Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Book: The Land of Laughs

This is my first Jonathan Carroll book (and his first book), and it was a good introduction, I think.

Thomas Abbey, son of a famous actor, is a disgruntled English teacher. His favorite author of all time is Marshall France, the creator of slightly twisted and weird children's books, books which Abbey adores and is sort of obsessed with.

Thomas meets an intense girl named Saxony while bargaining with her for a rare France book, and a relationship begins. Soon, Thomas and Saxony decide to try and write a biography of their favorite author. They travel to small-town Galen, Missouri, where France lived as somewhat of a recluse. Once they arrive, they start to think that things might not be quite as they seem. And indeed, they are not.

At once light, funny, strange, and a curious mix of fiction and magical realism (or something -- I get all those fantasy sub-genres mixed up), this was a pretty quick read and I had no idea what to expect. The book definitely kept me guessing, and when the revelations came, they were surprising and a little scary.

But not scary enough. For me, anyway.

You see, Marshall France was a special kind of author. Most authors create the world in which their characters live, to a certain degree. Marshall France actually created the world and the characters. Like, he's like God. So this is sort of cool and sort of not-entirely-unexpected, but I felt like the revelation was sort of oddly skimmed over and made less amazing than it could be. The circumstances around this world and the people in it are also vaguely disturbing, but again, I didn't think it went far enough -- the oddness and the frightening aspects were sort of glossed over. Sometimes that's an effective means of portraying weird stuff -- what you create in your imagination is worse than the author could tell you -- but in this case, I really was left wanting more "oomph", for lack of a better term.

I wish this book had been much darker, I guess. It felt sort of like Good Omens (I know, I blaspheme the sacred text!), where for some reason I didn't quite get into the 'funny and light' mood while reading it -- I felt like a different tone would have suited it better. Or suited me better, perhaps. But then, I never fully appreciate this particular sort of odd humor. I'm not a Douglas Adams devotee. I'm not a complete grump -- I get that it's funny, and I enjoy the humor, but it doesn't speak directly to my heart as it seems to some other people. This is a character flaw in myself that I intend to work on.

So anyway, the book trundles along being amusing and slightly disturbing, until the very quick and very strange and very sudden ending. I'm not at all sure what I think of the ending. I shut the book and said aloud, "That was weird." This is where the discrepancy of the happy-and-light comes slamming up against the dark, and it felt jarring and strange and too sudden. It should have been nightmarish, but instead it was simply -- strange.

I don't know what I think. I liked it, and a certain grim side of myself enjoyed the ending, but it did seem sort of sudden. And I wondered what happened after the ending. Which I guess is a good thing.

I did really enjoy certain parts of the book, for instance the Marshall France book excerpts and references to France characters. I liked how Carroll (the author) just writes as if everyone knows what a Marshall France book is, and everyone is familiar with the structure and the characters and the titles. I thought that was an effective way to immediately put you into this world. I wish I could read a Marshall France book! I enjoyed the France character names (The Queen of Oil, Krang the kite, etc.), and the slightly creepy, melancholy storylines that are only vaguely hinted at.

I keep thinking that the France books are modelled after a real author's books, but I can't decide who. Maybe a mixture of L. Frank Baum, Roald Dahl and Johnny Gruelle, in which case I can totally see why Thomas Abbey was obsessed with the books. I can be obsessive over children's books, myself.

So anyway. It was good, and I will definitely read another Carroll book, but it wasn't as good as I had hoped, and maybe I just didn't get it but it wasn't quite what I felt it had been hyped as. But maybe his books get better as he gets more experienced with writing.

One last note: Neil Gaiman wrote a blurb for the cover, which really did speak to my heart, as books are a comfort and refuge for me: "The Land of Laughs is a book for anyone who has ever believed that a favorite book could be a safe place to go when things get hard." This won't be the book I turn do when things get hard, but I completely understand the sentiment.


Susan said...

I had the same reaction to the ending too! And I read it over 10 years ago! All his books are mixture of oddness and dark themes and love, I've found. And I really like him even though they are unsettling, as this ending was. I'm glad you read it!

Nymeth said...

The lack of love for Good Omens and Douglas Adams is breaking my heart :P Seriously now, I really want to read this, and when I do I will keep what you said in mind. I actually had a somewhat similar experience with my first Carroll book - White Apples. I almost loved it, but not quite. It still got me interested enough in him to read more, though. What I love the most about him is that he seems to have such a unique way of looking at things, such an original voice.

And I also so understand the sentiment behind that statement.