In 2006 I discovered Neil Gaiman and not only did I love his work that I read that year,* he introduced me to some other great writers. At the top of that list was Gene Wolfe who became my favorite writer for years. I also heard of Jonathan Carroll through him. I read three books by Carroll that year, The Land of Laughs, The Wooden Sea and Sleeping in Flame. All three were good, but I thought the latter was a masterpiece at the time. In 2010 I read The Ghost in Love and loved it as well. I’m not sure why I haven’t gone back and reread those given how much I enjoyed them at the time. Carroll was squarely in what became one of my favorite areas of fiction; the overlap between literary fiction and fantasy. I have to confess not remembering much about the books beyond how much I loved them at the time. I bought a copy of Bathing the Lion when it came out in 2013, and it sat on the shelf until now, part of the reason I decided to buy only a preselected few books this year and focus on books I own but haven’t yet read. If I don’t like this quite as much as I remember liking Sleeping in Flame, that’s more a reflection on the older book. It took me a while to get on this book’s wavelenthl, but once I did I really enjoyed it.
On the cover Gaiman says this is “as if John Updike wrote a Philip K Dick novel.” I see what he’s getting at, but I think the PKD comparison is more apt than the Updike. But if he means that there’s an attempt at the emotional heft of a mainstream literary novel mixed with the sense of displacement and crumbling reality that come at some point in nearly every PKD novel, it’s right on point. For what it’s worth, I think Carroll writes better women characters than either Updike or PKD. I would almost call this, if I can use the term in a positive manner, a bourgeois PKD novel: what might have happened if Dick hadn’t lived in hand-to-mouth poverty throughout his writing career.
If memory serves Carroll’s approach at the beginning here is similar to his other works. He takes a couple of chapters grounding the characters in their relationships and in the world. But about sixty pages in, not coincidentally when the book really started to click into place for me, things get weird. Whereas in the other Carroll books I’ve read the fantasy elements invade the “real” world, this posits an a gradual understanding that the world is not what the characters thought it was. The rugs keep getting pulled out from under them and the readers as reality is shown to be a much stranger place than the early going would indicate. I don’t want to get into specific spoilers, but it is incredibly effective.
By the end I was completely on board. Carroll’s prose is very good as is his sense of how to ground the fantasy/magical realist elements. I read some goodreads reviews that said the ending was too mushy or ambiguous, but I didn’t find that to be the case. Given the shape that reality had been twisted into by the closing chapters the ending made perfect sense, even as it unmoored the conclusion from the recognizable world. I look forward to more of Carroll’s work and to rereading (at least) Sleeping In Flame.
Owned But Previously Unread 2020 59/75
*First time reads of Sandman, American Gods, Anansi Boys and my only read through so far of the story collection Smoke and Mirrors.