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austinchapman

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The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages
Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams
Progress: 367/543 pages

Gene Wolfe takes a crack at detective fiction!

Pandora By Holly Hollander - Gene Wolfe

If you know me, you know that I hold Gene Wolfe in the highest regard. He is a literary god. In fact, I make burnt offerings to him on a regular basis. (in my mind, of course).

 

You may also have seen my review of Castleview. That novel was incomprehensible. Even Wolfe nods. Pandora by Holly Hollander is a good deal easier to follow (disclaimer: Wolfe's fiction is never really easy to follow, but at least if you're paying attention Pandora is not difficult). Apart from the plot, which is prima facie a boilerplate mystery plot, there are some interesting things about this book. First, there's the title, which is a mildly funny literary joke in the same vein as the title of one of Wolfe's classic short stories ("The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories") and his classic collection The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. There's also a Foreword (usually something written by the author to explain something about the book) written in the voice of Holly Hollander. So, Wolfe effaces himself as author, and yet everything about the style of the book is pure Gene Wolfe (at least the style that he was developing in the late '80s). I haven't figured out why he does this, but it does make the book sound more personal because it lends the fictional author some of the persona that a real author tends to have.

 

The plot is indeed autobiographical from the standpoint of Holly Hollander -- she is a part of the action at every turn, and yet (as with every Wolfe plot) there is always something going on behind the scenes that does not become clear until the big reveal in the penultimate chapter. Now, the Big Reveal is a well-used device in the mystery-plot toolbox (another disclaimer: I don't read much mystery fiction, but I've seen plenty of Masterpiece Mystery!). But the Wolfe-style Big Reveal is special because things are always happening behind the scenes while the means and motivations of the players are obscured. What's more, though, is that the real significance of the novel hits you, rather strongly and obliquely, in the final paragraph, making the whole whodunit merely a tool for expressing the sub-rosa family dynamics lurking at the core of the novel.

 

Holly Hollander is the only-child daughter of a wealthy couple living in suburban Chicago. Her mother acquires a mysterious box labeled PANDORA to give away as a prize at the upcoming annual fair. What's in the box, everyone is afraid to ask (because of Pandora, y'know). Well, the box is opened at the fair, people die, and the rest of the story is a whodunit. My head was swirling with theories about who did the deed, but I was surprised by who it actually was. Family dynamics are the key to solving this one, but even if you know that, you may still finger the wrong suspect.

 

I did have some issues with the pacing -- some conversations went on entirely too long, and not in a good Quentin-Tarantino way either. But the mystery still had me hooked, and I could hardly look away from it. Recommended for anyone looking for an oddball mystery!

 

One last thing: I mentioned previously that the book was autobiographical because its "author" Holly Hollander is the main character. Well, she confesses several times in the book that she is an aspiring professional writer herself. So, be on the lookout for literary tropes and think about their relationship with reality. Note also that Gene Wolfe for a very long time has lived in suburban Chicago.