Carrolls in November and Keyes to Intelligence

Monday 24th November: Because I currently have so many books waiting to be read, my usual modus operandi is to read everything that I own by any one author, one after the other. There are exceptions (for example, despite enjoying the Alistair Reynolds books that I read recently I haven’t read the last one in my pile simply because they were each taking so long to get through) and there are probably reasons good reasons for not doing it, but it works for me. And so, after The Wooden Sea, I found myself reading two more novels by Jonathan Carroll.

White Apples (2004) tells the story of Vincent Ettrich, family-man but womaniser, who discovers that he has died and been brought back to life by his one true-love.

It is also, perhaps, the most frustrating book I have read in a long time. Containing some wonderful characters and sequences (I love the whole idea of the King of the Park), brought to life by some truly magical and lyrical writing, I found it disjointed and, ultimately, it went nowhere. I don’t think that I rushed through the book but I still don’t know why Vincent was brought back. The cover blurb gives an explanation but I struggle to remember any part of the story which relates back to the blurb.

Like The Wooden Sea, White Apples deals with big questions without giving any real answers but, whereas in the former novel, that didn’t seem to matter, in this one it seems to leave an empty space where answers should be. The writing, however, is superb. Carroll’s characters are always well-written. In this book, they are exceptional. The first ten pages are used to describe Ettrich meeting a woman and asking her out – how many other authors would take ten pages to do that?? Throughout the book there are snippets of sheer brilliance – a man writing on pills the memories that he knows are about to be taken from him; the description of death, heaven and purgatory; the aforementioned King of the Park – and, while I wouldn’t recommend this book for its story, I would definitely recommend it for the writing.

On the other hand, Land of Laughs (1980, this version 2000), Carroll’s first novel, is a good overall read. While not having fully developed the dream-like writing style of his later works, Carroll again manages to fill a (short) book with interesting characters.

School-teacher Thomas Abbey’s favourite author is Marshall France, a reclusive writer of children’s fantasy who died at the age of forty-eight. A chance encounter in a second-hand bookstore leads to a relationship with the slightly strange Saxony and, ultimately, to both of them travelling to Galen, where France spent much of his life, in an attempt to convince France’s daughter to allow them to write a biography of the author. Once there, they discover that there is more to the town (or, more specifically, its inhabitants) than first appears.

This is fantasy with a slight edge of horror and Carroll’s pacing means that it works extremely well. If the cover blurb hadn’t stated that there was something strange to be found in the town, you would get halfway through the book thinking that there might be but never quite being sure. Then strange things start happening and the pace picks up towards a suitably creepy ending.

My version is a reprint in Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series and, while some may argue that there is much better fantasy that could have been used in the line, I would agree that this book deserves to be in there. Brilliant stuff.

As is Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes, 1966). Originally published as a short story in 1959 (and winning a Hugo in 1960, while the novel won the Nebula award) it uses a series of “progress reports” written by Charlie Gordon over the course of less than a year. At the beginning, Charlie is a janitor at a bakery with an IQ of just 68, but he is about to be the first human to undergo a surgical procedure designed to increase his intelligence. Within months Charlie is a genius-level intellect, far surpassing the team who carried out the procedure and who are monitoring him afterwards. The procedure had already been tested on mice but when the titular Algernon starts showing signs of regressing, Charlie realises that his intelligence may be fleeting.

The style of this novel, with all the words and thoughts being those of Charlie, makes it one of the most moving pieces of fiction I have ever come across. At the start of the novel Charlie is happy in his ignorance. He gets teased by his colleagues at the bakery but believes they are his friends while at the same time hoping that the surgery will make him better so that he can make more friends. As the surgery unlocks both his intelligence and his memories, showing his life with a family that abandoned him seventeen years ago, he comes to believe that he is better than those around him and he becomes less likable. As the inevitable decline happens, however, the reader’s ideas of just who Charlie’s friends are are turned on their head.

Although written in what could be regarded as a much simpler time, Flowers For Algernon still resonates today. If this story doesn’t make you question your attitude to people less fortunate than yourself then you don’t deserve the ability to read it. Superb stuff.

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About Ian

Regular gig-goer in York, both to see local and touring bands. Huge music fan, with more CDs than my wife thinks any one person should own. I also collect American comics, read a lot of SF and fantasy and am a season-ticket holder at Leeds United.
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