Outis's Reviews > The Fifth Head of Cerberus

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
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May 13, 12

bookshelves: surrealism, magical-realism, space-fantasy, gothic, drugs

Do not read the introduction! It's spoilery and full of wrong.

Yes, this book is a mindfuck. It's at times intriguing, surprising, funny, shocking... or boring. It's not pulp. PKD for instance draws you into his pageturners. In contrast, the three stories of this book were a difficult read for me. Unlike other readers, I found the first part to be the least engaging by the way.
It's not so much that I had trouble making out the main puzzle to which the narrative returns time and again. I may have missed much but I at least got that and I think most patient readers would also get it in time. It's not all that mysterious or ambiguous (although the Marquis de Carabas threw me off and made me reconsider my guesses).
The trouble is that this book is too much like highbrow lit. When it's set in a familiar contemporary or historical setting, highbrow lit can bank on the reader's knowledge of the context in which the characters operate and imply much with few words. But how can we interpret the behaviour of this book's characters without knowing a lot more about their insular culture and society? Something is obviously very wrong but several plausible explanations emerge. Yeah, piecing the cultural and social clues together is fun but when the characters are also puzzles, we need to pile guesses upon guesses.
On top of that, the meandering, aimless and bizarre narrative made the author even harder to follow although I appreciated the refreshing shifts in style and subject matter.
The book's weaknesses are also strengths and I respect Wolfe's ambition but there's such a thing as taking a good thing too far. He made me yearn for pulp.

If you're not looking for a light or a quick read, world-building or versimilitude and are looking for a clever, no-compromise bizarre mindfuck, you could do worse than giving this a try.
Highlights include human sacrifice, insanity, meta-fiction, inhumane experiments, vision quests, monsters, slavery, a hive mind, genocide and channelings of Kafka and Lovecraft. And no, the book's not a random pile of grotesque scenes.
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