Monday, August 24, 2009

After Silence by Jonathan Carroll

I came across this old review by accident, and found that I didn't remember it at all. It appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction some fifteen years ago.


After Silence by Jonathan Carroll (London: Macdonald, 1992; L14.99; 240 pages; New York: Doubleday, 1993; $21.00; 227 pages)

"Uh-Oh City," F&SF, June 1992

"The Lick of Time," in Monsters in Our Midst, edited by Robert
Bloch (New York: Tor, 1993, $20.95; 303 pages)

reviewed by Gregory Feeley

After Silence, Jonathan Carroll's sixth book-length narrative in six years, is remarkably of a piece with the earlier works: vividly and beautifully written, sketchily (if at all) integrated with the other four novels and novelette in the unnamed (and, one guesses, improvised) sequence, haphazardly constructed. As before, Carroll's virtues begin paying off at once -- his sharp observations and striking metaphors are evident from the first page -- while his weaknesses conceal themselves until late, as his structure leans vertiginously forward so that the reader is impelled into the story, beguiled by Carroll's ability to tell (or at least begin) a Tale into a confidence that the author shall bring his Tale safely to harbor that proves finally misplaced. Readers may gnash their teeth at his novel's conclusion (although they should, by now, know better than be surprised), but there is little doubt that they will reach it.

Max Fischer, a successful but rather unreflective cartoonist, finds his long-deferred desire to raise a family suddenly fulfilled when he meets Lily Aaron and her nine-year-old son Lincoln. At once in love, Max falls effortlessly into family life, and lives in contented bliss until the gradual accumulation of tiny inconsistencies in Lily's accounts of her past at last drives Max into an unwise investigation. Discovering an awful secret, he is able to maintain his happy life only by becoming complicit with it.

Like Carroll's other novels, After Silence offers an intensely-felt meditation upon the vulnerability of loved ones (here, as before with Carroll, dramatized in a hospital); like his earlier novels, it captures moments of tenderness toward children with aching clarity (Max, seeking to impress Lily and Lincoln on their first meeting, draws a magic-marker cartoon on the front of Lincoln's white teeshirt while the delighted boy wriggles "like a puppy getting its tummy scratched"). And also, with Carroll, we get his snobbishness, his love of celebrity and disdain for the common, the untalented, and the ordinary; his infatuation with exotic names ("Max" is exceptionally unfanciful for a Carroll protagonist, but the novel contains other characters, all special, whose parents named them Foof, Mabdean, Sullivan, Anwen, Elvis. It is only working-class people -- almost invariably portrayed by Carroll as unattractive and boorish -- who are given names like Mark Elsen and Ruth Burdette).

And like other Carroll novels, After Silence fragments like a flaming race car as it attempts to negotiate a final tight turn and crashes the fence. Max's discovery of Lily's secret, and his decision to make a separate peace with its particular horror -- to brick it up, like a monster in the basement, and return upstairs to resume his happy life -- is powerfully (if, in its extended confession scene, long-windedly) evoked. The jump forward of seven years, and Lincoln's unforeshadowed transformation from a happy ten-year-old to a sullen, hateful, and dangerous adolescent, is dramatized with wrenching poignancy. But this heartfelt and anguished novel's leap into the supernatural (it comes late and abruptly, on page 185) knocks its emotional center from the realm of indissoluble cause and effect into a slumgullion of Carrollian metaphysics that goes nowhere. The inevitability of consequence is asserted -- among the talk of guardian angels, time travelling, and two persons being one -- but it is not made real; and even a last-page attempt to punch back out of the supernatural (it apparently involves a suddenly unreliable narrator) is unavailing.

The problem with After Silence (and, to varying degrees, of the other five volumes of this inchoate sequence) is not simply a matter of plotting. Carroll's inability to cope with the novelistic business of keeping chronologies straight (he tells us that thirty-eight-year-old Max has a brother twelve years younger, then later gives that brother a marital history plausible only for a man of mature years) doesn't finally matter, any more than it matters that he cannot conceive of a human being who doesn't have a quirky and rewarding job, or a dog that isn't a purebred. What matters is Carroll's failure to achieve imaginative resolution: to create artistic closure for the dream he has conceived. Despite his recurring concern with the inseparability of heedless act from tragic consequence, Carroll cannot shape events into a fitting and logical whole, which surprise us with turns that seem afterward as right. Instead, he summons up an otherworldly (and plainly ex post facto) explanation of events as needed and then -- as here, as in Outside the Dog Museum and Bones of the Moon -- rings down the curtain in a shower of magical fireworks.

Carroll's inability to surmount this shortcoming (apparent since Bones of the Moon) has been evident in all his fiction, including short stories and novellas. "Uh-Oh City" (F&SF, June 1992) is a longer work than the volume Black Cocktail (Legend, 1990), and offers the same degree of tenuous connection with his novel sequence: the narrator's daughter, who appears only in a telephone call, is the former girlfriend (never actually seen) of Max Fischer in After Silence. The novella contains all of Carroll's carelessness with detail (the protagonist, a Melville scholar, misspells Moby-Dick; a closer study of his chronology than Carroll seems to have conducted makes sense only if he received his doctorate at twenty-one; the young woman whose suicide he helped provoke is apparently both a freshman and a graduate student) and seems, like much of Carroll's fiction, to have been begun before the author knew what he was about. Entire sub-plots languish neglected, while characters' motivations and range of abilities shift in accordance with plot requirements. Carroll's central image -- an overweight, middle-aged woman who is dying of cancer -- seems to have found its inspiration with the fat lady evoked in the closing pages of Franny and Zooey; but what Carroll has done with it . . . Actually, it's difficult to know what Carroll has done with it. No three scenes in the novella possess thematic or narrative coherence.

The novella -- it concerns a preternaturally efficient cleaning lady named Beenie who persists in turning up unwanted reminders from the protagonist's past -- starts out as a kind of domestic horror story, then swerves suddenly (the cleaning lady turns out to be God, or rather one of the thirty-six lamed wufniks who, in Carroll's version, constitute God) into an emotionally fraught tale of unwitting injury and attempted amends. As long as one is reading, the succession of firecracker revelations hold the promise of coming finally together; it is only when one looks at the work entire that it falls apart.

When Beenie presents the protagonist with the manuscript of a novel written by a student who had committed suicide years ago, the bewildered man quietly decides to send it to her parents. This unannounced action calls down a rebuke from the apparently omnipotent Beenie, who explains, "Things like that, you either throw away or you keep 'em. Never pass 'em on." A few hours later Beenie blithely contradicts this bit of philosophy when she produces a cache of love letters a student once wrote to the protagonist, which she promptly shows to his wife. Bewildered and angry (he knows that both manuscript and letters had long since been discarded), the hapless protagonist goes to confront Beenie -- who proves to be sitting up with the ghost of the student novelist; and the plot takes another lurch.

None of these disparate developments prove compatible with each other. (A small example: The protagonist's wife already knew of the love letters, but had been assured by her husband that they had all been destroyed, as in fact they had. Her distress upon being presented with a batch of them was because she could only conclude, not unreasonably, that her husband had in fact kept the letters. So why would Beenie summon these letters back into existence and show them to the poor woman, if its only effect would be to create a false impression? Carroll doesn't know; the next scene produces a new surprise, and the narrative drops the previous issue, never to return to it.) As with After Silence, everything changes in the last pages, and then again in the closing paragraphs. Approaching the conclusion to a story,
Carroll -- trapped like the man who has painted himself into a corner -- can create dramatic conflict only by successively reversing everything he has hitherto said. Save for the steadily mounting stakes (the stories' final revelations often end up featuring God or angels), there is no inner logic, no structure to these frantic reversals.

At 4000 words, "The Lick of Time" is too compact to tangle itself in its plot threads, although its references to other characters and milieux from Carroll's fiction do get it into minor trouble. (After an entire novel about the problems of the Sultan of Saru, Carroll refers in passing to the "Republic of Saru." If we encountered this in the work of a writer more skilled at drawing connections between texts, we would guess that Saru has had a revolution since the events of Outside the Dog Museum. With Carroll, however, we conclude merely that he is again forgetting himself.) The story's opening lines:

Before leaving her apartment, Erin turned on the new answering machine.
Several nights before, sitting down with the instructions and a glass of wine, she'd waded
through a long list of what-to-do's to make the expensive, high-tech-looking thing work.

is quintessentially Carroll, down to the haughty name, the expensive gimmickry, and the glass of wine. Its striking observations (listening to her first phone messages, Erin notes how callers "lost heart" when they realized that they were talking to a tape and not a human being), and the familiar mise-en-scene -- Erin had a "new job with the theatre group," and works with folks with names like Weber Gregston and Wyatt Leonard -- could almost come from an exceptionally skilled parodist. The protagonist, another articulate, sexually anxious yuppie who isn't very nice, develops an interesting psychological pathology as pressures mount about her (she ends up talking to her phone machine, leaving heartening messages and occasionally acting out responses she had hoped to hear from others), but the story springs a supernatural twist in the final page, and that's that.

Carroll's fluent style, his striking facility with metaphors, and the manifest seriousness of his concerns have struck a chord with many readers ("Uh-Oh City" was a Hugo nominee), but his sloppiness has escalated in recent years from a problem to an embarrassment. Carroll's narrowness of range and problems with narrative are not bound to length: neither short story, novella, nor novel has permitted him to marshall his energies into a coherent narrative, and the reader who looks past the colorful conceits (a "dog museum" that costs a billion dollars; the appearance of a giant stuffed animal in the shape of a childhood nightmare in "Uh-Oh City") will find fictions that are largely a shambles.

More prolific than in his early years, Carroll is notably less craftsmanlike, and has fallen into tics and self-indulgence even as he continues to coin phrases and sentences of startling beauty. A dozen years into a remarkable career, Carroll is wallowing -- apparently oblivious -- in a creative crisis that threatens to whelm it.


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