White Apples by Jonathan Carroll

After having read some brief but serious non-fiction lately (see Churchill post below) I was looking for some interesting fiction to relax with in a comfy chair. I came across a book that promised just that:
White Apples by Jonathan Carrol
. This book caught my eye at the bookstore even though I hadn’t read any of Carroll’s previous works. Something about the book blurb just caught my interest:

Vincent Ettrich, a genial philanderer, discovers he has died and come back to life, but he has no idea why, or what the experience was like. Pushed and prodded by strange omens and stranger persons, he gradually learns that he was brought back by his one true love, Isabelle, because she is pregnant with their child-a child who, if raised correctly, will play a crucial role in saving the universe.
But to be brought up right, he must be educated in part by his father. Specifically, he must be taught what Vincent learned on the other side-if only Vincent can remember it. On a father’s love and struggle may depend the future of everything that is.
By turns quirky, romantic, awesome, and irresistible, White Apples is a tale of love, fatherhood, death, and life that will leave you seeing the world with new eyes.

Having read the book I must say that the blurb is a tad over-the-top in its promises (shocking no?) but overall it was an enjoyable, if strange, trip. The plot was a bit hard to follow but the characters are interesting and the prose can be quite good. The first paragraph is one example:

Patience never wants Wonder to enter the house: because Wonder is a wretched guest. It uses all of you but is not careful with what is most fragile or irreplaceable. If it breaks you, it shrugs and moves on. Without asking, Wonder often brings along dubious friends: doubt, jealousy, greed. Together they take over; rearrange the furniture in every one of your rooms for their own comfort. They speak odd languages but make no attempt to translate for you. They cook strange meals in your heart that lead off tastes and smells. When they finally go are you happy or miserable? Patience is always left holding the broom.

There are interesting little nuggets like this spread throughout White Apples. This alone makes it a decent read. But I know what you are thinking: was it a good story? Does it have something important to say?

Those are tough questions. The book functions on at least two levels. The first level is basic love story. The main character Vincent Ettrich realizes that he has found his one true love in Isabelle Neukor. But they are having trouble combining their lives despite the fact that Ettrich has left his wife and child for Isabelle. As the story progresses you realize that Ettrich must face his self-centeredness and that Isabelle must face her doubt and insecurity if their love is to work. Isabelle’s pregnancy is the event that forces them to do just that.

On another level the story is a cosmic battle between the forces of darkness and those of light. This level brings a sense of surrealism to the story. For example: Vincent is dead and Isabelle, who brought him back to life, is caring his baby. This baby is a sort of savior of mankind and as such has supernatural powers as does Ettrich the undead. Ettrich and Isabelle must not only unravel the problems of their own lives, they must untangle the mystery of Ettrich’s death. Within this struggle, the meaning of life is explained. I won’t go into all the details in case you want to read the book yourself but it gets rather metaphysical and hard to follow at times.

Both of these levels work in some way. The story is interesting and there are enough twists and turns to keep the plot moving. The writing is fresh and lively and keeps the reader interested. But the two never really intertwine in such a way as to elevate the book from interesting to insightful. The conversations and thoughts on relationships and life are strong and enjoyable but the overall metaphysical punch is laking. If you are going to try and create an alternate meaning behind the universe you need to have either a unique insight or a really cool concept. White Apples doesn’t quite reach either. It comes off as kind of a neat new age love story without the philosophical meat. I think Publishers Weekly got it about right:

The story is a classic Carroll romp in which personified states of mind achieve independent life, characters interact with quirky incarnations of aspects of themselves, and bizarre metaphors (“When you’re dead they teach you how to make a water sandwich”) are illuminatingly literalized. But Vincent’s puzzlement over his quest and the iconic roles others play in it demands talky explanations that interrupt the spontaneous flow of fantasy and suggest the author has overreached in his stabs at inventive symbolism. The novel boasts its share of the fresh perspectives on life and love that Carroll’s fans have come to expect, but readers may finish it feeling a bit like Vincent, more instructed than entertained.

Overall, I would say if you enjoy thought provoking fiction in the “magic realism” vein, or you just like interesting stories about life and love, then White Apples would be worth your time. But if you are looking for real philosophical or existential insight you will likely be disappointed.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

1 Comment

  1. White Apples is an astonishing novel in every way. To say the derisive thing you did in the last line about its missing both real philosophy or existential truth(learn to spell too– existential and disappointed, to begin with) is both spurious and misleading. It is a profound book with a number of truths which are both enlightening and life-lifting. If you don’t see that, then you missed the point of this novel entirely.

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