Thomas Abbey, a schoolteacher, who says he doesn't know what a gerund is, decides to quit teaching and write a biography of his favorite writer, Marshall France, a writer of children's tales, who died at forty-four. France is his obsession and this obsession forms the impetus of the novel, Carroll's first, published in 1980.
Obsession, by a reader, for a writer is a prevalent device in modern literature. Recent examples include Roberto Bolano's 2666 and Lev Grossman's The Magicians. However, in this novel, obsession and writing combine to create a fantasy world, where the artist is the creator and the puppet-master. In fact, puppets and manipulation are major tropes in the work, where France, the demi-urge, created and orchestrated not only the fictional lives of his creations but even the citizens of his hometown of Galen, Missouri.
The novel begins with Abbey's finding a rare copy of France's The Green Dog's Sorrow. However, the fly in the ointment is that someone else has already purchased the book, placed it on hold until she can raise the requisite cash. Thus begins the meeting of Saxony Gardner and Thomas Abbey and the first steps of the incredible tale of The Land of Laughs.
Saxony collects and carves marionettes and reads the novels of Marshall France; whereas, Abbey collects masks and reads Marshall France. He is also the son of the very famous actor, Stephen Abbey, who died in a tragic airplane crash. Soon after their meeting, it becomes apparent that Thomas needs Saxony's ability as a researcher and editor and she needs his creative ability, his power to create descriptions that bring the subject alive. Together, they leave their home in Connecticut and drive cross country to Galen, Missouri. During the trip they fall in love.
Carroll's description of their romance is very realistic; and, although Thomas is a bit of "dick," I found the scenes between Sax and Thomas believable and realistic. This was made more poignant to me because I had just finished reading three novels by Douglas Kennedy and two by Jim Butcher, who both seem incapable of writing a believable love scene.
Once the two reach Galen, realty begins to immediately warp into a world, less than real, a world perhaps more literary than literal. Galen seems to be ruled by Anna France, Marshall's daughter, who unexpectedly takes a real interest in Thomas. She accepts him as her father's potential biographer and sets a task for him to complete: write the first chapter of the biography.
Carroll's novel, although surreal, seems based on reality. Part of this stems from his use of the first person. Somewhat like Borges, the weirder things become the more realistic and prosaic the language.Ultimately, The Land of Laughs is meta-fiction. It is a book about writing and the creative process. It is also a book about readers, who even after the death of their favorite authors, continue to generate creative energy that enlivens the works and characters of their beloved stories.