From the Teeth of Angels
A while back, I saw a 5 disc set of Pete Seeger singing traditional American folk songs. I bought it – Pete Seeger, familiar folk songs, how could I go wrong? I’ve seldom made a mistake about quite so much music at once. (“Oh Susannah” is fun, but 139 banjo folk songs is just too many).
I feel the same way about Jonathan Carroll. His books were on sale, and I bought a lot. This is the last of the novel length books in the group, and I’m sorry to say that’s a relief. Basically, it turns out I just don’t like Carroll very much. Having just read half a dozen of his books over several months, I’m pretty confident of that. I still hold out hope for the last book – of short stories – but then I’m an optimist at heart.
The trouble I have with Carroll’s books, and with this one, is that they’re both simplistic and unplanned. Carroll clearly set out to write a book about death, so he wrote, very literally, a book about dealing with death – who, it turns out, is a jerk. Carroll approaches this through two disjointed narratives that eventually cross. The second begins with what’s essentially a very long character study. Neither narrative is particularly interesting. Carroll adds an interesting twist at the end, but lets it die almost completely unexamined.
As usual, much of the action takes place in Vienna. That’s one reason I remember liking Carroll’s books; I grew up there, and I know these places. But even for me, Carroll gets carried away with his name dropping. He seems more intent on naming places and things than on the story. Yes, I know that cafe too – but that’s not what the story is about. To misquote Freud (whose house also turns up here), sometimes a cafe is just a cafe. Presumably, Carroll’s purpose is to place the story firmly in a real and interesting place. Instead, this focus on precision makes Vienna a permanently alien place, where everything is always known by its full name, rather than “that place down the street” – the view of a tourist, not a native.
The characters are also pretty standard for Carroll. They accept the supernatural with equanimity. They’re demonstrably well-read and intellectual. They like to philosophize. One part of a couple seems deeply committed, while the other seems disinterested.
I give credit to Carroll for dealing with interesting subjects. I give him credit for experimenting in this Answered Prayers series by using the same basic characters and props in different combinations to answer overlapping questions. His writing on a sentence by sentence basis is good. It’s in the storytelling that things fall apart. There just isn’t that much story here, and what there is seems pasted together almost at random, with the interstices filled by anecdotes. The final message? Death sucks.
I was wrong to buy these books; at least, to buy so many at once. It’s been a disappointing, draining experience to read them. They’re not bad, but they’re not good, either. If you’re already a Carroll fan, pick this up – it’s what you’re expecting. If you’re not, don’t start here. Or maybe don’t start at all; there are other things to read that I think you’ll like better.