Sep 29, 2012

The Land Of Laughs - Jonathan Carroll

The Land of Laughs
Author: Jonathan Carroll
Publisher: The Viking Press
Publication Date: 1980

This is Jonathan Carroll's first novel, the only one of his books that I've read though based on this I look forward to reading others. The Land of Laughs came highly recommended to me by a friend and after finishing it I wondered how in Hell I'd never heard of it before. It's a dark fantasy which starts out as a whimsical, romantic adventure which becomes increasingly eerie and sinister as the novel progresses. It has a terrific hook which comes later on and balances its' alternate moods very well.

Thomas Abbey is the son of a deceased movie star grinding away at a teaching job that he's grown sick of. His social life is nearly non-existent and he suspects that the women he dates are more interested in his famous father. While this may be true, his problem also has much to do with the fact that he is aimless, selfish and more than a little strange. His two great passions in life are his exotic collection of masks and an obsession with an author of children's novels, Marshall France.

France inspired an enthusiastic following. He was also a recluse and hid away in the small town of Galen, Missouri dying of a heart attack at 44. Little is known about France but it is Thomas' dream to write the man's biography. Thomas comes across a used copy of one of France's rare books only to find that it has already been sold. He waits around the shop to buy it off the woman it's been promised to and soon meets Saxony Gardener. She is just as obsessed with Marshall France as Thomas is and just as strange, her thing being marionettes. While not exactly love at first sight, this does spark a romance and the two travel to Galen in order to do research for the biography. This may not be easy as they'll need the cooperation of France's devoted daughter Anna and the odd and secretive people of Galen.

The romance between Thomas and Saxony is founded on just the right combination of infatuation and irritation to make it believable. The initial meet cute set up is undermined with enough drab reality to make it plausible. Carroll builds both characters from a tool box of quirks and tics that lend specificity to each of them. His two protagonists share a passion that is infectious and both possess an awkwardness and vulnerability that make them endearing.

Of course the passion they share is primarily for Marshall France and his books. Carroll captures the excitement a true enthusiast feels when engaged in some way with the object of their devotion. He describes the sort of  fascination which would lead one to exclaim "that is where the great man wrote such and such, sitting in that very chair!" Initially the effect is engaging, as the novel moves on though it becomes cloying. No character in the novel views Marshall France and his novels as anything other than sheer genius, and his presence is inescapable. Given the direction The Land Of Laughs ends up going I suspect the effect is intentional. There is a strong theme of fathers overshadowing their children.

That Carroll chose to make Marshal France an author of children's fantasy novels rather than say, detective stories or contemporary adult literature is appropriate in at least two ways. Thomas and Saxony both first encounter his work while they are children going through difficult times. The nature of their obsession is grounded in a regressive comfort, a means to escape reality. This fits into their character arcs. Another good reason to make Marshall France a children's author is that the language of these books can evoke a haunting and magical quality like nothing else (I always liked the Wind in the Willows chapter title and Pink Floyd album title "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn"). A few carefully chosen names and phrases such as "Green Dog's Sorrow", "The Queen of Oil", "Moon Jester" attributed to France lend some weight to the assertion that he was a magical genius. Even his name is well chosen, it sounds authentic. I will note though that Bluebeard was a Marshal of France, just an observation.

Secretly they hate each other.

Thomas needs to convince Anna that he is worthy of writing her father's biography in order to gain access to diaries and notes and so forth. This is the main plot thread which is engaging in it's own right, but then the novel goes off in another direction that I can't discuss for fear of spoiling it. This would be the sinister and eerie part. Once established, this portion raises some interesting philosophic questions before placing the protagonists in jeopardy and concluding with some impact.

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