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The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll
(US edition: Tor, $23.95, 302 pages, hardback; February 15 2001. UK editions: Victor Gollancz, 16.99, 247 pages, hardback, published 17 May 2001; paperback, 6.99, 296 pages, published May 2002.)

Jonathan Carroll is one of the best and most intelligent novelists at work today, and yet, although they sell healthily, his books have never achieved the sales figures his manifold cover scanvirtues so richly deserve. This has puzzled many -- the jacket of this new novel is covered in quotes from the famous expressing exactly this puzzlement -- yet the reason Carroll's work has never really conquered the commercial market seems obvious enough, a feeling reinforced by reading The Wooden Sea.

It is that his novels cannot easily be summarized in a sentence or two ... precisely the reason that they're so very rewarding, of course, but not helpful when you're trying to recommend them to friends. If you were wanting to recommend a Stephen King or a John Grisham novel, for example, you could say "it's about vampires in a small American town" or "it's about this guy on the jury of a cigarette-company lawsuit who's secretly an anti-smoking campaigner" and you'd have adequately conveyed the gist of the book. Each novel of Carroll's, by contrast, is "about" a whole lot of things, so you're reduced to saying: "Just read it. You'll love it." To repeat, this is why people who do read them do love them, but of course it makes it hard to induce people to do the reading bit in the first place.

So my apologies in advance -- and to Mr Carroll as well -- if the following resumé seems a bit vaguer and more chaotic than it could be.

Frannie McCabe is Chief of Police in the small town of Crane's View, somewhere in the sleepier reaches of New York State. One day a dying three-legged dog is brought into his office, and takes over his heart. A few days later it dies, and he buries it. At about the same time a couple of the rowdier townsfolk disappear, seemingly into thin air. The dog refuses to stay buried, reappearing in his car boot accompanied by a beautiful perfume -- not the stench of decay one might expect. Other enigmatic symbols associated with the dead dog recur in McCabe's life, notably a coloured feather which only later will he realize is actually artificial. A teenager dies, and it is discovered that the drawings in her schoolbook relate to the dog, the feather and McCabe himself. An old artbook reveals an 18th-century painting of what appears to be the three-legged dog -- and called by the same name, Old Vertue.

These and other strange occurrences could almost lie within the province of the real, and for a while McCabe desperately tries to rationalize them as such. However, his attempts soon founder as his life lurches into the outrageously surreal. Aided by allies that include himself as a teenager (his junior self promptly gets the hots for McCabe's own stepdaughter), he struggles to make sense of all the weirdness, before realizing the counterproductiveness of trying to make sense of something that has no straightforward sense, no rationality.

An individual called Astopel, whom for some time both McCabe and the reader assume to be a demon of a sort, tells McCabe that he has only seven days of life to solve the enigma of what is going on if he is to save the world. However, those days need not all be spent in the same part of his life; cast into the future, for example, he spends some hours as an old man and learns the dreadful truth as to how his wife has died/will die young -- an event which he obviously yearns to avert once back in an earlier portion of his life...

Where this novel succeeds most brilliantly is in its portrayal of constantly shifting realities. Let me enlarge upon this. The fantasy concept of alternate realities is similar to but distinct from the sf idea of alternate universes or parallel worlds; the two concepts can be overlapped, of course, and often are, but they need not be. Good alternate-realities stories are extremely difficult to write, which is why there are so few of them: many writers either do not take up the challenge or (which is really much the same thing) lapse into the easier-to-handle sciencefictional mode of the alternate-universes story. The Wooden Sea -- although it is in part actually an sf novel -- is a paradigmatic example of what the fantasy alternate-realities story can be made to do, while also, though it is eminently easy to read, demonstrates the difficulty of handling the mode. McCabe's (and hence the reader's) realities are in a constant state of flux, always likely to be temporary and never to be trusted, but somehow our perception of those realities remains fixed: because of this, although the sequence of events, if related baldly as a list, might seem to be random, there is at no point any sense while sharing McCabe's adventures that they have just been arbitrarily thrown together -- always it is the mind that they do have a purpose and an order, although that purpose and that order may transcend our understanding.

Even when finally an explanation is forthcoming, there is the delightful feeling that this explanation itself may be as transient as the realities through which McCabe has, and we have, journeyed. In that sense, the plot's explanation almost doesn't matter.

All this is infernally difficult to achieve, as I've said: as readers we usually want to have a book's rationale (or rationales) firmly foregrounded, and become impatient otherwise. It requires great skill for an author to shake us loose from this dependence on the rational, this desire to duck the challenge that full-blooded fantasy should be issuing to its readers. Michael Moorcock does it sometimes. More specifically, Gene Wolfe succeeded brilliantly in There Are Doors (1988) and, in a rather different way, Mark Helprin managed it in the later parts of Winter's Tale (1983) -- while, of course, Lewis Carroll managed it in his proto-surrealist Alice novels. There are other examples, but they're few and far between. It was in particular the Wolfe book that kept coming to mind while I was reading The Wooden Sea. Although the two novels are very different, both succeed in letting us -- or making us -- cut ourselves free from the logic of the everyday world.

It would be perfectly possible to read The Wooden Sea with great pleasure as just an entertainment, and doubtless many people will, perhaps pondering from time to time about its seeming quirkiness. But it would be a waste to do so when the book offers us so many other rewards.


Review by John Grant.

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© John Grant 7 July 2001