I finished Gene Wolfe’s novel The Land Across several days ago and since then have been mulling how best to approach reviewing it. I’m still unsure how to begin, perhaps because Wolfe confused me, a reaction, I suspect, shared by other readers. Absent a plan of action, I’ll just dive in.
The Land Across is, superficially, at least, an account of an American travel writer’s trip to an unnamed Eastern European country. Grafton, the narrator, intended to visit the country and write about it in his next book. Grafton’s experiences result instead in The Land Across. It is clear from the beginning that something isn’t right: Grafton’s flights to the country are canceled three times. He opts instead to fly to Germany and to travel by train to his destination. Grafton is still on the train when he is taken prisoner by the country’s border guards. Tellingly, Grafton is asleep when the guards accost him. Much of The Land Across is strange, pastiche, dreamlike: Did it really happen?
Grafton’s captors spirit him to a village, Paraustays, confiscate his passport, and, in a puzzling twist, make him the prisoner of a citizen. Grafton may wander Paraustays at will, but he must sleep in the villager’s house, lest his guard be shot. Grafton eventually escapes Paraustays for the capital, and is briefly involved with a revolutionary group, the Legion of Light, before the state captures him again. After a period (a few months, a year?) as a prisoner, Grafton begins collaborating with the state security apparatus, the JAKA. Grafton’s search for an escaped prisoner (his previous cellmate) points to an organization devoted to demon worship, the Unholy Way. Oh, and there’s an undead severed hand with a mind of its own.
That’s as much of the plot as I can share here without really giving anything away.
Again, The Land Across is like a dream. Wolfe creates an atmosphere both of meandering circularity and inevitability. Paraustays, for instance, is laid out in uneven blocks, some lots the size of a house and others enormous. The streets are unnamed. Traveling anywhere involves a great deal of walking, an inconvenience on which Grafton comments more than once.
The dreamlike nature of the story is further emphasized by Grafton’s character. Grafton is the narrator, and his writing is conversational, almost as if he is speaking instead of writing. Grafton’s language is awkward, stilted, shifting from the oddly formal (“I will not say any more about that.”) to the informal (“Well, you know what I mean.”). Grafton speech is anachronistic. Although the book takes place sometime after the fall of communism, Grafton often lapses into aged colloquialisms: An attractive woman, for instance, might be a “looker.” Wolfe is an older man, in his eighties, but, given his reputation as a writer, I think this was a deliberate choice. How old is Grafton, anyway?
Readers will wonder just how a reliable a narrator Grafton really is. Although he is up front about when he won’t share information with the reader, for instance, to protect a character’s identity, he doesn’t seem very trustworthy. Grafton sleeps around, both with his captor’s wife and with Naala, the JAKA agent who is his handler. Indeed, Grafton cooperates with the JAKA, eventually becoming an agent, a status he clearly enjoys: He receives a badge and a gun and a certain prestige, which he uses to procure rides and, at one point, to rob someone with impunity. And revelations in the final chapter may surprise some readers.
The plot of The Land Across is convoluted and, occasionally, illogical, but I suspect that’s part of the point. The country that is the setting of the book isn’t supposed to make sense, so why should the story, involving, as it does, revolutionaries, devil worshipers, prisoners, priests, and intelligence agencies? All, or most, is made clear by the end of the novel. Readers should be prepared to set aside their desire for neatly wrapped packages and instead keep moving forward, much like Grafton himself.
The Land Across is a puzzle not easily solved; it’s both delightful and frustrating. Wolfe is clearly an experienced and skilled author, capturing Grafton’s character and the strange logic of foreign dictatorships. Recommended for readers who appreciate the strange and the surreal, with just a touch of the supernatural.