Mirroring the Fifth Head

An image from Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’ popped into my head this morning. Number Five, the protagonist of the first section of the book, catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror and for a second doesn’t recognise himself.

The book is very concerned with people seeing and describing themselves when they don’t really know themselves. It plays with this in a variety of different ways; amongst others, there’s a shapeshifting alien narrator who’s assumed another’s identity so completely that he isn’t aware of the joins, a wealth of buried relationships between characters, and indeed Five’s own relationship with his mysterious patrimony.

Verrry interesting resonances in the novel, but (taken slightly out of context) it’s also an intriguing way of thinking about the process of writing; of reading back over and reflecting that writing. So often you find subjects and themes that seem to have been entirely spontaneously generated, connections within the text that seem to have come from nowhere.

Writing a first draft, looking back over it, gives us a mirror filled with distance from ourselves; an artefact to peer into and be genuinely surprised by. In this context, that makes many of the characters in ‘Fifth Head’ writer analogues – people trying to explain the world to themselves, and through that to us, and along the way finding both familiarity and deep newness in the narratives they create.

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