I’m not sure where I first heard of Jonathan Carroll, but I’d guess that he was mentioned by some other author I respected (probably Neil Gaiman). I picked up The Land of Laughs and was thrilled by my first encounter with his unique brand of magical realism (or is it magical surrealism?) and his deeply engaging characters. Each of his works touched me in different ways: The Land of Laughs enthralled and infuriated me (I threw it across the room at one point); Bones of the Moon delivered a fantastical world rich in whimsy and sorrow; A Child Across the Sky was creepy and dark and began my lifelong interest in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.
I developed a ritual for each new book. I would set it on a shelf and hold off reading it until I had a full day or more to myself. Then I would make coffee, put on the Inspector Morse soundtrack (a mix of classical, opera, and incidental music that set a quiet, haunting mood), and read until I finished the novel–usually late that night with the coffee replaced with a beer.
The last of his books I read was Glass Soup in 2005. I missed 2008’s The Ghost in Love, and then there was a long dry spell until his most recent, Bathing the Lion (2014) that I recently finished.
I found myself once again enthralled with his vividly drawn characters and the almost mystical way Carroll describes the ordinary magic of love beginning…
In the beginning of their relationship, both women proceeded as if they had entered a very dark room and were sliding their hands hesitantly up and down all the walls, feeling for a light switch while at the same time afraid they might touch something sharp or dangerous.
…her life had capsized and suddenly she was hanging on to a piece of shipwreck in the middle of a vast and dangerous morning.
…and left behind…
…those nice trips, nice meals, and nice years when they had been genuinely happy together were like Confederate Army money now: they looked pretty but were worthless.
But as I read on, the joy wore off. Perhaps it’s because I read the novel in a more ordinary fashion. The first half, I devoured in large chunks as I traveled, but the last half came in small bites before going to sleep at night–pretty much how I do most of my reading these days. Perhaps, Carroll is not as strong a writer as he used to be, although my reaction to the first half suggests that’s not true. More likely, I’m at a different point in my life and his writing doesn’t speak to me the way it used to.
Carroll writes mostly of relationships and couples, love passionate, romantic, and companionate. He writes of experiencing life in a world of rich senses, exotic travel, fine foods, and finer moments. He blends it all with quirky metaphysics and surreal action that takes his characters to emotional extremes. They are haunting and beautiful tales that spoke to me when I was younger, when I traveled, and when I wrestled with relationships.
Now I am older, married, and have two young children. Travel, exotic locations, free time to pursue fine cuisine or leisure activities are not parts of my life. The world that Carroll describes doesn’t resonate the same way. Magic in my life comes in the form of my children, who bring wonder, imagination, and their own unique brand of surrealism to every day. I hadn’t realized until now, but children feature in only limited ways in Carroll’s books–frequently as McGuffins or pawns or angels and demons in disguise, rarely as real characters.
So while I enjoyed Bathing the Lion, there was a melancholy aspect to that enjoyment, a nostalgia for the way he used to sweep me away, that left me feeling slightly dissatisfied at the end. Ironically, there’s a lovely line in the novel about time that speaks to this feeling:
Time doesn’t fly, it steals. Like some skilled pickpocket or magician, it gets you to look the other way and when you do, it ruthlessly steals your essential things—memories, great moments that end much too soon, the lives of those you love.
It seems time may have stolen my deeper connection to Carroll’s work, leaving only ordinary enjoyment in its place.