Like many reviewers, I’ve been looking through The Best of Gene Wolfe in the last few weeks. Most of the stories were familiar to me – the selection skews very heavily towards those from his first two collections – but I found myself with the same feelings of disorientation as when I’d read them the first time. So I thought it might be worth talking about just one story to try to illustrate just why Wolfe is such an extraordinary writer.
The story I’m going to pick is “The Toy Theater”; I’m afraid it’s not online (hardly any of Wolfe’s work is), but it is at least short, and can be found here or here. Since I can’t get cut-tags to work, consider yourself warned now about the spoilers to follow.
The story follows an unnamed narrator on a visit to the planet Sarg, where he is to meet a man called Stromboli. The narrator is a performer who uses animatronic puppets to mimic human activity. These “dolls” are lifesize, and controlled from a box used by the operator; the narrator has brought with him his own doll, called Charity. Although the narrator is evidently very skilled in using the dolls, Stromboli (though now retired) is a master with them, and the narrator has come to learn from him for a few days. He arrives at Stromboli’s rural house and is greeted by Madame Stromboli – despite her age, still a very striking woman. Several days of tuition from Stromboli follow. On the day when he is to leave Sarg, the narrator discovers that his “second best pair of shoes” is missing. He decides to leave them, and is taken in a buggy back to the spaceport. This buggy is driven by Lili, a woman the narrator has not seen before. She says that once she and Stromboli were notorious, but now no longer; she lives in a house near to Stromboli, but his wife does not realise it. She asks the narrator whether he finds her attractive, but “the delicately tinted cheeks beneath the cosmetics showed craquelure”: she is also a puppet. She says that she has been with Stromboli many times. She tries to seduce the narrator, but he declines her approaches: he lies that he has someone else whom he can’t betray. So Lili leaves him at the spaceport as planned. Then, just as he’s about to go, Zanni arrives: he’s Stromboli’s most famous puppet, a comic butler figure, and is carrying the narrator’s second-best shoes. The narrator looks for Stromboli and sees him, as he has to be, off in a corner, operating the controls that puppet Zanni. Zanni asks the narrator to consider his talk with Lili “under the rose” – that is, confidential; if Stromboli succumbed to a young man’s temptations when on tour with Lili, it’s best for all concerned to keep that quiet. Zanni continues:
“The master [Stromboli] expresses the hope that you know with whom you are keeping faith. He further expresses the hope that he himself does not know.”
I thought of the fine cracks I had seen, under the cosmetics, in Lili’s cheeks, and of Charity’s cheeks, as blooming as peaches.
Then I took my second-best pair of shoes, and went out to the ship, and climbed into my own little box. (29-30)
And the story ends; it covers, in the new collection, a little less than five pages. In his afterword, Wolfe talks about drawing some inspiration from G K Chesterton’s description of his own toy theater and, later, from his knowledge of “certain sad toys possessed by adult men”. In trying to make sense of it – in trying to arrive at a reading that gives a consistent account of why everything that’s in the text is there – I find myself having the following thoughts:
- Zanni’s last words have always seemed especially hard to parse. “[Stromboli] expresses the hope that he himself does not know.” The lack of anything after that last “know” is a little dizzying for me. Stromboli hopes that he does not know with whom he, Stromboli, is keeping faith? Or that he does not know the person with whom the narrator is keeping faith? If the latter, is that a reference to Charity? Is Stromboli saying that he hopes that the narrator is not pretending to have a relationship with Charity rather than one with a real human?
- Why the second-best shoes? The reference that evokes, at least for me, is Shakespeare bequeathing his wife his second-best bed; but I don’t see what significance that has for the story.
- Names are always important in Wolfe stories. In this case, the name Stromboli is surely meant to remind us of the monstrous puppet-buyer in Disney’s Pinocchio(1940), who has a different name in Collodi’s original book. The reference is reinforced by the description of Stromboli’s house as being “of the Italian Alpine style”. But Stromboli does not seem, at least on the surface to be either a monster or (as many other Wolfe protagonists are) someone imprisoned by his own sins.
- The very last line, about the narrator climbing into his “own little box” could be taken to suggest that he is, literally, a puppet, one more of Stromboli’s automata. But that feels to me like overinterpretation, even with the Pinocchio references above. (Does the narrator want to become a real boy? Not particularly.)
- A problem of consistency arises. We’re told throughout that the operator must be within sight of the puppet he is operating, as Stromboli is of Zanni in the last scene. In that case, though, if Lili is a puppet, how was Stromboli operating her? If they’re sitting in a horse-drawn buggy piled with luggage, it would be difficult – though not impossible – for Stromboli to be with them unseen.
- To what does the title refer? What is the Toy Theater? (Nowhere in the story has there been a literal theater.) Where is its proscenium, what does it frame? I think the answer to this is that you have to take the whole of the story as a theater, with Stromboli as the person directing it. In particular, you have to see the conversations with both Lili and Zanni as designed by Stromboli. In that context, it’s a reasonable inference that Stromboli orchestrated the disappearance of the narrator’s second-best shoes from his room – something not sufficiently valuable for him to search high and low for, but something that it would be worth Zanni returning. The last line of the story, then, is not the narrator realising his status as a literal puppet, but as someone who has been manipulated by Stromboli in the more general sense. And the point of the performance, from Stromboli’s point of view, is Zanni’s last line, which I do increasingly see as a warning to the narrator about the dangers of using puppets as a substitute for people – and, in turn, a strong hint that Stromboli is not as content as his idyllic life seems to suggest. The one loose end, then, is Lili’s status: what kind of puppet is she? My hypothesis, for which I can see no textual evidence for or against, is that Stromboli might have been able to construct dolls with limited kinds of self-awareness; but I’d rather I could find a more explicit pointer in the text to what’s really going on. That wonderfully well-chosen word craquelure ends up as the keynote of the story, suggesting just how fake everything in it might be.
Does anyone have any better answers than this? I’m ducking a whole series of issues, I realise: is the narrator a reliable one? Is Lili, in turn, reliable in her claims about Stromboli? Why does the narrator give us so few clues about what he himself is feeling? (In this, he’s very much like other Wolfe protagonists.) That a story of, I guess, no more than 3000 words can generate so much exegesis (and a feeling that you’ve still not exhausted it) is a huge tribute to the density that Wolfe achieves in his best short fiction.