"The Magical Realist" Foundling of enchant- ed lands, dweller in starry ways, mythographer. 04-17-2017 Clinton, MS
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.
When I first started drafting this blog, I’d just finished the third of three days teaching Jonathan Carroll’s Bones of the Moon. “Teaching” is perhaps a misleading word after the first day, as for the most part we talk about the book — so my students may as well be teaching me. The first day, though, I need to teach. Carroll’s novels are often complex and somewhat strange psychological explorations, and students need some introduction to Carroll’s language of the psyche. I ask my students to imagine their inner lives as a landscape, like a city or country populated by characters, and then project that land outwards. If they could do that, they’d have a Carrollesque novel. And they’d have developed a myth.
Those of us who read have authors who have become a part of our lives. Jonathan Carroll is one of mine, alongside William Blake, Søren Kierkegaard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Annie Dillard, J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Louise Erdrich, John Updike, J.D. Salinger, James Joyce, the Bible, and several others. There’s no point trying to be exhaustive. For an author to be added to my list, they have to speak to me, personally, and do so imaginatively. These authors tend to operate on the mythopoetic level. While the surface contours of their works tend toward the fantastic, their real subject is the human emotional landscape. They turn us inside out, projecting our emotional lives onto the screen of their rich imaginations so that we can better understand ourselves.
My connection with Carroll’s work is a bit more personal as well. I was introduced to his work by my current wife long before either of us thought we could ever be married in any possible world or, for that matter, long before either of us thought that we would ever want to be married to one another. When someone picks your first Carroll book for you — and picks it for you, not for a project of some kind that you’re working on — they’re not just thinking about a book they’ve read. They’re thinking about how they’re reading you. Sheridan’s first Carroll, for me, was Outside the Dog Museum, which turned out to be a perfect choice, because after reading that book I wanted to read all of Carroll’s work.
I’ve also had the privilege of meeting and corresponding with the author on occasion. This is no credit to me: he is very generous with his readers. His first contact with me, I regret to say, was a result of me being a little bit of a jerk on a listserve (those who know me will find it hard to believe that I could be a jerk on a listserve, or have ever been). I had just received a signed copy of a special edition of Carroll’s novella The Heidelberg Cylinder and I pointed out that the signature, being in a perfect script that perfectly matched the book print in color, looked like it had been photocopied onto the page. The author emailed me directly to tell me that yes, he had indeed personally signed all 1,000 copies of that book and that was his real signature. If I had signed 1,000 books that carefully you can bet that I would not let anyone take that work away from me. I don’t blame him.
But despite that start we have enjoyed an off and on correspondence. I wrote a short, complimentary review of White Apples on amazon.com and he liked it enough to have it linked from his website — he felt that I understood what he was attempting to do. Later, I was fortunate enough to meet him in a Delaware book reading, with Sheridan, after we were married. We brought our books in a big duffle bag and he signed them all. Still later, he was generous enough to meet me for coffee in his longtime home town of Vienna in the summer of 2011. Sometime in the early 2000s I quite unexpectedly found out that I knew one of his editors of his early works — not closely, but rather indirectly, through a listserve, but I was fortunate enough to meet both her and her husband in New York before he died. She told me very little about him out of respect for his privacy, but it was nice to have met her. That being said, I am no authority on his fiction. I am a published scholar, but I’m not a Carroll scholar. I have not read any of the ever-growing body of scholarship about his work and have not attempted to research his life. He’s endorsed one thing I said about his work, but I don’t assume that he would endorse everything, or even anything else.
What I’ve said so far is merely to provide some context for my reading of Carroll’s works. I believe that he’s a mythopoetic author, one who turns our emotional landscapes into his fictional ones. If I were to align him with any genre, I suppose it would be either magical realism or, perhaps, supernatural realism. Either way, I believe that the key to understanding any one of his novels is understanding the emotional conflict embodied by the weirdness that inevitably takes place. All fiction involves an emotional conflict, of course, but some fictions are focused on character, some on plot, while sometimes setting becomes a character of sorts. Carroll’s fiction is focused on an emotional tension that is embodied by a central character but also reflected in a (usually) magical or supernatural environment or, I should say instead, a perfect natural environment upon which the supernatural or magical intrudes. What I seek to do when I read his novels is to identify that central anxiety and then understand how its contours are being explored by the characters in the novel and the magical elements that surface within them.
I’m describing a methodology because I’ve recently been given a pretext for rereading Carroll’s first novel, The Land of Laughs, and have decided to read them all again, in the order of publication, and blog about each one as I read. Again, I’m not producing scholarship here. I haven’t engaged with the critical literature on the subject. I’m not seeking to argue an original thesis. I am attempting, instead, to comment, observe, and perhaps introduce Carroll to the unfamiliar. Above all else, I am attempting to work out for myself what these books mean to me, and why.
So my next blog will be about Carroll’s first novel, The Land of Laughs. Keep checking.
Jonathan Carroll’s White Apples and its follow up, Glass Soup, narrates a love affair between Vincent Ettrich and Isabelle Neukor. White Apples begins with Vincent Ettrich still moving through the routines of his daily life with the growing awareness that he’s recently died. Isabelle, his soul mate and lover, brought him back to life, hence his somewhat disoriented wandering of the streets of Vienna. White Apples narrates their reunion and the significance of their unborn child, Anjo, not only to their personal lives, but to the very fabric of existence. In these novels Carroll presents a universe continually expanding in big bangs then contracting back into singularities in repeated cycles, a differently configured universe brought into being with each big bang. Everything that exists has its place in the universe, which for these novels Carroll has conceived of as a grand mosaic; once everything has taken its place in the Mosaic, the universe begins its contraction again.
In the current configuration of the universe the principle of Chaos has taken on a conscious mind and personality and likes it that way, so is attempting to stop the completion of the Mosaic in order to freeze the expansion of the universe in its current configuration. Vincent and Isabelle’s child will be the one who finally defeats Chaos, so Chaos is seeking to destroy both parents and the child. In White Apples, Vincent and Isabelle are reunited and thwart Chaos’s attempt to destroy or damage their unborn son, while Glass Soup continues the story with Chaos’s attempt to permanently separate Vincent and Isabel, ending with Anjo’s birth.
Carroll’s bizarre plot places the White Apples trilogy (Carroll plans a sequence of three books to develop this story) well outside any established genre, but his writing is perhaps best understood as a type of magical, or even supernatural, realism. However, in consideration of western mythology and the gnostic/hermetic tradition that developed from it, this story isn’t so bizarre after all. Athena sprang from Zeus’ head, emanating from Zeus, much like Chaos has sprung from the universe fully conscious. In many gnostic religions the universe has actually been created by divine emanations rather than God, these emanations being embodiments of divine moods or personality traits. In the hermetic tradition the universe is something like God’s body and also follows vast cycles of expansion and contraction. This universal/divine cycle of expansion and contraction finds its highest philosophical expression in Hegel’s philosophy of history, and its best known materialist/scientific expression in the Big Bang theory.
Carroll, deliberately or not, appropriates these ancient traditions to reveal the contours of the human heart — not unlike English Romantics such as William Blake and Percy Shelley. These novels tell, first and foremost, a love story between Vincent and Isabelle. The tensions between chaos and control, the willingness to love the current form of the universe while maintaining openness toward its eventual demise, are all analogs of romantic love: what preserves it, what kills it, what makes it grow. Carroll maps our real lives, our emotional lives, onto a fantastic landscape. His books are our hearts writ large. Only the imaginative can comprehend the insights provided by such imaginative work. If you’re not used to this type of writing, try it…but with an open mind.