Thursday, September 21, 2006

Book Review: After Silence, by Jonathon Carroll (A)

So I had a busy time of it the other day. Not busy at work (that's crazy talk) but I bagged out for an hour to catch a the yearly used book sale sponsored by the local library. I buy most of my books this way, for better or worse. Better, because I'm cheap. Worse, because I'm publishing (after a fashion) my reviews now...

The book sale is big enough to fill the town gym, and stumbling into the cloverfield of tomes, with its swarms of geriatric honeybees, can be a little daunting. A lot of people wax philosophical about the smell of them, but I have to admit that when you get enough musty old books together with just the right amount of moisture, they garner a whiff of something like cat shit. Unless that was just from the old ladies I had to jostle to get a glimpse of the 407th copy of Maeve Binchy's (whoever that is) second-latest opus. And while I love lining them up on my shelves, the reckless hodgepodge of boxes and tables made me want to get the hell out of there ever so much quicker.

You can break down the typical used book selection into a handful of categories. Mostly, you find overprinted slop from contemporary successful authors. It's a measure of a writer's staying power that the gyms and holes in the wall get filled up with overruns. Grisham, Patterson, and Steele hardbacks become worthless after about eighteen months, ready to be forgotten by all except trolling screenwriters. The second-biggest category is Great Works by famous, but still overrated authors (or overrated works from admittedly great authors). Usually these get overprinted when (I assume) some overzealous publisher gets caught up in the literary flavor of the day. To be sure, Eco has written a dog or two, DeLillo's Underworld (very well represented in the gym) though good, is still an overwrought doorstop, and the place is awash in McEwans. There are also the physical dregs, battered library hardcovers, or vintage sixties paperbacks printed on crumbling acid-rich paper. And finally, in the lowest population of all, you get the gems--underrated books by authors that should be famous, but aren't.

Often, these are idiosyncratic scribes, hard to cram into one genre or another, and consequently hard to market. Usually you can pick them out by typeface. That my index runs a little old or obscure is no coincidence.

In this gem category, you can usually find a Jonathon Carroll somewhere in the mix. He writes stuff that straddles horror, science fiction, humor, and serious literature. He's a wonderfully economical plotter, and he works in a cutting, slightly ironic style that's a pleasure to read. He writes unusual, thoughtful characters (ambivalent men and decisive but complicated women), and parallels scenes to impart multiple meanings. He knows how to drop in a "fuck" for the funny, immature impact, or to convey surprising anger. He's a great writer for my generation, and for my preferred medium. After Silence begins with a big swinging hook straight out of some short story class. "How much does a life weigh?...I hold a gun to my son's head." With the reader reeling from that initial punch, Carroll sneaks in the back story of Max Fischer, a cartoonist who meets an ideal mate, Lily, and the relationship he builds with her and her son Lincoln. Then he lets the oddness unfold toward the bizarre outline he shapes in the opening paragraph.

Oddness is where Carroll really excells. He's great at building up a central nugget of weirdness in his stories, where normal people sink gradually deeper into abnormal situations. He's good at pacing it out, smart enough to expand the truth rather than obscure it, laying it on fast enough to prevent the reader from dismissing anything, but slow enough to throw loops just when things seem to start making sense. Unlike the hundred crappy serials you can name, Carroll usually has someplace in mind to take it. At that length, he has to.

(Spoilers follow.) After Silence is no exception. In response to some odd behavior, Max becomes obsessed with Lily's history, and digs through her personal effects. The boy, he finds, is a kidnap victim, stolen by Lily as she fled the shambles of her youth, reaching for something solid to anchor her existence. She excels at motherhood, however, and Max finds he also has a rapport with Lincoln as well. The center of the story pivots on this moral question: should he turn her in, or should he take the good life, founded on a lie? From the opening sentence, you can see the choice he took.

Carroll likes to dabble in a little magical silliness and play with themes where reality can be changed as you define it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. It was over the top but effective in Land of Laughs, but it was just dumb when he wrote Sleeping in Flame. These elements creep into the final third of After Silence as well. Deciding on a family, Max finds his charming son Lincoln has grown into a picture of ungrateful teenage assholery. The becomes obsessed with the idea that his rebelled son is a guardian angel, but a fallen one, and it's Max's failure of conscience that brought him down. Their confrontation is chilling and violent, but following it, Lincoln leaves a trail of supernatural power behind him. Lincoln can't bear this and attempts suicide, but he can not release himself. Closing the circle, he begs Max to do it.

The ending few paragraphs strike as hard a blow as the beginning. It's one of those great books you have to rewind to understand the story from the new angle. Did Max change Lincoln's heredity? I think so. Did Max construct Lincoln as an angel? I think that he did that too. He makes a final decision at the very end, equally selfish and understandable, that changes reality a final time, letting the magic fade from the world.

No comments: