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It is perhaps over-facile to try to encapsulate a major author in a catchphrase, but if one were to dare that with Carroll, one might say that Carroll’s books are about choices and the consequences of those choices.
Carroll’s protagonists have much in common: they are well-educated, articulate, reasonably well off (usually professionals), well adjusted, and decent. They are, as a rule, aware of their good fortune in life, and not infrequently a little afraid of it—it’s too good to be true and sooner or later, they fear, a shoe will drop.
At some point, often early on in the tale, the typical Carroll protagonist makes a choice—a choice with moral overtones. Time passes: life appears on the surface to continue unchanged, or perhaps it begins a slow slide to something else. Either way, it is usually quite some time—sometimes not until the tale’s climax—that the protagonists come to understand all that they bought when they made their choice. (That outline does not exactly fit each and every one of Carroll’s tales, but even where the fit is less exact, there are similarities.) Sometimes the consequences of the protagonist’s acts become chilling and terrible, to the extent that Carroll is occasionally referred to as a horror writer; he can evoke horror, but to call him a “horror writer”—as if that were the scope of his abilities—is simply silly.
Let us take our usual four-way look at Carroll’s works. His language use is professional, competent, clean—what I call “transparent”: it says what it has to, focussing the reader’s attention neither on any special quality of the prose nor on any lack or defect in that prose. Here’s a small, randomly selected sample:
What was the name of the town? I can see it so well in my mind’s eye. The fast brown river running next to it. The restaurant on the water where we ate. A historical plaque announcing that someone like Petrarch had lived there. A big market was being held when we drove in, so we stopped the car to eat and browse. The river, the market, and the main road all ran parallel to each other. Lily and I separated because she wanted to look at the food, while I discovered a box of old cartoon books that had me rubbing my hands together. We agreed to meet at the car in an hour, big kiss, see you later. Another thing I liked about her—it was no big deal to go your separate ways a while. More often than not, she was the one who suggested it when we were someplace but had our eyes on different directions.
That is the sort of quiet, charming tale-telling that looks at first so easy you think that any literate high-school student could turn it out, unless you try it at length yourself sometime. (A professional is often defined as “someone who makes it look easy.”) Nonetheless, while the professional quality of Carroll’s language use makes the tales flow and evokes ideas and feelings below the obvious surface of the narrative proper—even that brief passage above would reward dissection in a writing class—it is not a main reason we read Carroll. For greatness, it is, as the mathematicians put such things, a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
Carroll’s plots are strong and well-constructed. He guides his characters and us along on what at first seem casual, almost purposeless jaunts through life and the world, but as each tale goes on we come to realize that it is steadily if at first slowly spiralling in toward some tight knot at its center. There is ever in Carroll the air of the Greek tragedy, a suffocating inevitability, about the steadily increasing pace, the ever-greater tightening of the spiral, the darkness of what must lie at its center. Nor are these cheapjack-cheat plots: there is no assurance whatever that the characters will—as they so often do in such cheat tales—surely and necessarily pass through that dark knot to some saving resolution, some brighter and better new life, just because they are protagonists in a tale. They might; but they might not. In Carroll as in reality, until it happens, until it is over, we don’t know. And so we read to find out.
(I do think, though, that his relatively recent “Crane’s View” trilogy was perhaps a little weaker in some respects, but notably plot—and especially in the final volume—than his earlier works, though the books are nonetheless still fine work.)
Carroll’s use of setting is much like his use of language: it is craftsmanlike, careful, thorough, accurate, unobtrusively evocative.
“Danny, what’s it like living over there?”
“Like? Well, you always find odd coins in your pockets. You’ll be looking for a hundred lira and you’ll find five francs in there instead. You think you’re giving a guy five shillings for a newspaper and it turns out to be five drachma.”
“Drachma. Have you been to Greece too? God, I hate you. What’s it like?”
“Athens is loud and messy. But the islands are exactly what you’d hoped for.”
“Very clean and very grey. Are we playing ‘Twenty Questions’?”
We were sitting on a bench watching the day’s traffic float by: those boats in the harbour, parents with baby strollers, old men moving slowly and complaining to the air.
“No, but Danny, what’s it like? Is it all that different? Is the world really different over there?”
“Why? What’s the matter Cullen?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I want things to change, Danny. You know? I want to look out of my window in the morning and see…and see orange street-cars!”
“Those are in Milan.” He smiled and took my hand in both of his.
“All right, see, they do exist! I want orange street-cars, or booksellers along the river selling books in Italian or Hungarian or some other language I can’t understand. I want to sit in a café with marble tables and eat a real croissant….”
That is marvellous setting with the extra fillip that it is not even direct authorial description but words in the mouths of his characters, one of whom hasn’t even seen the things she dreams of and hopes for. But Carroll (who has long lived in Vienna) is not merely a writer who can summon to the page places he has been: he can also describe places he has definitely not himself been to:
Pepsi and I rode across uninterrupted plains, seated comfortably on the heads of the animals. There were salmon-colored pyramids in the distance which contrasted sharply with the still-black volcanic ground we passed over.
Felina the Wolf told us the story of her ancestors; of how they rose from the sea as red fish and gave their scales back once they had reached land. It turned out that all the animals in Rondua had metamorphosed from one species to another when they came here. Clever Pepsi asked if we would have to change too, now that we were here. Mr. Tracy, his velvety hat glued to his bobbing head, said we already had.
Martio the Camel often acted as tour-guide, pointing out blue pterodactyls that flew in the distance one morning, telling us to watch closely, another day as the sun began to split in half to mark the end of another Ronduan month.
Been there? Done that? I think not.
But it is when we finally turn to the element of character that we find what especially makes Carroll a writer of great excellence. His careful language, his evocative settings, his tight plots, are all—however fine in themselves—vehicles for the presentation and development of his characters. As I noted at the outset, all his protagonists—who almost always (one exception to date) narrate the tale in the first person—strike us as sympathetic, decent people, people whom we want to see come out OK because, in many instances, they are no worse and perhaps better people than ourselves: if they, amidst their decent, earned happiness, can be struck down by arbitrary Fate, what of us?
It is only after the tale is well along that we realize that these fine people have flaws: not horrid, nasty, hidden flaws—no secret monsters here—but the sorts of flaws that can bring them to make, in a moment of crisis, a morally wrong choice. They are flaws of varying sorts, but always, in keeping with the characters’ middle-class decency, “soft” flaws, “easy” flaws—a lack of vision perhaps tantamount to willful blindness, or a lack of the strength to hurt another over a matter of principle, or some like thing—flaws that do not seem, to us or to their possessors (if they even perceive those flaws), to be any really great evil. Carroll’s characters do not seem, to themselves or to us riding on their thoughts, to be monsters or devils; they are just people under pressure taking a way out. By no means does the reader want to scream at the character “Stop! Don’t do that!” We might do as much ourselves seems to be the point, and Carroll makes his crisis situations so natural, so unforced, that we feel that we well might. But the characters, and possibly we too, are weak: they fail to make the effort needed to see the act in the round, consider its full meaning, its awful implications.
The fruits of those awful choices eventually poison the ones who planted their seeds; whether that poison is strong enough to be fatal (figuratively or, sometimes, possibly literally) or merely wracking is what we turn the pages to discover.
I don’t mean by any of this that Carroll is a facile moralizer. Sometimes, often perhaps, the wrong choices that the characters make are by no means obvious or unequivocal. There is an element of arbitrariness too, a question of whether the choice was really so wrong that the universe is entitled to do to these people what it does. Perhaps the lesson—if there even is a lesson—is that decency is not enough: strength, or maybe just luck, is needed too.
That very inexactness, that refusal to be just this and nothing else to all readers, is a mark of excellence: it makes clear that Carroll is addressing very large issues, none of which ever have satisfyingly simplistic resolutions. He is portraying real, living, fully credible characters caught up in potentially soul-destroying circumstances that seem to them, as they would to us, to have arrived from nowhere, an Act of God, a drunk driver run up on the pavement suddenly and blindly destroying one we love. These characters search their souls for answers to the inevitable question for all of us: Why? The tales are surgical dissections of their characters’ psyches, carried out by the characters themselves as circumstances force them to look ever deeper into themselves, to question more and more who and what they are and why and how they have become those things and have been and done what they have.
Carroll never allows them, or us, final answers, but he always gives us food for thought.
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Carroll maintains his own website, aptly named The Jonathan Carroll Web Site.
(Sometime between 21 June 2020 and 14 July 2020, that site developed some technical problem. Here is a link to the last successful archive of the site at The Wayback Machine.)
The Complete Review, an excellent literary site, has at present reviews available of four Carroll books (the link is to one—look down at the bottom of their page for links to the other three of their reviews).
Naturally, there are numerous interviews with Carroll available online: this one at Locus Online and this one at The SF Site—and more besides.
There is also rondua [sic the lower-case r], a Yahoo Jonathan Carroll discussion group.
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There seem to be no books about Carroll and his works. That seems silly.
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This page was last modified on Thursday, 15 April 2021, at 4:06 pm Pacific Time.