I thought it was pretty close to perfect, until the last ten pages or so; I walked away from the ending dissatisfi...moreThe Land of Laughs is a tricky book.
I thought it was pretty close to perfect, until the last ten pages or so; I walked away from the ending dissatisfied -- distressed, even -- and am still trying to work out whether it was a failure on the level of expectation or of writing. Was I thrown because I assumed the narrative would follow traditional, comforting fantasy logic? Or did Jonathan Carroll just write a careless, pulpy, trainwrecky ending?
The novel starts out full of nostalgia and metafiction. Two very odd people, Thomas (narrator) and Saxony (love interest; firey, tactless, vulnerable, stubborn, and adorable!) are drawn together by a mutual obsession with Marshall France, author of the whimsical children's books they fell in love with and never quite let go of. The plot unfolds quickly and engagingly. Thomas and Saxony become involved, and involved in a project to write France's biography. They end up in Galen, France's hometown, meeting his daughter and the people he used to live amongst. And then things get really fucking weird, shifting the emphasis to the "magical" half of "magical realism."
There's a lot of fun in the middle section of the book, and wonder, and exploration of the magical power of words. Without spoiling anything, I'll say -- the shiny surface of the town disintegrates. Think Disney on psychoactive drugs. Pay close attention to the cracks, Reader, and don't make the mistake of expecting a traditional happy ending, like I did; Carroll is much more subversive than that.
There's no doubt that he's good. Carroll writes with a light, sweet touch which I really enjoy, especially after my recent binge on too much ponderous postmodern stuff. He carries the narrative with a concise mixture of smart dialogue and internal narration, and leaves the boring bits out, so scenes come through like little detailed pictures in sharp, bright colours. The book's actually written in first person -- but in a personable, colloquial sort of first person, which makes it feel as if the narrator's a good conversationalist who's chatting with you.
I will read Jonathan Carroll again. I might even read this book again. But I'll probably skip the last ten pages.
This is a "literary" novel that borrows from science fiction, rather than the other way around. (You get sent...moreRecommended for English major types only.
This is a "literary" novel that borrows from science fiction, rather than the other way around. (You get sentences like, "the lack was obviously an explosion of metaphor into a literal world," and, "We want to treat Lack as a self-contained text. A sign. We want to read him …") Which isn't a criticism or a particular selling point (I love both), more of warning: you have to read it according to the right genre conventions or you'll probably come out hating it.
Tonally, it's a balance of poetic, ironic, and this weirdly restrained hysterical absurdism. I can't stand over-the-top satire; I prefer absurdism delivered with a straight face, and that's what Lethem does. He targets academia with the vitriol and the wry fondness of having been there, done that.
This both is and isn't a character-driven novel. Lethem gets zero points for naturalistic, well-rounded character development, but a perfect score for investigating basic conditions of romantic relationships in a way that's thorough, jarring, and honest. I loved that. It's also short and doesn't waste words.
(In a way, this novel reminds me of Stanislaw Lem's His Master's Voice: academics trying to study a phenomenon that can't be studied, and really only learn the limits of their own knowledge.)(less)
One-third Raymond Chandler, one-third biopunk, one third Disney on crack. I don't really know how else to explain it.
There's a Marlowe-esque protagoni...moreOne-third Raymond Chandler, one-third biopunk, one third Disney on crack. I don't really know how else to explain it.
There's a Marlowe-esque protagonist and enough weird incidental shit like kangaroos with guns that you never get bored. The worldbuilding is a bit shallow, though. There's stuff like widespread, government-approved drug use and an underclass of talking "evolved" animals, all of which is meant to make a statement about corruption, social control, and personal agency, but because Lethem doesn't delve into the origins of his world or put it all together as a cohesive whole it ends up just being entertaining rather than any sort of sustained social commentary. That's okay: not every novel has to be weighty and literary. I'm going to give Lethem the benefit of the doubt and assume that he aimed to write a zany, entertaining novel that fused crime fiction and scifi and didn't take itself too seriously -- and so he did, and it was a lot of fun to read.(less)