I really loved this episode. great discussion on the theme, and I think Brandon is on to something in regards to Antonio’s objecthood: the masculine objects valued for the work they can do, the feminine for their sexualization. that’s way more interesting than literal puppethood on the part of the narrator; i have come to view his box as metaphorical for the obsession to which he is a puppet (that final question then becomes - I trust you understand what you are a slave to, as I cannot understand the thing which drives you as a person (or have failed to confront my own obsession).) the neglect of people in the obsessed artist’s life is resonant with Wolfe’s own prolific nature - His daughter Teri recounted at the Nebula Award ceremony how very hard he had worked all of the time, even writing when he took the kids to the pool, writing every day, etc. greatness comes at a real personal cost. I have really felt that the podcast keeps getting better and better! The exploration of the theme in this one was profound. at the Fuller Award Ceremony in 2012 a really cool singing performance of this story was put on, featuring the song ”coin-operated boy”. the organ was the giant room in which the audience sat, and the organist seemed a virtuoso to me, capable of playing several orchestral pieces on only one instrument. extremely apt in terms of displaying mastery over an art that seems impossible to the onlooker.
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I'm super late to this party but I really appreciate this podcast as someone new to reading Gene Wolfe. Brandon made a comment about this being someone's first wolfe story and I am that person, lol. I look forward to more of these podcasts as I read more of this great writing.
I am enjoying reading along with the podcast.
We had Gene over for dinner and a movie last week. "Hey Gene, did you know that you are the subject of a literary podcast?" I played the beginning of one of the episodes for him and he got a big grin on his face. We didn't listen to much- "Murder Ahoy" with Miss Marple was waiting.
My take on Toy Theater is that Stromboli was a fraud. He was unable to do women's voices and when his wife couldn't (or wouldn't) accompany him off planet, his solution was to use two or three female robots. That is how he was able to control five puppets at once- at least two of them were robots!
The three singing "puppets" (Julia, Lucinda and Columbine) were actually robots and Stromboli only pretended to control them.
He brought at least one robot back with him- Lily, who he keeps hidden back in the woods for perhaps his own pleasure. She is now neglected ("once we were notorious... he lives with his wife now and wishes the world to think he is a good husband") and exacts revenge on Stromboli by revealing to the narrator that there is no puppeteer in control of her and that Stromboli, by inference, uses robots to "do five."
Stromboli hears of her escapade and goes to the spaceport to ask, through Zanni, that the narrator keeps it under the rose- "it" being the fact that he uses robots for the female parts. After all, what would be the bigger scandal- that Stromboli cheats on his wife or that he cheats in his art?
It is also possible that Stromboli may have been passing on his secret for controlling five puppets to the narrator so it could be said "he can do six" at his funeral.
I haven't run this past Gene because we usually talk about other things. I suspect that he would probably smile and say something like "That's one way of looking at it!"
Mick, this is another great comment. Your insights on the use of sex in this story I think work very nicely with the fact that much of The Fifth Head of Cerberus concerns a brothel in Hell. Brandon and I have not yet talked enough about the sex in that novel, but we'll correct that as we finish our coverage in the next few weeks. Thanks!
I do particularly like this reading that Stromboli is essentially running a cyber-sex business with puppets. Of course this would strain a marriage and take a psychological toll on the performer who has to act out sex with others even if what he is doing is not technically intercourse. That's a very disturbing thought that surely must be a comment on the pornogriphication and commodification of art, as you argue.
Another good podcast. I'm currently working my way through my copy of Operation Ares. One of the problems I've had with many of the proposed solutions to the "Which ones are the puppets and which one is the master?" question is the technical problem of distance - on both the carriage rides with Antonio and especially Lily, if they are marionettes and Stromboli is controlling them, where is he? There seems to be a minimum range for the puppeteer, as the narrator remarks in the spaceport near the end of the story that Stromboli "must be somewhere nearby." He could be concealed somewhere within the carriage, or perhaps discreetly following in another carriage he possesses, but I think this is unlikely. I don't think Engineer Gene would blithely overlook this problem for the sake of story.
One possibility which suggests itself is that Stromboli is, in fact, the unnamed narrator, and that all other speaking parts are puppets. The narrator is close to all the characters as the interactions occur and could be controlling them. As the title itself suggests, and might perhaps be made more explicit by Wolfe's afterward to the story in "The Best of Gene Wolfe", G.K. Chesterton also owned a toy theater - and such children's toy sets are often used for solitary enjoyment, in the absence of playmates or an audience. Under this reading, Stromboli's wife passed away during one of his long absences, and now he returns to his home planet to play-act out the part of an acolyte coming to visit him; perhaps with the logistical support of Antonio, who could also be real, or perhaps a more independent robot; the mention that Maria's hair is now gray seems to imply the narrator has met her before, but if this reading is incorrect, could as easily be used to describe an older woman with gray hair - we presume it was not always thus.
But I did a read-through of the story from this narrator-as-Stromboli perspective, and it didn't really work well. The narrator's internal monologue does not suggest this possible reading to be so.
The detail that he narrator, Stromboli, and Maria are all drinking at the dinner doesn't necessarily preclude any of them from being puppets; the futuristic puppeteer's craft seems to include a kind of ventriloquism (even if it may involve some kind of radio-like transmission), and a standard trope of the ventriloquist's art is for the controller to pretend to drink while the dummy talks; it could as easily be done in reverse. There are also (even now) trick glasses that provide the illusion of liquid being consumed, the basis of the old "Magic Milk Pitcher" illusion, available in any magic store, and commonly used in stage productions of "Peter Pan" where Tinkerbell (represented as a spotlight) is seen by the audience to "drink" a glass of milk. My reading would instead be that the narrator is whom he is presented to be, an acolyte come to pay homage and learn from a master. (I suspect that the reference to the cramped compartment in which he travels, and getting back into his box at the end is a wry reference to the fact that all the characters in the story are ultimately puppets in a toy theater owned and operated by Maestro Wolfe.)
Antonio is, I think, Stromboli in disguise (perhaps an homage to Bram Stoker's Dracula, wherein Jonathan Harker is picked up in a carriage when he journeys to Transylvania by Dracula himself, wearing the disguise of a liveryman). The Stromboli he meets in the home is the same man he met in the person of Antonio, who has had the time to change from his Antonio disguise while Maria greets the narrator. Maria is likely a puppet, although she could possibly be human, and I suspect Maria passed away or left him during one of his long tours, either from loneliness or due to the sexual nature of his work, as I'll mention below. Zanni is of course a puppet, being controlled by Antonio/Stromboli within the terminal - and we are reminded that the controller must be physically close to the puppet to control it.
Lily is not a puppet, but also Stromboli in disguise, which is seriously creepy but the best explanation of how Stromboli can control her while the carriage is on the road - much is made in the story about Stromboli learning the ability to project a woman's voice; the description of Lily's heavier body and thighs contrasts with the Barbie-like, exaggerated thin-waisted femininity of the other female puppets; and most tellingly, as the second-to-the-last paragraph tells us, the narrator remembers the fine cracks he had seen, under the cosmetics on Lily's cheeks, contrasted to Charity's cheeks, as blooming as peaches. Earlier he describes the cheeks beneath her here cosmetics as showing craquelure, defined as "a network of fine cracks in the paint or varnish of a painting" - which could apply to an older marionette but also to Stromboli's own skin. I doubt that puppets would need cosmetics, and the fine cracks on Lily's face are, I think, Stromboli's wrinkles. Had the narrator fallen for the trap Stromboli set as a test, I think (hope) Stromboli would not consummate the act, but simply reveal himself to a chastened student.
The two hours the narrator spends at the terminal would give Antonio/Stromboli time to return home, shed the Lily disguise, return with the Zanni puppet, and conceal himself in the spaceport.
Why does Antonio/Stromboli play-act the attempted seduction by Lily, whether she be puppet or Stromboli in disguise?
I think it is a final test for the narrator, whom Antonio/Stromboli sees as his legitimate successor, and whom he wishes to see surpass even his own accomplishments, to be able to control 6 puppets instead of 5. He is hoping his own fame will even be eclipsed by the narrator's, which is a kind and magnanimous thing in a master of an art. Obviously, Stromboli regards his art as a high calling. But in my reading, the wealth Stromboli apparently possesses was not gained by simply performing innocent, or even cheerfully bawdy, stage-act puppet shows around the galaxy, but by occasionally (or often) satisfying the perverse desires of men on other planets for private sexual acts with his marionettes, who can be made to do whatever they desire, or enact any persona. (And one has to ask whether the extreme expense, referenced by Maria, of space travel could be recompensed solely by performing puppet shows, however masterful in technique, or whether the chief source of income would be through the perverse private show Stromboli offered. Stromboli needed the time alone on the long road trips across space to perfect his craft and practice and master making a woman's voice, yet he feels shame at the degraded acts he was forced to make his puppets perform to fund those long lonely periods of solitude between the stars needed to improve his skill to the point of mastery.
By not only sacrificing his marriage, but perverting his art for the lure of easy money - essentially, being a puppet-pimp - he has occasionally wandered off the path towards mastery of his craft (symbolically, this potential departure from the path of mastery occurs on the return trip to the spaceport, when Lily offers to detour off the road for an assignation), and doesn't want the narrator to do the same.
Wolfe's afterwords to the stories in The Best of Gene Wolfe are a great skeleton key to try to unlock the meanings of his stories, as he seems to magnanimously (albeit somewhat gnomically) offer some additional clues after the passage of years to the reader. In the afterward to this story, he more-or-less explicitly refers to sex dolls, which would be a bizarre reference if it did not relate to Stromboli's prostitution of the puppets in the story.
I see this as Wolfe criticizing the pornogrification of art, whether in puppetry or literature. As an orthodox Catholic, I think Wolfe shares the Catholic sacramental view that sex is a Very Good Thing - it is a creation of God, and thus holy; as a sign, it points towards the unification of man to God and Christ to His Church; it bonds husband and wife and increases their love for one another; and of course, creates new life. One sacrament, Marriage, even requires sex, under canon law, to fully consummate it. Pornography subverts this image of sex as a life-enhancing holy gift by objectifying man and woman and excluding love from the act, often to the degradation of both man and woman. The subject of sex is a legitimate part of human experience for the Catholic author to examine, and many have; but to use sexual acts in literature, or puppetry, or any other art solely to titillate, outside of the context of examining human experience would be seen, in the Catholic view, as a perversion of both sex and art. I don't think Wolfe, who frequently (and in the Catholic view, legitimately) deals with sex in his writing, has ever written a scene solely to titillate, as much genre and mainstream fiction routinely does, for greater popularity and sales. I'm not sure about the symbolism of taking a pair of shoes from the narrator, other than that shoes are symbolic of the need to stay on the path (to mastery) and that Stromboli has taken them not only for an excuse to allow Zanni to return and offer Stromboli's final benediction ("the master has insisted that I return them to you"), but to symbolically assert the need to stay faithfully on that path. The removal of shoes is also seen as an act of respect when entering a home or temple in some cultures (such as the Japanese culture, also refered to by the narrator in Joruri), and Art can be seen as a kind of temple; shoe removal symbolizes deference to holy authority or holy ground in Exodus 3:5, when God demands to Moses: "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." Having passed the test, Stromboli returns his shoes to the narrator, as a sign that he is prepared to leave the planet, and Stromboli's home, the temple of Stromboli's art, and go forth to levels of higher mastery.
I think the reading above explains the cryptic comment given through Zanni at the end of the story: "The master begs leave to remind you that he as once a young man very like yourself, sir. He expresses the hope that you know with whom you are keeping faith. He further expresses the hope that he himself does not know." The faith which the narrator has retained is in his art. But Stromboli himself does not want to know if he, Stromboli, has sacrificed that same art for money.
I'm glad you're enjoying the show -- we're certainly glad you're here and joining the conversation.
If any author has the right to lay claim to being a puppet master, it's Gene Wolfe. If you didn't check out the links that Marc Aramini shared to various write-ups about the stage adaptation of this story at the 2012 Fuller Award ceremony, you should check it out. In fact, I'll just link them again here for convenience:
I am enjoying your podcast and forum.
Just before I read this story, I read “The Rubber Bend,” which has that bit at the end with a letter for Wolfe on Wide's desk. So I wondered if ALL of the characters in this story are puppets and the only puppet master is Wolfe. Or course, this is literally true, but I mean are we meant to think of it?
The joruri stuff works with Wolfe as the puppet master–we know we are reading a work of fiction, but forget we are reading fiction. Wolfe keeps bringing it to our attention and we push it aside to get back to the story.
The planet Sarg is the toy theater of the title. That is why it is lifeless, until Wolfe populates it with Earth flora. Like he is minimally decorating the stage for a play with things we know are fake. A planet of just blue spruce, roses, and fir trees? Lili mentions grass and flowers, but we don't see them and it sounds like another stage that Wolfe could move the action to if he wanted to move the story in that direction.
The control box the narrator shows Antonio is like the master's, which, minus the dials, could be Wolfe's typewriter.
Stromboli says he can control five puppets at a time, but he demonstrates only three at a time. It gets to five if we add the other two people in the scene, Stromboli and the narrator. At the end, there at least six people in the spaceport, but only three are characters. The others are just “people” or “crowd,” like Wolfe is giving one last shot at doing six, but isn't good enough yet to succeed.
At the very end, Zanni says, “He expresses the hope you know with whom you are keeping the faith. He further expresses the hope that he himself does not know.” As if asking the readers if we have figured out that Wolfe is the puppet master. Stromboli as the master hopes that he is wrong in his realization that he is a fictional character.
I hope it does get the votes! And while you certainly shouldn't do it to appease me (kind as it is of Marc to say), you should do it because it is, objectively (as Marc might also say) one of Wolfe's very best stories. ;)
Haha, yes, I can't imagine that it wouldn't get the votes. But, then, I thought that about Beech Hill, too. And we'll gladly have you on to talk about it when we get there (but we've still got a lot of Fifth Head to do).
Looks like you guys should appease your biggest forum user and definitely cover Forlesen. I think I made some progress on my writeup but I was left very frustrated - in large part it felt like shooting in the dark, not in regards to theme, which is obvious, but in regards to the epistemology and cosmology. I spent a ton of time on it - i think it needs a eureka contextualization to say yes, this is an alien reconstruction after humanity has died (like AI) or yes, this is the soul of business magnate Frick tormented in Hell, etc. I would really like to see this one given a more definitive reading, but something about Wolfe in the full Kafka mode makes the stories more difficult- if the theme is there is no cutting through this nonsensical knot ... can we cut through the nonsensical knot on another level? I’m not inviting myself onto the show for it but I’d love to talk to you guys about the miscellaneous fracture points via email or even Skype for the novella before you do a Forlesen episode. If patrons don’t select it, well, in the words of the Roman senate from History of the World ... etc.
I'm going to stick by my promise on the episode and say that I definitively think that Antonio is the puppet master. It seems to me that he enjoys interacting with people through the buffer of his puppets, and perhaps (like Wolfe?) enjoys the obfuscation and trickery. That said, I'm not sure the identity of the puppet master changes the theme or the moral, and I really have to agree with Marc in the end.
As for Crowley, I just finished reading his novel Beasts for the second time, and I will likely get to Engine Summer (again) later this year. But "Snow" was the first short story of his that I'd read, and it was magnificent. It's largely about grief, and I read it while I was waiting to pick up my wife at the airport after she'd been gone for a few days. The result was a lot of embarrassed crying in an airport Starbucks late on a Wednesday night. And Brandon is a massive Crowley fan, so I'm sure we'll return to that well eventually.
I dunno if it sounds mean. But it sounds (to me) accurate. (Just to take one example: I am sure there are lots and lots of times in Wolfe when I don't know that I don't understand something! Although I like to imagine I'm above average; possibly an unwarranted vanity.)
Well, my only answer to this is structural. I don't think Forlesen is open - Sorcerer's House appears open, but the more you are able to explain, the less open it becomes. (Unlike many, many readers, I actually have a pretty good sense when I don't understand something. I didn't understand Kiki in the middle of Sorcerer's House, so I looked her up. Great, the Kikimora myths explained a TON ... but it didn't explain Nick's staff or the white horse ... but Knecht Ruprecht does ... but that didn't explain Goldwurm, the ambiguous gender on the Corinthian coin's obverse, the weird eyes of Lupine and Nicholas, and Ambrosius ... but the story of the Lamia of Corinth in the Life of Appolonius explained all of those, and tied the pattern together ... I could have stopped at Kiki, but Nick and Goldwurm were still bugging me - those loose ends are tied up now in my mind. So, with "Forlesen," the oil, the glass that changes someone's reflection, the bridge, the name Frick which seems so apt, but HOW? ... loose ends jagging out that point to a unified solution. I read Toy Theater and I don't get a Goldwurm THING sticking out of the text that SEEMS to have no relationship to anything else.) So, long story short, there's a lot of those loose jagged ends sticking out of "Forlesen," and I just don't see them here. In almost every case that I have felt one of those ends, research or metaphor has provided even MORE closure for my readings in Wolfe. If I don't understand something, that's what needs to be understood. Does it sound mean to say that a lot of readers don't know when they don't understand something? They don't know where to begin. Wolfe always gives me a firm direction to explore, though this becomes much looser in post 2008 work, and more difficult to pin down, requiring even more intuition.
Crowley's very different from Wolfe — there isn't the emphasis on puzzles and solvable mysteries, for instance. But Wolfe's description of Little, Big from Castle of Days — an education in modern fantasy all by itself — strikes me as apt. As a Wolfe fan, the next work I'd suggest is Engine Summer: Crowley's finest SF novel, and one that bears (even demands) rereading. Very Wolfean in spirit in some ways (e.g. the sort of "end of history" setting, although in a radically different way, and to different ends, than in BotNS).
I have a friend is a very serious Wolfe fan who claims — persuasively to my mind, although I look forward to rereading it in the context of this podcast (if the patreons don't choose it, then... I can't think of an appropriately bad curse) — that "Forlesen" is deliberately ambiguous. On the last page, the angel mentions three possibilities, one SF, one fantasy, one mainstream (the main character is either being experimented on by aliens, ensorcelled by demos, or has a blood clot in their brain — something like that, it's been a while). The claim is that the story is deliberately and intentionally open to all three readings. We'll see if that claim holds up, I suppose, but I have to admit I am prejudiced in its favor; I like the idea.
Finally, back to "The Toy Theater": I like the idea that the ambiguity is part of the point. I guess what I would then ask (and what I was trying to get at before) is why it is part of this point. Why does Wolfe depart from his usual solveable puzzles to give us here an unsolvable one? What about the story (the theme, the characters, whatever) makes that fitting or work? By way of comparison, by my friend's reading of "Forlesen" is pretty clearly motivated (among other things, it's cool in its own terms). If Wolfe's ambiguity in "The Toy Theater" is deliberate (and if it isn't, then we ought to be able to solve it, no?), then why does he make that choice? What does it do for him?
Hi Stephen. For whatever reason, even though I usually say yes, there is a clear solution in Wolfe, I felt like this particular story was doing something else. I come down hard on solid positions in his post 1980 work, and do think I was never able to solve “Forlesen”, but this one seemed, for all that it is a concrete story with clear action, a bit more metaphorical. I feel its strength is in large part in its ambiguity. I think the objectification of others that Glenn and Brandon explore is a great insight into the story. There is a sequel, and much is made of Stromboli’s difficulty with female voices here, which might lend some Credence to Maria as puppet master, especially given the sexual advances of the puppet - but I just never felt like this story needed a definitive kind of reading in the way, say, Home Fires, Short Sun, or even Sorcerer’s House does. I would probably be more assertive if I were writing that entry now but I just didn’t feel that forcing a particular reading was apt. Maybe I was wrong. Bloom likes Crowley quite a bit. I’ve read most of his stuff but I don’t harbor the same love I have for Wolfe consistently. Wolfe loves Little, Big.
Oh, and I gotta say, that if there's one SF writer I actually like more than Gene Wolfe — and certainly as much — it's John Crowley. (Actually, I'm right in the middle of his mainstream historical novel, Four Freedoms, right now. It's really good, although not quite as good as his best work — in my view, Engine Summer, Little, Big, the entire Aegypt cycle, and his most recent novel Ka. (A few others I haven't read, though.)) And now you've done a show on "Snow"? Damn. I may not be able to resist that one.
*searches through clothes, looking for a dollar in change*