Laugh and the book group laughs with you
Coming out of a suddenly wet Spring, the Beamers found themselves inside a book, inside a book, taking on Jonathan Carroll’s first novel, The Land of Laughs. With its fluidity between the “real” fiction and the “fiction” fiction of Thomas Abbey and Saxony Gardner trying to create a biography of deceased children’s author Marshall France, the slipperiness of the book matched the slickness of the recent weather.
Taking a Ride into the Heartland
The Land of Laughs is a title twice over, both for the novel and for a favorite children’s book written by the now-departed Marshall France. Thomas, a high school English teacher deciding to take a sabbatical, wants to write a biography of the popular but reclusive France. Meeting Saxony, a fellow France fan, they travel to Galen, Missouri to speak with France’s daughter, Anna. The town residents of Galen are at first suspicious and then surprisingly enthusiastic about the biography. Until more and more strange events happen around town, and the biography becomes the key to restoring Galen to its former tranquil state.
One quality of the novel that stood out for us was the quality of the writing. Carroll is a careful describer and a fan of the ordinary details of life, so the book is grounded in the mundane, contemporary facts of life both at Thomas’s prep school and in Galen. Donna, a former high school teacher, found that the classroom scenes and the interactions of Thomas with his students rang very true to her experiences. Jon, not a fan of the novel, read it straight through in 4 hours (having a lot of spare time while helping run the primary election voting). I noted that the book offers up a lot of very particular, very ordinary facts, like Sara Lee brownies as comfort food, or bowlers comparing custom-drilled Brunswick bowling balls, along with some interests (fountain pens, dogs) that do seem to appear in other works by Carroll. Looking at Carroll’s own biography, there are a lot of correspondences between his life and Thomas Abbey’s, so Carroll was likely drawing on his own experiences and making it very real. Which is helpful as the novel moves into some very weird territory.
Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Alan noted that the weirdness started promptly on page 100, when a young boy is hit by a truck driven by “the wrong person”, though Donna thought that the very first encounter in Galen, when Thomas and Saxony pick up a hitchhiker who somehow informs everyone that they are coming to town, was an earlier signal. Certainly, by the time Nails the bull terrier starts to speak, Galen is no longer the typical American small town. And that is where we started to differ over the question of how the weirdness, the interior “fiction” of the book, plays with the exterior “fact” of the book.
The characters themselves are often very unreliable, with almost all of the main characters, even the missing Marshall France, having two (or more) pasts: Thomas, son of a famous movie star, is wrapped up in both his own life and his father’s “lives” on screen, Saxony wants to help on the biography and wants to sabotage it, Anna France appears very different from the person that a NYC publisher describes as France’s daughter and the death of her college boyfriend is given in two very different versions, and Marshall France is really Martin Frank, a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust who re-creates himself in America. So, which character is the one that we, the readers, actually meet? Or do we meet both versions, at different times?
The Frank name also gave us pause, as it passes unmentioned in the book, which, given the Holocaust connection and the literary fame of Anne Frank, a Jewish diarist who lived in hiding, makes Marshall France/Martin Frank at least a likely candidate for someone’s question about possible relationships between the Franks. But no one ever brings it up, even in denial (“No, not THAT Frank”). We thought about it, though. Fran mentioned Shalom Auslander’s 2012 novel, Hope: A Tragedy, in which a surviving Anne Frank comes to America, still hiding in attics, still writing. The parallel with Marshall France hiding in Galen seems clear, but we could not push any themes of Holocaust literature or even refugee/immigrant stories onto The Land of Laughs. Carroll does not want to seem to bring up religion or persecution or coming to a foreign land in his novel.
Are We Forced to Believe in Free Will?
He does seem interested in the philosophical/theological issue of predestination and free will, though, one element that did catch Jon’s attention, particularly how the certainty of their fates made the average Galen resident (who turn out to be Marshall France creations) very accepting and very calm about their daily existence. And the afterlife? Well, France did not give them one, so they do not worry about heaven/hell or what comes next. Nothing comes next and they are fine with that. We, however, were a little less accepting, as we argued whether knowledge of one’s destiny, including date of death, would improve or upset our own mental conditions, and whether a “created” person has a soul (if souls do exist) and how the absence of a soul could or should affect the conduct of one’s life. The best line probably belongs to Larry (of Lazy Larry’s Discount Store): “Look, man, you shot out of your old man, right? Well, I just shot out of someplace else.”
From Jester to King
However, when things stop following the Marshall Plan (as Jon named it), then Galen is a scary place. Without the biography and the ability to re-create France’s own powers of creation, bringing him back to Galen, the place rapidly starts to lose its own coherence, as residents begin to transform into the children’s book characters on whom France based them. The book becomes “horror lite” as Alan deemed it, and, to me, the sense of familiarity I found in the book came clearer as I realized that what I was reading was a book that Stephen King (noted for his small town settings and twining of ordinary life with extraordinary events) would have liked to have written. The climax of a “symbolic” welcoming home at the town train station mirrored the big magic ritual/spellcasting/gathering of a more typical horror piece, though with less blood and gore than, say, Carrie. Even the ending, which most of us found a bit rushed, was similar to the often-criticized endings of King novels, usually labeled unsatisfying, as Nick called the one in this book.
Also, the fate of Saxony puzzled us, as her death is part of the horror, yet Thomas’s ability to re-create dead people (such as his own father) did not seem to extend to bringing her back. The pacing of the book overall was not one of its better aspects, with a very slow opening and a very frenetic conclusion and epilogue, though Jon appreciated the terseness and finality of the ending. As a first novel, it may be suffering from a novice writer’s inexperience. Or maybe he did follow the King model a bit too closely. In any case, Donna, not a fan of horror fiction, did not find anything in the book that would trouble her sleep and enjoyed reading it all the way through, from normal opening through the increasing strangeness of Galen.
A Lucky Number for an Outcome
The near-unanimous grade for The Land of Laughs was a ‘7’ for those of us who had the chance to read it. (In our own bit of weirdness, several Beamers discovered that the only copy of the novel available in the regional library system was a Korean edition, which seems to exist in multiple copies.) While we might not want to settle down in Galen, we did enjoy spending some time there and were perfectly happy to move back out of town when the Founder came back home.
Postscript: In discussing Saxony’s name, Carol pointed out that one meaning of the word “saxony” is a type of spinning wheel for thread or yarn. Alan was inspired, after a night’s sleep, to think of Rumpelstiltskin and how the imp has parallels to Thomas and Saxony: like Rumpelstiltskin, they are promised a reward but not given it, even after they “re-spin” the town’s “golden age” by their own magic, and at the end, they too are torn in half. And, doing a bit of research, Alan found another novel by Carroll, Sleeping in Flame, that is a re-telling of the Rumpelstiltskin story.