Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Ric Williams, Fri., Nov. 8, 2002
White Applesby Jonathan Carroll
Tor, 304 pp. $24.95
Vincent Ettrich, the hero of Jonathan Carroll's White Apples, is as good an example of the shallow man wrought of Western "success" as one has encountered since, say, The Ginger Man by J. P. Donleavy: "Ettrich was pretty comfortable with himself and was generally willing to trade a little self-awareness for some pussy." And when Ettrich turns out to be literally one of the living dead happily fucking his thong-wearing guardian angel, I had high hopes for either a ballsy celebration or a proper skewering of the Western power-male's smug psyche or, at least, a humbling, if minor, redemption via a short hop up or a wee fall down from the low heights he has achieved. Surrealism such as Carroll's seems at first blush just the stuff to whack away at the thin humanity of selfishness swaggering along these mocking streets of empire. Carroll's philosophical proclivities and brisk New Yorker-style domestic insights (at least as displayed in the first half of the book) are smart enough, even brilliantly so, to take on the stiffest cock on the block.
The man has one of the strongest cult followings around, especially in Europe, and, by god, with the eye-popping opening chapters, I was set to bow down and join the ranks of those proclaiming him Dostoyevsky and Calvino's peer. (Agreed, such a coupling is odd, then cult followings aren't usually blessed with logic so I bit my tongue and read on.)
Alas, something happened between those great questions he raised in the first of the book and the less-than-inspired answers that followed. The potential of greatness sort of dried up in the "look how clever I am" and "what a magnificent page-turning craftsman I am" display that still managed to smack of old-fashioned, new age sentiment. (And, yes, both claims of cleverness and craftsmanship are true, but suddenly you feel he's outstripped his own ambition.)
All at once I was wondering who took over the writing chores: different personas writing first act, second act, third act? Touching insights (emotional, not alchemical/mythological/metaphysical -- those were terribly contrived and seemed more suitable to lazy plot deus ex machina chores than archetypal revelations) followed by schoolboy cleverness. Carroll reads like a wise man who can't shake being a wise-ass. Except he doesn't quite have that thing that makes a Vonnegut or even a Tom Robbins or a Kotzwinkler or a Phil Dick. It's like John Cheever fighting off the urge to write a soft-core porn novel set on Mars. The glibness felt like hedging. Toward the end I felt rushed, like I was the delivery boy standing at the door when he realized his publishing contract said the damn thing was due today.
This should be a great novel, instead it's just another product of an intellectually vapid, desperate consumerism: so smart with nothing to be smart about except its own smartness. And then he ties it up with a false everything-is-going-to-be-all-right ending. (Although, I understand he can be pessimistic -- still, is that pessimism a pose? Is it any different than a false optimism? Is evoking fashionable emotional states equivalent to authentic reflection on the state of the world? It seems so calculatingly exploitative.)
Carroll's failure is all the more tragic because he is clearly gifted and the world needs a great philosopher-writer (hell, a whole friggin' generation of great philosopher-writers) to open up the popular world to the magical, frightening, and wondrous mystery of being human, empirically, fantastically, soulfully, chaotically human. What Carroll promises is magic. What he delivers is more comfort food for fearful rationalists who still don't know where the shadow of their great inadequacy lies. Great fantasy and surrealism don't have to be smarmily swaggering for young intellectuals. Do they?
But I'll give Carroll this: His writing hooks you early, like the Eye of God, the Great Fisherman Scribe. He's got some good ideas and he's a damn fine writer of scenes -- all, alas, in search of a wider canvass, a tighter discipline, both of which in the long run he seems obstinately, almost petulantly, to refuse. Like one of the clever games his characters play, I wish his book had been one of my three most memorable meals. Unfortunately, it just made me hungrier for writers who are more fearless, and perhaps, not so pressed for time. Blame it on his editors.
Jonathan Carroll will be at BookPeople on Saturday, Nov. 9, 3pm.