Those scoring at home will notice that I have been on something of a fantasy/magical realism kick of late (in both the young adult and “adult” genres). I am not sure where you put Jonathan Carroll in all of this. I guess he is in the magical realism camp given that his novels take place on the earth as we know it but with some rather fantastical exceptions.
I understand Carroll has quite a cult following around the world. I am not really part of that group, I just stumbled on to one of his books in a store and was intrigued. So my approach to his works is one of benign interest but not deep familiarity.
His latest work, Glass Soup, is in fact a follow up to his last book (White Apples). Many of the characters are reoccurring and the story again takes place mostly in Vienna (where Carroll lives).
Trying to explain a Jonathan Carroll plot is not an easy assignment, but a brief sketch is possible. Readers of White Apples will remember that Vincent Ettrich was brought back from the dead by his pregnant lover Isabelle Neukor. Ettrich and Neukor’s unborn child, Anjo, is fated to help restore order in the universe. In Glass Soup these two are once again at the center of saving the universe from Chaos.
Added to the mix is Simon Haden. Like Ettrich, Haden is a good looking womanizer who was involved with Neukor. And like Ettrich in White Apples, Simon is dead – even if he doesn’t know it at first. The bad guy is a manifestation of Chaos named John Flannery who seduces Neukor’s closest friends in order to neutralize her and her unborn child. Chaos’s goal is to lure Neukor into the world of the dead and trap her there, thus preventing her child from saving reality.
There are a few things I look for in works like this: imaginative and interesting ideas, strong characters, and a good plot. If you have all three then you have a great book. If you have aspects of these ingredients then you can still have a good read. But you need something along these lines to hold the fantastical part of the story together; to make the suspended judgment pay off. Again, much like White Apples Carroll succeeds in some ways and fails in others.
Here are a few things Carroll does provide. There is usually an interesting fantastical explanation for the “why” of the universe and a description of the “how.”. I am not sure Carroll’s gigantic mosaic explanation really works in White Apples or connects with the ideas in the current book. There is an interesting thought experiment in Glass Soup, however. It turns out that after you die, the ingredients of your dreams are used to help you sort out your life. As you work out the meanings of your dreams you move upward toward more and more understanding of your life and its place in the universe.
Reading as Simon Haden tries to work his life out via the surreal components of his dreams is entertaining and thought provoking. It is interesting to think about how what we think of as our real life is filtered and distorted in our dreams and nightmares; about what our hopes and fears mean as they are played out in our sub or unconscious minds.
Another strong part of the book was the character of John Flannery. He really made an effective bad guy. His ability to find out what people want and care about and use that to manipulate them is unnerving. His cold hearted ability to insert chaos into people’s lives is also scary, because it comes with the realization of how fragile life can be and how the root of these dangers comes from within ourselves. It may be a cliche but is nevertheless true that we carry the seeds of our own destruction with us.
And that is really what is at the heart of Carroll’s recent work: the promise and dangers of relationships. Love is a powerful force, but it also opens us up to real pain. Carroll’s characters are all flawed but they are also all looking for a deeper love than what they have found. Ettrich and Neukor are the symbol of a couple who has found true love, but who had to sacrifice much to get it.
I must confess that I don’t find Carroll’s metaphysical symbolism and philosophizing all that insightful. I am sure his fans will say that I just “don’t get it,” and I admit this sort of thing isn’t my strong point, but for me the ideas are imaginative but not particularly illuminating. I tend to echo Publishers Weekly:
This is a marvelous comic feast, but logic, consistency and plausibility are not on the menu.
All that said, Glass Soup is an enjoyable and light hearted read. The ideas and characters are stimulating and the plot has enough tension to keep the reader’s attention. But is does require a large suspension of belief and an interest in relationships. Cold hard cynics need not apply, but those who enjoy “imaginative fiction” and have a large soft spot for romance will enjoy the latest from Jonathan Carroll.