the Little Red Reviewer

Not-a-review of An Evil Guest, by Gene Wolfe

Posted on: October 12, 2012

An Evil Guest, by Gene Wolfe

published in 2008

where I got it: purchased new

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Struggling actress Cassie Casey has just met the man of her dreams. Well, men, actually.  First she meets handsome Gideon Chase, who hires her to help him spy on the mysterious and wealthy Bill Reis. In return for her help, Gideon will make Cassie a star of stage and screen. When Cassie eventually meets Bill, she instantly dislikes him, more-so as he showers her with attention and expensive gifts.

An Evil Guest is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. As expected with a Wolfe, we are given some vague hints early on – the story takes place in the future, Gideon might be working for the Government, we’ve met another intelligent race on another planet and in some areas (but not all), their science is ahead of ours, but in general life seems to be going on as normal on planet Earth.

The story is told nearly one hundred percent through dialog, conversations between Cassie and either Gideon or Bill Reis, conversations between Cassie and the other members of the theatre company. Entire chapters are nothing by dialog. The scenery, the world building, it’s all very shadowy.  At times I felt like I was listening to a radio play, where the sound effects for a thunderstorm are made with a rain stick and a thin sheet of metal.


I usually go crazy for Gene Wolfe, and with this one, I just didn’t get it.  I expected Wolfe to be playing some misdirection tricks, but with An Evil Guest I didn’t even know what direction I was supposed to be looking in while being misdirected from somewhere else. I was interested in the story, interested in find out who would survive and who might die, interesting to find out what Bill Reis was really up to, and who or what Gideon Chase really was.  Scenes jump all over the place, characters seem to change their personalities and verbal mannerisms overnight, nothing ever seemed set in stone.  An interesting thought experiment to be sure, but with a final result of me not caring about any of the characters or getting emotionally invested in what was going on (or wasn’t going on).

This is a Gene Wolfe, so we might as well assume that nothing is as it seems, and that the dialog heavy weird characters do the strange things they do for a reason.  But was anything what it seemed?  Are Gideon and Bill Reis even human?  Are they both using Cassie to get to the other one? Is all of this in Cassie’s head, as she acts out different scenes from plays she’s been in?

If anyone else has read this, please, tell me what the hell was going on. Because I just didn’t get it.  There is such a thing as too subtle, and misdirection only works when the reader is pushed to latch onto something in the first place.

Did An Evil Guest put me off Gene Wolfe? Absolutely not. And now I can say he wrote something that didn’t work for me.  A lot of reviewers are saying this is a Lovecraftian noir spy mash-up, and I barely even got that out of it.

I called this post a not-a-review because I truly have no idea what the hell I just read. I have no idea what happened in the book, I have no idea how to discuss or describe it, nor do I have any idea if I should recommend that others read it.  I spent more than a few days reading this book, so I figured I should write something about.

 

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16 Responses to "Not-a-review of An Evil Guest, by Gene Wolfe"

* Informs the reader of what to expect from novel.
* Gives an opinion of her reading experience.
* Declares summary of closing thoughts on her reading experience.

Seems like a review. :) I haven’t read this book, or anything else of Gene Wolfe, despite having one or two knocking about somewhere, so I’m afraid I can’t be helpful. But your (not-a) review was entertaining. Its not often I see a heartfelt, to the point, review, even when it is considered incomplete by its author.

/tips hat

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but i couldn’t even tell you what the book was about. :( not-a-review = entertaining, so mission accomplished. :)

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Yeah, I know what you mean. I have a problem with some books where the book is told in first person by someone with a flawed perspective, so the narrative is full of weird terms or turns of phrases, expressions, which the author rarely explains outside of the context in which it is used. That’s great art and all, but its very trying on the reader. Iain M. Banks “Feersum Enjinn” comes to mind: 1/3 through I just couldn’t take it anymore and gave up, thinking that one day I’d come back to it, but I haven’t. And I do enjoy a good Banks book, as you may know.

So, with that in mind, your review is informative in mentioning the things that will probably keep me away from it -at least, until I get a heap load more patience.

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This is one of the few Gene Wolfe novels I haven’t read yet, and you’ve made me very curious about it. Very nice not-a-review. (I actually agree with the previous commenter – whatever you call it, your writing did the job.)

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Happy to have gotten you curious. read it, and tell me what happened. also, had I know this not-a-review of a book I didn’t understand was going to be so well received, I’d have posted it last week when I finished the book. I kept waiting for everything to click in my brain, and it just didn’t happen.

I do want to go back to some of Wolfe’s older novels and catch up. I haven’t even touched the Soldier in the Mist books yet.

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Well, I liked your none-review. I haven’t read any Gene Wolfe novels and even if I had I doubt I would be able to enlighten you – it’s usually the other way around!
I hate it when I spend time on a book and then don’t like it. I usually stop reading something if I’m not enjoying it but then I don’t feel fair reviewing a book I haven’t finished. The book I’m currently reading is actually getting on my nerves but I’ve read over 200 pages and so now can’t make my mind up whether to continue in the hope it gets better or to stop – but then I will have wasted all that reading time! Decisions, decisions.
Lynn :D

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i only finished this one because it’s the book for my local scifi book club. otherwise I would have given up on it. But just like you with your current read, once I was half way through, it was like “might as well finish the dumb thing”.

if you are interested in reading some Wolfe, I recommend the Sorcerer’s House as a great starting point. it’s way less weird than An Evil Guest, and far more accessible.

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I’ve flirted with Gene Wolfe books but haven’t sunk into one. I am glad to know this probably shouldn’t be my first Wolfe book.

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try The Sorcerer’s House. came out a few years ago, and is the most accessible Wolfe I’ve come across.

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I’ve never read anything by Wolfe that I would call ‘talkative,’ so for that reason I’m curious. I’m a huge fan of his but nothing everything he writes can be great.

(I’ve gotta check for your review of the Sorcerer’s House; I’ve never heard anyone say anything good about that book!)

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I haven’t read a lot of Wolfe but have loved what I have read, with the exception of this novel. I picked up a copy from the library when it was initially released and started it but it just didn’t click with me at all. I can barely remember why now but reading your review makes me think I must have been having some similar responses and was just not interested enough to keep reading it.

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It sounds interesting. I’ve read a few books told 100% through dialogue before…it just depends on how the author does them to where it’s going to succeed or not.

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the nearly-all-dialogue thing is so un-Gene Wolfe, I just wasn’t at all prepared for it. the dialogue itself was fine. . . i just didn’t get what the author was going for. Maybe next year I’ll be brave enough for a reread.

thanks for visiting! :D

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A good source to dive deeper into the mystery is the WolfeWiki:

http://www.wolfewiki.com/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=WolfeWiki.AnEvilGuest

After finishing “Evil Guest” I thought “nice, where is part 2?” until I realized that so much more is hidden under the surface.

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that wiki is pure brilliance. and now I want to read Evil Guest again, especially to watch for the clues about Margaret. I found her most, um, odd.

I forwarded that link to some friends of mine who also read Evil Guest, and same as me were very confused by it.

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I’ve just finished reading the book and I have to agree with you, though I’m giving less credit to Gene Wolfe for having been too subtle. I haven’t read that much of him before but I haven’t loved any of it so after this one I’m starting to think he’s just not for me.

My first WTF? moment was in a throwaway reference to the news on TV, which included the Supreme Court debating extending abortion to a few years after birth, with civil rights groups advocating for five years in the case of “defectives”, and the public being happy about the mayor promising a reduction in police violence, including interviews with people saying how it was dangerous to go out at night but that wasn’t a big deal.

I literally couldn’t believe I’d just read that. I’d expect this kind of ridiculousness from Left Behind or Atlas Shrugged or something. I thought there might be a clever twist it was leading to and looked up reviews of Gene Wolfe and this book to find out more, but all I got was that Gene Wolfe is a conservative and that his later books (of which this is one) were less well-liked than his earlier work, which was a bad sign.

I continued reading the book and was mostly hate-reading it by the end, and nothing came to follow up on that throwaway news bit, except that if police violence were so bad that people genuinely preferred not being able to go out at night if it meant reducing it (as if that’s the actual tradeoff involved but forget that for a second), none of the characters in contact with the police showed any sign of it.

And that whole plot with the islanders. Oh. My. God. the racism. And the whole center of everybody’s desires being… gold. Radioactive gold at that. It’s a precious metal but we aren’t on the gold standard, you’d expect things like Woldercan technology or, say, coltan (if we’re picking a single substance) to be more desirable. In a book not written before 1950 at least. Or someone who hasn’t watched too much Glenn Beck. If this is all straight I’m very worried.

The only thing I could come up with is that this is all some kind of take on noir and Lovecraftian tropes and storytelling, but reproducing the worst of those styles isn’t clever. If there is some clever twist or subtext to all this, like you I’d like someone to tell it to me because I haven’t found it.

The theories on WolfeWiki are interesting and do make me think there probably is something under the surface but a lot of the specific theories they have are based on pretty sketchy evidence, so I dunno.

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