Evaluate: ‘Swimming in Flame,’ by Jonathan Carroll
Fast with a label, critics have known as Carroll a magic realist, a slipstream novelist, a author of supernatural thrillers and the creator of recent fairy tales. He does verify all these packing containers, whereas remaining elegantly sui generis.
His prose is spare, polished and quick-moving, typically barely comedian, all the time immensely partaking. On the identical time, his plots of him — together with that of his new novel by him, “Mr. Breakfast” — depict the abrupt irruption of the uncanny and terrifying into our acquainted workaday world.
His dozen-plus novels and almost 40 tales often characteristic ghosts and demons, reincarnation, needs that come true, sinister dream-worlds, characters who overlap from ebook to ebook, and, not least, shifting, various realities that will make even Philip Okay. Dick’s head spin. Little surprise that Carroll’s most ardent admirers embody Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Lethem and Joe Hill.
All through his work, Carroll often hyperlinks an nearly surreal eeriness to a love story, one typically involving a privileged however psychologically wounded protagonist.
Simply think about his first 4 novels. Stephen, in “The Land of Laughs,” lives within the shadow of the film star father who has blighted his life from him; Joseph, in “Voice of Our Shadow” (1983), is obsessive about a juvenile-delinquent brother, whose loss of life he unintentionally induced; Cullen, in “Bones of the Moon” (1987), mourns the unborn youngster of her abortion; and Walker, in “Sleeping in Flame” (1988), discovers the mind-boggling fact about his mysterious origins.
In Walker’s case, these revelations contain—and that is the type of factor you discover on a regular basis in Carroll’s universe—a really actual and sinister Rumpelstiltskin and different figures from the darker Grimm fairy tales.
Whereas “Mr. Breakfast” is pure pleasure to learn, it does bring to mind the themes and sleights-of-hand related to movies akin to “Inception,” “Complete Recall,” “Groundhog Day” and “Again to the Future.”
Graham Patterson, age 42, has simply damaged up with the lady he loves, Ruth Murphy. She needs kids, he would not. For years, Patterson has labored as a comic, hoping to make it large, however he has lastly acknowledged that that is by no means going to occur.
So, his life in tatters, he buys a brand new automotive and a digital camera, aiming to slowly wend his means from New York to Los Angeles, the place his well-to-do brother will give him a job. However in North Carolina, the brand new automotive unexpectedly breaks down, and, whereas ready to have it mounted, Patterson occurs upon a tattoo store operated by the nondescript, middle-aged Anna Mae Collins.
Captivated by the exquisiteness of her artwork, Patterson flips by her design ebook and decides to be inked with the picture of “a bee contained in the abdomen of a frog contained in the abdomen of a hawk contained in the abdomen of a lion.” Few folks select this tattoo, Anna-Mae tells him, however doing so marks the turning level of Patterson’s life for her.
Science fiction is greater than only a response to the current
I do not wish to spoil any of Carroll’s surprises, however I can safely say that Patterson discovers he has been granted a magical reward: the prospect to expertise three completely different attainable futures.
He can proceed within the current actuality, during which he’ll finally grow to be a world-famous photographer. Or he can grow to be the profitable comic he has so longed to be. Or he can marry Ruth and accept quiet home happiness.
What’s extra, he can move into and out of every of those “lives” as many as thrice, however then should cease sampling and select to stay in a single, at which second he’ll immediately neglect concerning the two others or that issues might ever have been completely different.
Let me stress that that is simply the novel’s setup. A flurry of improbable stuff will occur to Patterson and a small circle of recurring characters.
He’ll, periodically, encounter the chief bully from his highschool days—who’s technically useless, but in addition an emissary from the afterlife despatched to both information him or mislead him. He shall be kidnapped and quickly reincarnated, dodge ravenous flying dinosaurs, and — most unsettling of all — revisit his hometown, Crane’s View (the setting for a number of earlier Carroll novels). But by all of it, Patterson ponders the overarching query: What finally issues most to him? Wealth and fame? Satisfying work? Artwork? Love and household? Basically, “what was higher — a particular life, or a peaceable one?”
Such metaphysical questions, which recur all through Carroll’s work, make investments “Mr. Breakfast” with a particular ethical dimension.
As Patterson leapfrogs forwards and backwards by time and amongst his varied attainable existences, he step by step comes to know “how his conduct influences and shapes others’ lives even after he was lengthy gone from them.”
Alongside the best way, a number of girls present recommendation, warnings and perception. Anna Mae instructs “Grey-ham,” as she calls him, in how the tattoo operates. The younger Ruth, sounding each sensible and platitudinous, reminds him that “life is simply what it’s. All we will do is figure exhausting and love exhausting, attempt to do the proper issues with out letting our ego journey us up, and hope the boogeymen keep away for one more day.” The Greek widow Antheia Lambrinos, nonetheless, affords Patterson extra earthy counsel—and discloses that she, too, bears the identical curious tattoo.
Extra evaluations by Michael Dirda
All through the ebook’s primary narrative, Carroll step by step reveals Patterson’s genius as a photographer, his means to watch intently, to see the creative prospects in each a abandoned diner known as Mr. Breakfast or a lady with autism taking part in joyfully within the rain with two canines.
After all, paying consideration is the chief talent of the author, too. When Patterson notices a diner’s every day particular, Carroll has him abruptly bear in mind “chipped beef on toast — his favourite meal from him when he was a bit boy. His mom made it for lunch each Saturday. Their custom of him — simply earlier than midday he would prop up a transportable steel tray in entrance of the tv set and his mom of him would carry within the chipped beef on toast simply as his favourite cartoons of him have been about to begin. If that is not pure happiness, what’s it? However when Patterson visits his now middle-aged highschool sweetheart, he’s left harrowed and heartbroken.
“Mr. Breakfast” is the primary Carroll novel in a number of years, but it surely appears to me as masterly as his earlier books by him. It would shock you, make you giggle and scare you—after which, simply while you assume it is over, add a number of additional twists earlier than bringing this Rubik’s Dice of a narrative to simply the proper, emotionally muted conclusion.
Melville Home. 272pp. $27.99
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