Carl's Reviews > Shadow & Claw

Shadow & Claw by Gene Wolfe
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's review
Mar 11, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: currently-reading, fantasysci-fi, literaryandhardtoclassify
Read in January, 2009

Have now finished this first volume (two novels) in the New Sun series of Wolfe's-- great stuff! Well, you have to be someone who doesn't need to be catered to. I notice that with a lot of Wolfes' books those who don't like them complain about them being hard to get into, dragging, not going anywhere, that sort of thing-- but I think we can attribute this to different kinds of reading, the sort of which CS Lewis talks about in his Experiment in Criticism, if I remember correctly-- I believe it comes down to reading for a basic sort of escape, for a more passive experience in which you are given want you want and expect and don't have to work for it (ie, don't have to work to keep your eyes on it), versus reading to be transformed, reading in a way which admits that the book is worthwhile in its own right and has a right to be engaged with, rather than you having the right to be engaged by it. I think this is one reason the classics stay classics (other than the power canon gives to the upper/middle classes or others who master it and so mark themselves as the cultural elite)-- if we engage with them at all, we do so because they have rights over us and so we grant them those rights and are able to experience them in a "literary" way, rather than what I'm for the moment calling "escapist". This isn't to say that the way we perceive the work is all there is to it-- things can be written to facilitate escapism, and to facilitate transformation (another term I'm using loosely, sorry!), and the latter are signaled in their own ways, for example, by other respected authors calling Gene W. "dangerous", etc, or by the very obviously overwrought riddle of a fiction that the Fifth Head of Cerberus is. It also isn't to say that "literary" books need to be anti-narrative, or unenjoyable apart from intellectual candy-- in fact, I think the more vulgar branch of escapist literature, which tells us that the only strength in story-telling is keeping the action rolling, is what makes it difficult to appreciate the fuller aesthetic (not purely intellectual) beauties of "literary" narrative-- the muscles responsible for processing narrative atrophy, or never get built up (I'm more inclined to say they atrophy). Take Tolkien, who in many ways is accurately called an escapist author and who may be perceived as more popular-- some would defend the "escapist" stuff I've been talking about by mentioning him as both escapist and literary, but I would point out that nearly every one I know has parts of Tolkien they get hung up on, whether the descriptions, the long start, or Tom Bombadil, things which cater to the needs of the "work" rather than the desire of the reader for a smooth ride. Also, despite being criticized for a naive portrayal of evil, it is now more accepted that Tolkien was one of the "war" authors, traumatized by one of the world wars and writing a much more nuanced view of heroism, evil, violence, etc, than one would expect in "escapist fantasy"-- Tolkien may still be called "escapist", but escapist in a productive way (what that is would be another essay, though you can read his take on it in "On Fairy Stories"). OK, I'm going on a bit long, but my point being that "naive", or vulgarly "escapist" reception of Tolkien which is only concerned with whether or not he is entertaining you is less likely to contribute to your ability to navigate the real world, morally/ethically/intellectually, whatever, whereas engaging with the work on its own terms, finding sympathy for Tom Bombadil, for scenes which may not immediately seem connected to the action, etc,-- well, I think healthy engagement like that is good for us in the same way that talking with someone in a way which allows you to sympathize with them, understand them better, see through their eyes, etc, is good for us, and similarly is always healthier for us than talking/listening to someone just to get through the conversation or get some special bit of information from them or get compliments, etc. Yes, I admit, I think there it is possible to differentiate between good and bad reading ethically speaking... but I do have to admit that Lewis also said that both kinds of reading are acceptable, and I certainly read to escape to, so I think my condemnation of the one is motivated more by all the poor reviews I see of the sort of book that demands the other sort of reading. And I should probably admit that the "ways of reading" take on literature also has the potential to be as elitist as the enforcement of a canon, but "escapist" lit. is itself a mind-numbing tool of the state, or at least potentially so-- so nothing is inherently innocent! But good writing/reading is a healthy antidote to that, I think.

All that to say-- loved this book, but it is demanding! Also, as I start through the next book, there are plenty of anti-hero elements to the main character, but I think learning to sympathize with a character's faults while not necessarily endorsing them is in itself a good exercise.

Original Review:
I've read the first half of this volume now, which is the first book of the four in the series. Got hung up for a while, unfortunately after a friend complained about it-- I didn't think my enthusiasm could be dampened so easily-- but I've really enjoyed it. Wolfe's work has such an interesting, surreal quality to it, at the same time that things still cohere, and you trust that even when they don't, they must actually work together. And his prose is so beautiful-- a bit "off" in a way, but he does a good job of making language and story beautiful by making it strange enough that it is called to our attention (what was the term for that again? Coined by the Russian formalists, I think). I think I'll need to reread the series several times to "get" it, but that seems to be the way it is with all of Wolfe's work, and it doesn't stop me from enjoying it. Creative and insightful. And in one of the last chapters I read there was a reference to the moons Verthandi which circle a dead star-- Verthandi being the present participle of the verb "to become, to happen" and one of the names of the three norns in Norse Mythology who are apparently adaptations of the Greek fates adapted to the Norse belief in Norns who accompany childbirth, set a child's fate, etc-- the one named "Verthandi" is interpreted as representing the present. Wolfe borrows from other bits of our past to translate the past of the far future (as he mentions in a dry little appendix on the problems of translating an as-yet unwritten document from the far future), which makes me wonder how many connections I'm missing. That Wolfe is a fan of Norse lit is not a surprise to me, after reading his Wizard-Knight duology, but I hadn't realized that he referenced "my" mythology as far back as this series. I suppose it could also be a random mistake, but considering that the three Norns are likely covered even in basic introductions to Norse myth, it seems reasonable enough that a well-read man like Wolfe would have come across this tidbit.
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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Your review makes me want to re-read Tolkien, which I haven't done for years.

Carl I've been rereading Silmarillion, at the same time that I'm reading Verlyn Flieger's book about it and Barfield's linguistic theories at the same time. I also have the Hobbit in Icelandic, I need to be working through that, my language skills are not so sharp (living with other North-Americans doesn't help).

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

I hate to tell you, but Tolkien's books are escapist literature for me. It would be fascinating to read the Hobbit in Icelandic if I knew that language. I'll probably get back to Tolkien after Mount Hermon.

Carl I think Tolkien is good escapist lit. It allows you to go to another world, but you still have to encounter that world on it's own terms. The movies I'm less inclined to label "good escapism", but they have there moments-- and the landscapes are gorgeous!

Carl Actually, I have to admit I was a bit heavy handed in the above review-- I think both types of reading, "simple" passive escapism and a more energy-consuming engagement are both valid and important, and both engage, seen or unseen with our worldview, values, etc in ways that can be both positive and negative (though I think the potential for the latter is greater with passive reception of "escapist" lit-- critical engagement is always better I think). What I like about Tolkien is he walks the line between the two, and I think his enduring value is seen in the fact that he stands up to continued rereading for so many folks. And I really just don't include him in the category of "brainless" escapism, I feel like our engagement with his stories doesn't so much demand an immersion in the world-for-its-own-sake as enact it, unless we aren't really reading but are just "reviewing the words on the page" or something like that. I think my review got off like it did b/c I get so frustrated that other people don't find books that DO demand critical engagement and which challenge the reader aren't valued-- but if I keep going on this tangent this will just turn into the creed of a humanities Nazi, so I'll let be!

message 6: by [deleted user] (new)


For some people any kind of reading is a mental challenge.

Carl That's true-- I think I need to keep in mind that not everyone has the privilege of spending their life learning to engage with texts at a high level, and certainly for a lot of people, for example those with developmental problems, it is impossible to read this way. But I also think that the ability to productively engage with a text which does not cater to use in every way exercises the same muscles as those we use when engaging with other people as Subjects with their own desires and contrary perspectives, rather than as Objects which just fit into our world like tools or obstacles. Of course we could argue about the "deconstruction of the subject" in Derrida etc, but none of that really affects the "construction of the subject" in everyday interaction, at least not as I see it-- ok, that was WAY off course since probably no one else who will read this has read Derrida, but point being, the ability and, particularly, willingness to engage with a text "on it's own ground" is closely tied to (but not necessary for) sensitive engagement with other people AS people. OK, it's late, I'm sorry, I'll save it for the dissertation. My point is just for those of us in the highly privileged upper middle class of Western Society, this kind of ability to engage with another's viewpoint is really important if we are to avoid misusing the power we have to benefit ourselves at the expense of others, which we are adept at doing while painting it as "The Way Things Should Be" or "Us vs Them", etc. Whew. I didn't stop when I said I would, did I?

message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

I agree, but who or what is Derrida?

Carl Jacques Derrida, continental philosopher who started "Deconstruction", though Heidegger was actually the one to coin that term.

message 10: by [deleted user] (new)

Thanks for explaining.

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