Ages ago I picked Gene Wolfe’s Free Live Free for a book group I was in at the time and then utterly failed to read the book when it came time for the discussion of it. Head, meet desk. I’m not sure if the book group still exists or if I accidentally killed it with this choice; either way, I feel a little mortified about it.
Anyway, I finally read the copy of Free Live Free I’d picked up at the time. It was my second time reading it; I’d read a mass market edition at some point in high school or college; at the time, I did not “get” Wolfe at all, though I did read the first two parts of the Book of the New Sun at around the same time.
In late 2016, I started reading more Wolfe, and I’ve been making my way through his books on a semi-regular basis since then. And I will say that, while “Wolfe’s books really shine when you re-read them” is something of a cliche when talking about his work, it’s absolutely the case here.
It’s also interesting to revisit it, in that I often hear Wolfe described as a conservative writer, yet the politics of this book seem (at least to me) relatively left-wing. I could be totally off-base, for all I know – it’s also a relative rarity in terms of the Wolfe books I’ve read in that it’s set in the present day. Or at least it was when it was written, which is to say that the bulk of the book takes place in the early 1980s.
But even that’s interesting, as the novel deals pretty heavily in archetypes – and so it’s jarring when the prose makes an allusion to what I’m pretty sure is a shot from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which would have been a fairly recent film at the time that Wolfe was writing the book.
It’s a hard novel to shake, though – sprawling and digressive right up to the point where it’s not, and all of a sudden the shape of things clicks into place. (Weirdly, I think there’s probably a great film that could be made from it…)
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