Gene Wolfe’s “The Land Across” is a novel that’s terribly difficult to summarize. (The jacket copy tries valiantly but ultimately ends up only tangentially relating to the book’s actual arc.) It’s told to us by Grafton, a writer of travel books. Grafton has traveled to the book’s eponymous but unnamed nation to be the first to write a travel guide of the place, despite the nation’s dubious record of arresting travelers at the border. (It is telling of Grafton that when he mentions this he says, “It just made me more determined than ever.”) The moment that Grafton enters the nation, he is beaten by a trio of border guards, his passport is confiscated, he is detained for not having his passport, and is foisted into the custody of a man who the government isn’t fond of. Grafton’s immediate goal becomes getting his passport back so he can return home. Sounds straightforward so far, yes?
Grafton’s subsequent path isn’t. At one point in the novel, Grafton’s main concerns are having an affair with the wife of his jailer and searching for a lost treasure in a spooky house. At another point he is abducted by an order of religious fanatics in rebellion against the government to read their propaganda before landing himself in a prison of the JAKA, the nation’s secret police. Then, when his cellmate and fellow American Russ Rathaus escapes using a life-sized voodoo doll, he finds himself in the employ of his jailers. There are satanic cults, ghostly animated hands, and an obviously corrupt church. To say the plot of “The Land Across” is complicated is an understatement.
It all seems at risk of falling apart, but here’s the thing: Wolfe somehow makes it all work. “The Land Across” is crazy, but it’s fun. The action is exciting, the mysteries intriguing, the satire is hilarious. Part of the reason it works is Wolfe’s deft world building. Though Grafton completely fails in his effort to write a travel book, he gives the reader a real sense of the place. We not only learn that it’s a place where short trips to cafes require long walks on streets without names and terrible dance clubs, we also learn it’s the sort of place where people introduce their lovers as a “cousin” or where haunted houses are actually haunted. When read purely on a surface level, “The Land Across” will feel like a vacation to a slightly spookier world.
But that’s the thing about Gene Wolfe. Though a venerated genre hand, he’s always had the reputation of being a tough read. With “The Land Across” that’s not necessarily true, but it does require close attention to be fully enjoyed. A number of the book’s central mysteries are resolved by the end, but other mysteries have no obvious solutions in the first reading. That’s not to say they aren’t solvable. The answers are there, they just have to be eked out by the reader. As Grafton says about the identity of a policeman, “If I have to tell you who that was, you have not been paying attention.”
And then there is the issue of Grafton. Grafton undergoes a hero’s journey, going from a passive and neutral bystander who takes regular beatings to a mystery-solving JAKA agent who can give them out and will put his life on the line for those who matter to him. But even though Grafton becomes quite the badass by the novel’s conclusion, he slowly becomes an active participant in an authoritarian regime. And make no mistake, the regime that Grafton works for is the kind with secret jails and labyrinthine bureaucracies, but compared to the death cult aren’t bad guys. That we still root for Grafton makes the reader complicit participants in the process. That’s perhaps Wolfe’s biggest achievement with “The Land Across”: he’ll have you rooting for the dictatorship by the end of it. (Brendan Buck)
“The Land Across”
By Gene Wolfe
Tor Books, 288 pages, $25.99