I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the Sanfilippo Estate last Saturday afternoon. I certainly didn't expect to feel as if I were literally walking into the mind of Gene Wolfe, but that's what it was like.
The occasion was an evening to honor Gene Wolfe as the first recipient of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame's Fuller Award for lifetime contribution to letters. Since the Hall of Fame itself is reserved for dead Chicago writersNelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg, Ida B. Wells, Theodore Dreiser, and the likethe Fuller Award was created to recognize the achievements of great living Chicago writers. It was miraculous enough that the first Fuller was being bestowed upon a writer of science fiction and fantasy. The amazing setting for the festivities was like a bushel of cherries poured on top of a spun-sugar sundae.
As we guests arrived at the gated estate in Barrington Hills, we left our cars with the valets at the carousel house and either walked or rode in a shuttle over rolling lawns, past a rail line (no train in evidence, sadly), and around an expansive pond to a huge brick Victorian mansion. Even inside the soaring foyer, where I ran into Gary K. Wolfe, met Peter Straub, and chatted with Patrick O'Leary, I had no idea the wonders I was about to see. The mansion, you see, is more of less a museum of mechanical marvels collected by Chicago engineer and roasted-nut magnate Jasper Sanfilippo. As I wandered through three levels of the house, I saw orchestrions, pianolas, vionolas, music boxes, moviolas, record players, gaming machines, fortune-telling machines, and all manner of fin de siècle era devices in overwhelming profusion. The bright lights, brass, and air of seaside merriment continually reminded me of such Wolfe stories as "Seven American Nights" and "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton."
At five-thirty, we all gathered in the theater, an immense balconied chamber draped in velvet and built to house the world's largest theater organ. Critic and scholar Gary K. Wolfe (no relation, of course, to Gene) opened the award ceremony with a quick history of the realist and fantastic traditions in Chicago literature and the building where they may once have shared offices. Neil Gaiman read the short story "A Solar Labyrinth," then presented the Fuller Award to Gene Wolfe, whose acceptance speech was itself an intricate flight of fancy.
Next we were favored with a staged reading of the story "The Toy Theater," adapted by Lawrence Santoro and performed with organ accompaniment by Terra Mysterium, all clad in their steampunkiest finery. Organist R. Jelani Eddington then performed half a dozen pieces on the 8,000-pipe organ, after which we were invited to walk back to the carousel house for the banquet.
If we had seen wonders already, no one was prepared for the bright-lit scene we encountered upon entering the carousel house. The Eden Palais Carousel toured France from 1890 until 1959, and resided in Colorado and Montana until Jasper Sanfilippo purchased it in 1987. It's the most complete example of a European salon carousel in existence. Our banquet tables were set up in the pavilion outside the carousel chamber itself, each table named after a Gene Wolfe novel. I found my place at Free Live Free, and was delighted to sit next to Patrick O'Leary and his wife Sandy Rice, and across from Sandman artist Jill Thompson. At each of our place settings was a signed copy of Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman's A Walking Tour of the Shambles.
The toastmaster for the banquet was Peter Sagal, host of NPR's Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!, who quickly established his geek bona fides by recounting his first reading of The Shadow of the Torturer at the age of fifteen, and how it taught him that science fiction could have more to say about the real world than realistic fiction. He then introduced a cavalcade of Wolfe appreciators who spoke for a minute or two apiece, including (and I know I will leave some out) author Michael Swanwick, author Patrick O'Leary, author Luis Alberto Urrea, scholar Elizabeth Anne Hull (wife of Frederik Pohl), photographer Kyle Cassidy, author Lawrence Santoro, Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda, author Jody Lynn Nye, author Neil Gaiman, and Gene's long-time editor David G. Hartwell. (Hartwell related amusing stories of Gene calling him an inattentive reader.)
But that wasn't the end of the evening! Not by any stretch! As the dessert buffet and coffee station opened, anyone who wished was invited to enter the inner chamber and queue up for rides on the impossibly ornate carousel. I was one of the first in line, and during my turn on the carousel I got to watch Gary Wolfe, in one of the backward-facing carriages, shooting a photo of Michael Dirda on horseback. When our ride was done, I joined the crowd watching the second running of the painted horses, which included Gene Wolfe, Michael Swanwick ... well, why don't you just watch the video I took and see how many familiar faces you can spot whirling by?
I'm sure you'll understand when I say it was difficult not to grin like an idiot through the whole evening. As I was getting ready to leave, I asked Gary Wolfe, who was out in front of the carousel house smoking his pipe, if he'd had any idea what the Sanfilippo Estate was going to be like. "None," he said, adding that of all the long-time Chicago residents present he'd talked to, only one of them had ever heard of the place before the invitation to the award ceremony arrived.
You know, as the setting for a celebration of any other writer, the Sanfilippo Estate would have struck me as hopelessly over-the-top. For Gene Wolfe, however, it was perfectly apt. In fact, I can't imagine a better externalization of what I assume it's like inside his head. If only I had known what the occasion would be like, I would have begged Laura to change her plans and come along with me. I would have begged all of you to change your plans and come along.
But of course you can. Just pick up any novel or story collection by Gene Wolfe. I might start with The Fifth Head of Cerberus, if you're unfamiliar, or the collection Storeys from the Old Hotel. When you've warmed up a little, move on to the four volumes of The Book of the New Sun, and continue your exploration from there. Welcome to the labyrinth.
[More of my photos from the evening are here.]