Gene Wolfe’s 1986 novel “Soldier of the Mist” centers on a Roman mercenary named Latro. Having suffered an injury during the Battle of Plataea, a Greco-Persian War skirmish, Latro has no memory of his past. Each night, he writes the day’s events on a scroll; the next morning he reads the scroll to bring himself current. Latro has to carefully choose what he is going to write down: he is limited by time, because when he sleeps he loses his memory again, and by the medium, because there is only so much papyrus. It is hinted that Latro’s wound was caused by the meddling of the gods, and, like the blind seer Tiresias, whose affliction was also the result of divine vengeance, Latro is given another gift: he can see the gods, and even speak with them. It could be the case, however, that Latro’s wound causes him to hallucinate.
On the phone from his home in Peoria, Gene Wolfe explained to me recently that Latro’s memory loss does not make him an unreliable narrator, as many critics assume. Instead, Latro might reveal only the truth that matters. Latro must ask himself, Wolfe said, “What is worth writing, what is going to be of value to me when I read it in the future? What will I want to know?” These are questions that Wolfe has been asking himself, in one form or another, for decades. His stories and novels are rich with riddles, mysteries, and sleights of textual hand. His working lexicon is vast, and his plots are unspooled by narrators who deliberately confuse or are confused—or both.
The novel is now decidedly a single object, a mass entity packaged and moved as a whole. That’s not, of course, a bad thing, but it does create a barrier to entry that the publishing world can’t seem to overcome. Meanwhile, consumers gladly gobble up other media in segments — whether it’s a “Walking Dead” episode, a series of Karl Ove Knausgaard ’s travelogues or a public-radio show (it’s called “Serial” for a reason, people) — so there’s reason to believe they would do the same with fiction. What the novel needs again is tension. And the best source for that tension is serialization.
Even when I am forgotten like those unknown creators of the first NYT election map in 1896, my work will survive in the archives somewhere. Nine years is a blip in the history of The New York Times, but I was a part of it. I made my mark. And for that I will be forever grateful.