American Fiction, Bathing the Lion, Book review, books, Fantasy, Jonathan Carroll, Jonathan Lethem, Literature, magical realism, Neil Gaiman, Novels, Pat Conroy, Reading Suggestion, Summer Reading, Surrealism
Jonathan Carroll’s new novel is brilliant, fun and entertaining. I am not a reader of the fantasy genre, but I was convinced by Neil Gaiman’s high praise for Mr. Carroll and this novel. His other fans include Jonathan Lethem and Pat Conroy.
This is not fantasy with mythical beings. It is subtle, metaphysical and surreal. I don’t know the borderline between magical realism and fantasy but it must be in this realm. There is a fabulous Gene Wolfe quote about the dividing line: “magical realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish.”
The “fantasy” underwhelms you at first. Set in a small Vermont town being gentrified by up-scale liberal New York City transplants it is a story about marital infidelity and mid-life crisis. Tolerant Vermont is not New Hampshire. The characters provisionally are: a lesbian bar owner and to a lesser extent her bookstore owner partner; an owner of an upscale men’s clothing store and his selfish and adulterous wife who is banging his business partner; and a long-time resident and recent widower barely known to any of them. The fantasy starts when they all realize they are sharing the same dream. Unraveling the meaning of this dream in time and space is the trajectory of the plot. Like a good mystery, clues are pearls slowly revealed.
Underlying the plot, this novel is about what it means to be human. As in a Lev Grossman novel, childhood stories come to life imparting clues. As with most fantasy good and evil are balanced and weighed. The theme is understated and left undecided. There are aliens who are omnipotent. Here omnipotent is mentally more powerful, but not all-knowing. Whether a theological statement is being made is open to interpretation. The aliens have the mental acuity of an automaton. Aliens are not necessarily enemies. The novel is uplifting about our species in spite of our foibles.
There are reviews of this book that will explain the plot and themes in more detail, but I would rather not spoil it for you. Readers who prefer fantasy or science fiction to be in their face may be disappointed in its build-up. There is a part of the novel where the fantastic elements predominate, but I found this less satisfying than when they are integrated with the normal lives of the characters. Having never read Mr. Carroll, I cannot tell you how it compares with his other works. I am interested in reading more of his works based on this novel. Mr. Carroll has an interesting family history: his father was a screenwriter of “The Hustler” and other movies; his step-brother is the composer Steven Reich. Between the two of them dinner conversation must have been interesting.
I apologize for leaving you in the dark about this book. I’d rather have you enjoy it with your eyes wide closed.