Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Jonathan Carroll and 'Voice of Our Shadow'

A long time ago I had the good fortune to read Jonathan Carroll's 'The Land of Laughs'. A first person narrative told in a deceptively simple style, I found it touching, funny and deeply unnerving. Later I picked up his last novel, 'The Wooden Sea', and though it was again funny, humane and enjoyable, it was also shallow, crowded and ultimately silly. So I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up his 'Voice of Our Shadow', his second book. I had heard it was frightening and certainly I have seen it referred to as horror as opposed to fantasy, but what constitued horror for Carroll? Certainly after 'The Land of Laughs' I knew it was a far more skewed, unsettling horror than Stephen King, somewhere between Groucho Marx and Shirley Jackson.
Prior to my starting the book I also read a piece by the writer Michael MacDowell on Melville's 'The Confidence Man', a book I can appreciate without in any way liking. He wrote about how Melville's work alerted him to the treacheries of the narrator, even in a third person narrative. This piece was timely as it has often been hinted that Carroll's first book, ostensibly a fantasy, may instead be the ravings of a mad narrator. Whatever view one takes on this, 'Voice of Our Shadow' showed me that sometimes this doesn't really matter. Afterall ravings of a madman or document of a sane person in insane circumstances, it is all just fiction, and, given that we are dealing with the 'subjective' experiences of our first person narrator, one must question the nature of any fiction's 'reality'. What the work of fiction in this case constitutes is an encounter with solipsism and the madman/fantasy dilemma only has value inasmuch as it adds to our enjoyment of the work.
So after all that preamble let me say I enjoyed Carroll's second book. However, though it is a relatively short book, it still took me a week to read because above all it is an uncomfortable read. It almost seems like a sequel to the first novel, though there are none of the same characters nor a continuation of that initial book's storyline. What is similar is the centrality of a young writer with a love/fear relationship with a member of his family, in this case his brother (in the last his father). And it is never just one family that features. In 'Land of Laughs', the daughter of the children's writer being researched, Anna, looms large as does her mostly dead father, Marshall France. In 'Voice of Our Shadow' there is another surrogate family, the Tates, with an alluring female character, and, a threatening, though charismatic, oh, and dead father figure. If ever there was a writer preoccupied with the uncanny aspects of Freud's model of the family, Carroll is that writer. These families give the narrator the opportunity to work out in a very real way the Freudian tensions of his own childhood and Carroll repeatedly implies that Joe is not fully grown. In some ways the whole novel reads like some perverted rites of passage piece. This makes the ending of both books all the more chilling.
I think it's worth noting that his father was a writer too, helping to adapt Walter Tevis's 'The Hustler' for the big screen. His mother too apparently was a Broadway actress, so though there is hardly a direct autobiographical element in these books, I think it's easy to see where some of his fictional family dynamics arise from.
Quite apart from his subject matter, Carroll's easy narration belies a strong style, all the stronger for being almost invisible. Joyce's image (borrowed from Liebnitz) of the watchmaker standing outside his work paring his nails while it ticks on independently is particularly apt here. Unlike Fowles' erudite style which sings out for recognition (and whose 'The Magus' is not dissimlar in some ways to 'Voice of Our Shadow'), Carroll is content to let his narrators do their talking without any apparent prompting from him.
Eh, anyway I like his work. And apparently Jonathan Carroll has a blog.

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