Gene Wolfe Spins A Kafkaesque Travelogue To A Fictional 'Land'

Dec 24, 2013
Originally published on December 24, 2013 7:02 pm
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Gene Wolfe is a novelist in the spirit of Jonathan Swift or Ursula K. Le Guin. He is an inventor of imaginary lands. His latest book, "The Land Across," is about an unnamed Eastern European country, and reviewer Alan Cheuse says it would be a better place to visit than to live.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: In "The Land Across," veteran science fiction master Gene Wolfe comes down to earth and gives us the story of a travel writer stuck in limbo in a strange land. The writer, named Grafton, has in mind to write the first travel book about this unnamed Eastern European nation that he thinks of as the land across the mountain.

Grafton takes a train across the border and finds that he's immediately arrested. The authorities take his passport and deliver him to a house in a nearby suburban neighborhood where, as the odd custom of this odd country would have it, he becomes the prisoner of the owner. As we follow Grafton in his quest to regain his passport and inadvertently acquire much more knowledge about the manners and morays of the country's inhabitants than he had first desired, we struggle a bit to work ourselves comfortably into the style, which stands somewhere between the intimate tone of a first person crime thriller and the formal syntax of a travel guide of the variety that Grafton has apparently produced before.

But this strange and engrossing story rewards a little struggle. Grafton's internment, his efforts to buy a place to live on his own, his relations with the wife of his jailer, this encounters with the JAKA, the secret police of this country, and the local manifestations of a darkly supernatural strain of events, all of this makes for a supposedly realistic novel that gives off the feel of a closely viewed dream.

If you thought no one could improve on Kafka, try this one at home.

SIEGEL: "The Land Across" is a novel by Gene Wolfe. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.