Monday, August 20, 2012

Reading Jonathan Carroll's "The Land of Laughs"

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. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Reading Douglas Kennedy's "The Moment" and "The Woman in the Fifth"

Douglas Kennedy in The Woman in the Fifth (Atria Paperback 2007) and The Moment (Atria Paperback 2011) demonstrates some of his strongest themes, tropes, and peculiarities in two books that are seemingly very different and yet, at the same time, strangely similar. Both stories are told in the first person; both books concern men experiencing failed relationships with cold, decisive women; both men flee to Europe to hide from their problems and re-invent themselves through writing; both texts are ultimately perceived by the reader as the very text that the novelist/protagonist is writing, resulting in a self-reflexive modernist experiment; both novels are melodramatic in the same way that a Douglas Sirk film is melodramatic; both novels contain exuberant, somewhat Technicolor-like descriptions; both novels are explicitly sexual to the point of almost being  embarrassing; both novels rely of the quotidian to form the foundation of the tawdry events that follow; both novels possess unlikeable and weak-willed male protagonists; and, as a result, both novels seem like cleverly concealed roman à clefs, but are probably not; and, ultimately, both novels are very readable, full of suspense, narrative-driven, although the characters are well-defined and believable, and emotionally manipulative.

The protagonist of The Woman in the Fifth is Harry Ricks, a professor of film at an Ohio university, who flees a domestic disaster to Paris, where he intends to write a novel and look for work. He escapes with all his worldly goods, which amount to a few thousand dollars, and lands in a Paris hotel, sick with the flu. One employee of the hotel takes advantage of him and slowly siphons off most of his money, while another helps him to find a cheap chambre de bonne in a sleazy quartier inhabited by immigrants. Rick's plight worsens with every step he takes until he descends into a dangerous underworld of Turkish mobsters. However, his luck (or destiny) changes when he meets a strange woman at a weekly salon held by an American expatriate. Suddenly, he experiences a coup de foudre, a thunderbolt of attraction. This thunderbolt is a common experience in  the novels of Douglas Kennedy. It usually signals a passionate relationship destined to lead to tragedy and heartbreak. Kennedy is too much of a pro to say it but I suspect he is suspicious of what Goethe called the "elective affinity," "an indescribable, almost magical force of attraction." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1971), 286. The turn of the screw in The Woman in the Fifth is that Harry Ricks is haunted, both literally and figuratively, and his coup de foudre with its attendant madness leads to an existential trap. No one in the love affairs of Douglas Kennedy escape unscathed.

In The Moment, Thomas Nesbitt, a travel writer in Maine is going through a nasty divorce from a successful woman, who he never really loved. After a half-hearted suicide attempt on a cross-country ski trail in Quebec, he reflects on the past, when he receives a package from Berlin. The novel then consists of one story told through two first-person narratives: one narrated by Nesbitt ( the novel we are reading) and the other by Petra in epistolary form. Once again, we have the coup de foudre. Nesbitt meets Petra, a political pawn expelled from East Germany by the Stasi, in Berlin several years before the fall of the wall. They fall madly in love, while working for a CIA-funded radio station, but it is Berlin, during the cold war, and Petra has too many secrets for this story to end well.

Both novels are well written, replete with full-bodied characters, and a rich array of local color. Kennedy started out as a travel writer and his attention to the detail of place is precise and complete. As he said in an interview on French TV, my locations are also characters.

Kennedy is a throwback to an earlier time: his books are page-turners. And, although both novels could be classified as genre: The Moment, as thriller or spy novel; The Woman in the Fifth, as horror or urban fantasy. They ultimately are melodramas in the sense of a film by Douglas Sirk or Rainer Werner Fassbender. And it is their emotional wallop that causes you to stay up past midnight to finish them.