Laura Browning’s review of Jonathan Carroll’s Bathing the Lion for the A.V. Club, “Bathing the Lion Ruins a Great Premise,” leaves me with seriously mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m glad Carroll is getting reviewed in a major outlet. On the other hand, the review was completely negative. The problem with this negative review is that it gets all of the details right but arrives at a wrong conclusion.
Browning is right that the book doesn’t follow a coherent plot thread. She’s right that the novel doesn’t focus on a single main character, or even a pair of characters. She’s also right that a great many loaded guns are left laying around and none of them are ever fired. She gets all of the details right about Carroll’s novel: she understands her reading. She even has the right to be completely annoyed with it, because the novel does indeed violate every expectation for narrative focalization and plot development ever theorized by any Russian, European, or American theorist.
But I think she’s mistaken in saying that the novel is a bad one. Why? Because it violates every expectation for narrative focalization and plot development ever theorized by any Russian, European, or American theorist.* I think the point of Carroll’s novel is not found in any kind of normal plot or character development but, instead, in the lack of it. Readers don’t get a neat little resolution of the narrative (marital) conflict presented at the beginning of the novel. We don’t see how it’s inextricably bound up with the cosmic forces at play. It’s not that Carroll can’t pull this off. That was the point of White Apples and Glass Soup, and it is how Carroll’s fiction works overall: Carroll comments on our inner worlds by projecting their chaos onto the cosmos. Carroll is a mythologer.
But not this time. What we get instead is stuck with the character who is the biggest jerk — the one we expected to be killed off. We’re stuck with a coming crisis, but not an immediate one. We’re stuck with a bunch of clues that don’t point anywhere. In other words, we’re stuck with our real daily lives. What’s really artificial are the neat narrative wrap ups, the conflicts resolved. What’s more real are the hints of magic and hints of despair but a whole bunch of not knowing. In other words, Carroll’s fiction is devoid of the narrative conventions that make fiction fictional, and by presenting us such a novel, opens up the possibility of seeing the magic in our daily lives.
So, yes, Carroll’s novel will violate and frustrate your expectations. It will be the most annoying boyfriend or girlfriend you’ve ever dated while you’re reading it. But it will give you something better in return, if you’re willing to be open to it.
*By the way, if your field is narrative theory, feel free to call me out on this claim if you’ve read Carroll’s novel. I’ve read narrative theory, but I’m not a specialist in it. If you’re into narrative theory and have note yet read Bathing the Lion, read it and tell me what you think.