Apr 01, 2022
In Gene Wolfe
Your final Chapter 3 wrap up got me thinking of the roadhouse scene. I’ve always found this scene sad. I’ll start with a quibble about calling Weer’s office a panopticon. I’ll admit that I’m going to get into the weeds! Weer’s windows overlook what he later calls the “making operation.” It’s an outdoor area with a spray tower, pumps, vessels, and piping. This office view makes sense. This plant was built by a chemist. To Smart, this making area is the heart of the plant. This is where raw materials are converted into the formula Smart invented. More than shipping/receiving, an admin building, or even where the product is packaged, this making area is where Smart’s ideas came to life on an industrial scale. It’s where alchemy happens at the plant! While making areas may contain a lot of equipment, there typically isn't a lot of traffic (unless there is an problem). Wolfe confirms this later in the novel. In this part of the plant, the people aren’t often visible because they are operating the process from a control room. The product isn’t visible because it’s contained in pipes and tanks (unless there is a spill). In a consumer goods plant, usually the area with highest traffic is the packaging operation. This is where bottles are filled and cases are packed. The panopticon office that Brandon describes in the podcast is an office overlooking a busy packaging operation. These exist! But, for me this doesn’t match Weer’s description of his own office. Weer’s office mostly looks out at things, not people. I think this is telling. Weer’s office (a room important enough to reproduce) is outward looking, not inward looking. It’s looking out at Smart’s invention and not looking down at where people spend most of their time. I think it’s a sign of his disconnection from people rather than a sign of his focus on power. To me, it sends the message that Weer finds the plant more interesting than the people who work there. I think Weer is noting his lack of connection with the people he spent his career with and he’s recognizing the tragedy in this. Weer worked at the plant for many years before becoming president. After a long career at a small plant in the small town that he grew up in, Weer couldn’t find a single familiar face at the local bar? Not a classmate? Not a distant cousin? Not a coworker from his past work? I sense real regret that he couldn’t or wouldn’t develop relationships. On the podcast, you discussed the scorn you sensed from the people in the bar. Maybe. I suggest an alternate reading. There isn’t evidence Charlie’s tires are at risk (other than in Weer’s imagination). There is evidence of people talking about an unfamiliar face in a local bar (which is not uncommon behavior). There is also evidence that this bar isn’t as exclusive as Weer thinks it is. Scudder (one of only two Executive Vice Presidents) seems to stop at some frequency. Also, the clientele is described as “mostly” not “only” shift workers. A guy at the bar is pointing out the company president. Is this really threatening? Could it just be curiosity? I recognize the stretch here, but could it even be a bit of pride that company president is stopping by their local bar? Weer seems to fear connecting with people. I agree with Brandon and Glenn that it is telling that the roadhouse scene is immediately followed by the scene where he is afraid Miss Birkhead may answer the intercom. Where does this fear come from? How could have Weer’s life been different if he had invested in relationships with those he spent a career with? I have a theory that there is a connection between Weer’s thoughts about nature erasing the tracks of humans and the specific events Weer is looking back at with regret. Just before the confrontation with Bobby Black, Weer is picturing a city of ants tending his uncle Joe’s grave. He talks about cockleburs taking over the beach where he picnicked with Margaret Lorn. He talks about the roadhouse gone and overgrown with weeds. I think these are all occasions where he had the opportunity to make a choice, and he made one that he regrets. Now those alternate paths are gone, overgrown, and impossible to find again. I’m curious to see if this theory holds up when I reread later chapters. Wolfe does a masterful job building unease as we progress through Chapter 3. To me, he builds a real sadness as well.