks I will be presenting a paper on Gene Wolfe's "Seven American Nights" at an academic conference at the University of Warwick (UK). The conference, SF/F Now, will take place on 22-23 August 2014, soon after Loncon3, which I will also be attending. The paper is connected to my current PhD research and focuses on the novella's disruptive formal elements and resultant openness to interpretation, connecting these qualities to Emmanuel Levinas's notion of ethics and the responsibilities of interpretation. Abstract below:

Gene Wolfe’s "Seven American Nights" and the Ethics of the Open Text

Science fiction has long been concerned with ethical questions, including the effects of new technology on humans and the impact of human activity on the environment, both of which are addressed in Gene Wolfe’s “Seven American Nights” (1978). In both its form and content, however, Wolfe’s novella displays a concern for a different kind of ethics: the ethics of literary representation.

In my examination of “Seven American Nights” I seek to identify the narrative styles and techniques that create openness in the text and produce the elusiveness and ambiguity characteristic of Wolfe’s work. Written as a series of journal entries, the narrator’s account of a post-collapse America disrupts straightforward interpretation on multiple levels. Many of the elements that create uncertainty—including the unreliable narrator, fragmentary narrative and disruptive framing narratives—are metafictional devices that draw the reader into approaching the text critically as a constructed artefact. Wolfe’s innovative use of science fiction and fantasy tropes and intertexts further challenges the reader’s expectations and opens up a wide range of interpretative possibilities. This open text draws the reader into an act of self-conscious co-creation of meaning, while resisting attempts to ‘pin down’ a definitive interpretation.

The effects of this openness on the reader will be considered through Roland Barthes’s notion of the writerly text, while its ethical ramifications will be explored by way of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. I will argue that in its foregrounding of the text’s plurality, “Seven American Nights” draws the reader into an encounter with what Levinas calls the “unenglobable literary space.” Finally, I will draw upon Derek Attridge in some closing reflections on the implications of this ethical dimension of the literary encounter for the responsibilities of reading and interpretation.


  1. I wonder if you have read the partial forgery theory for this story on the Wolfe wiki. Some have found it a compelling interpretation.

  2. Hey Zak !! So glad to see you're still manning the field - every additional post to this site is a victory. Can't tell you how much I've appreciated your work on this project/webpage - thanks a million !!

  3. How did the presentation go? Will you be making the paper available anywhere?

  4. Hi all and thanks for your interest! The presentation went very well and I'm pretty happy with the paper. When I have time later this year I'll be editing and expanding it and then, probably, seeking to get it published in a journal.

    Rocket - yeah, I've read the WolfeWiki forgery theory (by Dave Tallman, I believe) and I discuss it in my paper. I think there are certainly some very interesting points, although I don't find all of them convincing myself. Essentially, in the paper I argue that the WolfeWiki theory, like the other readings/interpretations of the story I have come across, ultimately fails to do justice to the openness of SAN. Each of the articles on SAN that I discuss have completely different interpretations of the story, yet each claims exclusivity – to be the correct interpretation, the one intended by Wolfe, the one all the clues point towards, etc.

    Of course, many would argue that that is the point of criticism, but I disagree. Coming from a more, I suppose, post-structuralist (and reader reception) perspective, I argue that the openness of SAN is ethically significant in the way that it draws the reader into an act of co-creation of meaning (and indeed, co-writing of story), and that the tendency in criticism has been to cut this short by closing the text upon a single, overarching meaning (or story) that is meant to be sufficient for all readers at all times. There is certainly a place for interpretation – it can be fascinating learning how others have read a story, and what social/cultural/religious/political/intertextual frameworks they have found relevant in interpreting the story – but such interpretation, I argue, should be as a personal response to the text, unique to a particular reader's perspective at a particular time, rather than claiming (or seeking) to be exhaustive and exclusive.

  5. My philosophical problem with post structural readings involve their relative dismissal of inferred authorial intent. Hamlet's father IS a ghost, and not an extraterrestrial alien, no matter how a reader unfamiliar with the composition of the text and lacking in a complete knowledge base might try to insist upon it. Some explanations explain more details of the text.

    For example, in Wolfe's "The Changeling", it was often assumed that the narrator, Pete Palmer, split in twain at some point, creating a fantasy life after his mother died and he moved away that somehow lived on, unchanging while his life spiraled out of his control and he constantly changed his philosophy and ideology. Yet this ignores the timeline: if he were in the fourth grade in that 1944 picture (in which he doesn't appear), he would have been born in 1934 or so, and not old enough at 15 to be in the military during the early stages of the Korean conflict. The father reveals that the unaging boy actually appeared with the sister when she was baby in 1931, and people from overseas wrote asking about Peter. Research reveals the actor Peter Palmer was born in 1931, as was Gene Wolfe. He played the oaf Lil' Abner - and the word oaf implies an elfin changeling exchanged in a bad bargain in its etymology. This explains how he was old enough to be in the military, what actually happened in the story (he was swapped in 1931 and his wrestling with his changeling circa 1945 altered his memories, metaphorically burning them away so that he believed himself to be in the fourth grade at that time). The title reinforces this reading, which is assuredly "correct" because it makes sense of so many otherwise inexplicable details.

    Similarly, Seven American Nights has "better" readings - Tallman's explains how there are seven nights, but he doesn't factor in what the strength of America truly is: hallucinogens and drugs. The majority of his time line looks sound (I am not confident the police are killing other dogs in the park, as later they seem to use whips, but certainly someone kills the more dangerous beast for Nadan with a laser rifle and gets rid of the body). Tallman has a firm rationale for the missing night being early in the text, and explains many of the small details, including the inconsistencies in Nadan's character (such as the possible use of alcohol - [it is also a name for an idiot or stupid individual]. This might represent corroboration for David Tallman’s idea that one of the huge continuity errors in the story involves Nadan and Ardis sharing a drink when he previously stated he did not drink to the man he always refers to as Kreton. In the original novel he changes clothing with the narrator and is punished in his stead.) and in the tenor of the tale throughout the last several pages, where suddenly Ardis is seen as a monster. He also makes use of the embedded plays and the religious symbolism of holy week, with the procession and triumphant entry into the city on Palm Sunday.
    The character of Mollah Nadan in The Adventures of Hajji Baba (from which many of the Persian names come) is strict in his abstinence (at least according to his own self-description), and at one point even claims, “die rather than eat, or drink, or smoke. Do like me, who, rather than abate one tittle of the sacred ordinance, would manage to exist from Jumah to Jumah (Friday) without polluting my lips with unlawful food” (Adventures of Haji Baba 321). This mention of Friday to Friday even resonates with the text and supports the idea that Nadan in fact never consumed the hallucinogen/poison during his stay.

  6. However, Tallman has added quite a bit to the plot by supposing that America has a weapons stockpile, and that this strike will be through Golam Gassem's grain, when there are textual bits of evidence that actually make the assault far simpler.
    When it is revealed that the next play will be Faust, and Nadan wonders who will play the part of the Doctor if Kreton is Mephistopheles, we need look no further than the man who has made a deal with America for illusory gain: Golam Gassem, whose first name implies “slave” or “servant” with a small variation in spelling (Gholam). As the one Middle Eastern name not culled from The Adventures of Hajji Baba (beside Yasmin's) we can guess that it has some other meaning.
    The dream of the bread with mold on it is ominous, and Nadan even wonders why America would wish it. The meeting between Mr. Tallman and the grain merchant, as well as the promise that Mount Rushmore hides something underneath (coupled with Nadan's speculation that America's chemicals and poisons have been sitting in hidden places for decades) creates a better picture of the American plot. As the curator says, the smell is the first level of communication, and America has chemicals than can destroy when sniffed. When the grain of Gassem is distributed and cooked into bread, the gray contamination Nadan dreamed of may become an airborne reality. Nadan also saw trees in the walls of the decayed buildings of Washington D.C. - carpinus caroliniana, whose fruit falls and disperses through the air, growing out of civilization's remains.
    This scheme is far more plausible given what we know about America's current state than the smuggling of destructive weapons which can be blamed on another nation. Nadan still faces replacement, arrest, and probably execution on Friday per the religious resonances with Holy Week, but Gasem's bread will be tainted when cooked to poison wherever it goes, probably with air bound hallucinogens or mutagens.

    This reading makes sense of the title, the importance of smell to the Smithsonian Man (called father by Nadan (Baba)), uses the chemical fame of America, and makes use of the details of the reference to Nadan from Haji Baba (he doesn't drink but still suffers execution). Other readings use very few of the text's details - there IS a machine that forges documents in the story ... Wolfe subscribes to Chekov's gun fairly assiduously - if a detail is in there, it is usually used, obviously or not. The best readings make use of almost all of these strange details.

    (As far as the word Nadan sees, Sardinia, The man from the Smithsonian shows Nadan a document from which he can read the word Sardinia. Besides its position as a focal point into Europe, its etymological presence is that of the sardonic grin – a plant commonly found on the island makes corpses grin and grimace. The Sardonians had a ritual of killing old people with the poison while laughing loudly. This famous example of poison might support Tallman’s theory that the hallucinogen given to Nadan might indeed be poisonous, and that his game of Russian Roulette with the eggs is more deadly than he thinks. If this is true, then certainly dogs being used to smell the egg would be the only viable way to detect it, and explain the shifting of the eggs from one side to the other (which would also make use of the old man from the Smithsonian’s insistence on smell as true communication).)

    Thus, I always buy into "exhaustive and exclusive" readings, and I believe Wolfe does too, though ambiguity in most postmodern authors certainly leaves more open texts. I think Wolfe subverts postmodern ambiguity by using its techniques to assert a singular, consistent reality which actually works against subjectivity in the majority of his stories, unlike a true postmodern artist.

    Then again, that's just my take. Thanks for the information on the paper. Marc

  7. (In the above reading, alas, Gassem's name becomes something of a very bad pun - his grain will "gas 'em" when prepared)

  8. Hi,
    First, I beg your pardon for inevitable mistakes in my english cos I'm French (nobody's perfect).
    I agree with Marc. I think ambiguity in Wolfe's work is only apparent. His stories are built like puzzles or mazes. But there is for the most only one good solution or way out. Details are very important, probably all details, for guiding readers up to the right point. It's possible that several levels of meaning coexist in his stories but they are no real alternative at the same level. In other words, they are ranked hierarchically. Well, Gene Wolfe is a catholic, I was told; so it shouldn't be very surprising that there is only one truth in the end, at least in his mind. I think the best way to understand his writing and his huge work is a very short story entitled "a solar labirynth".
    Otherwise, and without any link with this topic, I just read your post about Wolfe and women (his so-called misogyny). Good. I think you're absolutly right : Wolfe doesn't endorse his characters'statements; he is by far more complicated and tortuous than this. And he certainly loves women, or at least some of them. But his so-called misoginy is only a part of the problem. The fact is that his heroes, or let's say his main male characters are very often unappealing, not only because of their brutality against women, specially in his novellas and novels (less true for his short stories). I like a lot Wolfe's stories but not his "heroes". For me, they sound like a fault.

  9. Hey Marc. Thanks for posting a really interesting reading of the novella.

    I am very wary of ‘ranking’ readings in terms of how well they concretise or harmonise a narrative that is so full of ambiguity, indeterminacy and competing codes.

    Each reader will, as they read, create their own ‘story’ using the materials available and their own, unique, intertextual knowledge and social and cultural perspectives. Your reading, for example, seems to take Morier’s The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan as a key interpretative framework, but in the novella this competes with a multitude of others codes, from the intertextual (such as the three plays discussed in the text, or the competing generic traditions of science fiction, fantasy, horror, travel writing, and so on), to the social, cultural, scientific and historical (including Catholicism, contemporary American society, environmental degradation and 1970s geopolitical relations), leaving an ultimate undecidability between all these codes – the reader could pick up any one of these and run with them, which I think is awesome.

    After reading Derek Attridge’s The Singularity of Literature (2004) I am persuaded that whether or not the author believes in the need for ‘exhaustive and exclusive’ readings of their work is less important than the reader’s response to the text. I thoroughly recommend Attridge’s book, which I find much more accessible and welcoming than some of the earlier figures of literary theory (although I am partial to Barthes and Derrida).

  10. Thanks, Jean, for your comments.

    I think that when it comes to Wolfe and accusations of sexism, it is largely dependent on the reader and how they interpret Wolfe’s texts. In my view, Wolfe’s texts are so open to interpretation that accusations of ‘misogyny’ become difficult to maintain, at least without recourse to extra-textual evidence (such as some old-fashioned opinions on gender difference expressed in certain of Wolfe’s interviews). What I presented in that blog post, I suppose, was an example of how some of the seemingly negative representations of women in Wolfe’s stories can be read another way. For me, that is the power of the openness of Wolfe’s stories. Nonetheless I understand how some of the portrayals of female characters in Wolfe’s texts can come off as sexist, since they do often seem to be quite out-dated in their apparent affirmation of traditional gender roles.

    Regarding Wolfe’s protagonists, have you read The Book of the Long Sun or The Wizard Knight? Both have protagonists that are (or strive to be) more moral and good than Wolfe’s anti-heroes (such as Severian).

    I agree with you about “A Solar Labyrinth,” but I think our readings of the story must be quite different. Mr. Smith’s ‘maze,’ at least in my understanding, does not have just one solution, as it is in a constant state of change. The maze-solver (the reader) explores their own path, separate to that of Mr. Smith, and although their paths may intersect, those who persevere find their own solutions (sometimes using something as random as a cloud passing overhead to make it through). Also, Mr. Smith does not value the solving of the radically open maze as much as the (reader’s) play – the appreciation of the maze’s objects and the exploration of the ever-changing paths they create.

    Wolfe does indeed identify as Catholic, but I do not believe that this alters the reader’s freedom in interpreting his texts (see my response to Marc). Even if an objective ‘truth’ can be said to exist—and you may be right that Wolfe, as a Catholic, believes it does—whether or not this truth can be communicated through writing is an entirely different matter. What I find in Wolfe’s work, and in SAN in particular, is a challenging of the supposed transparency of literary representation and the ability of writing to communicate truth.

    P.S. Your English is far better than my French, which I’ve only been learning recently (and slowly) in the hopes of one day being able to read Barthes, Derrida and, most of all, Levinas in their original language. Oh, and also so I can read awesome French-language comics like Blacksad!

  11. No, I still haven’t read either The Long Sun or The Short Sun because I had got my fingers burnt by The Urth of the New Sun, which is, in my opinion, his worst work, especially the second half, alas, trois fois hélas as we say in French, as it ends The Book of The New Sun (I think that a true subheading for this novel could have been How To Destroy Your Masterpiece in Five Lessons By Gene Wolfe). I read The Knight but not the following novel for the same reason or so. I ain’t got time now to justify this dislike but let’s say in short that, once more, I’m not convinced at all by his “hero”. That’s my main problem with Wolfe’s writing.
    As for “A Solar Labyrinth”, I agree with you : there are more readings than you can dream of; but I also agree with Marc : some are better than others, and I guess it must exist a certain one that fits perfectly—perhaps only in Wolfe’s mind—with the text.
    Thanks for your indulgence, Zachary (English is probably easier than French for a “no-native” although the thinking is slightly different in each language). I like comics too, at least some of them, but I never heard of Blacksad. I’m interested. Do you know the French title? Or the author’s name?

  12. I would certainly recommend both The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun. Long Sun is very different to New Sun, being written in the third person and following very good protagonist - not the kind of anti-hero often used by Wolfe (although the series is almost certainly not as brilliant as New Sun). I actually think Short Sun might be some of Wolfe's best writing - it is almost certainly the most experimental and difficult of the series - but again we have a somewhat unlikeable protagonist. Although I didn't have as adverse a reaction to The Urth of the New Sun as many others, I can understand what you mean in your comments. And I, too, found The Knight and The Wizard less enjoyable than some of Wolfe's other works, although I prefer them to some of his stand-alone novels. Speaking of his stand-alone novels, my favourites would probably be Peace and There Are Doors (many dislike the latter, but I really liked it, despite some potential problems in gender representation).

    Blacksad (same title in French, I believe) is a comic book series by Spanish creators Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, published by the French publisher Dargaud. It's a noir detective series following anthropomorphic animals through 1950s America. The art is incredible. I was attempting to read the latest volumes in French while I was in Geneva late last year. I made a friend while I was there who was helping me with my French (while she practiced her English) and we worked through some of the comic together, which was fun... although I eventually realised that I was asking her to translate all the underworld slang used by the criminals in the book, and they were not always things suited to polite conversation!

  13. Thanks for your tip; I'm going to look for this comics straightaway (I'm interested as such a drawer amateur too).
    I will certainly try The Long Sun. There Are Doors is also one of my favorites, although I don't like very much the end : I would have liked much more if the hero didn't run away from the real world into his lunacy).