Jonathan Carroll has developed an almost cult status as a slipstream author, and it was with his contemporary fantasy reputation in mind that I picked up a copy of The Land of Laughs, part of the Fantasy Masterworks collection. It had incredibly high praise from a number of reputable critics and authors, including Neil Gaiman, and comes with claims that if you’re new to Jonathan Carroll then his debut is a great place to start. Such build up can go two ways with a book; it can give it an advantage making you love it before you’ve even begun, or it can set you up for great disappointment.
In this case, it was not what I had hoped for in one major way. For a fantasy masterwork with such strong endorsements, it was remarkably light on fantasy. In fact until the final third (if that) you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a relationship drama. Except it was remarkably light on drama, too.
In short, this is the story of a rather uninspiring teacher, Thomas Abbey, who sets out to write a biography of his favourite writer, Marshell France. His journey to the town France lived in reveals a series of inconsistencies that suggests more is going on than anyone’s admitting. The problem is there isn’t that much more going on – much as it heads to a rather crazy reveal it is, despite its extremity, rather predictable and doesn’t generate much in the way of tension or excitement. It’s scarcely a spoiler to say, for example, that the sinister overtones of details such as whether or not France changed his name amounts to precious little nothingness.
In fact for a good 200 or so pages of the 240 page book what you’re actually treated to is the meandering tale of a man trying to navigate the standard challenges of biography writing against the background of meeting an adoring geeky girlfriend and the seductive daughter of his idol. Given the rather unlikeable nature of the protagonist, whose greatest challenge in life is having a famous father, it’s the handling of these two female characters that is to make or break the plodding story.
And the handling of the adoring girlfriend, in particular, is a misogynistic mess.
To say the book feels dated is an understatement; its almost glacial pace is one thing, its attitude to the girlfriend, portrayed as a perfectly selfless and undeserving victim, should have been laid to rest centuries ago. The protagonist’s male entitlement is bold and unashamed, though, to the degree that his cheating is not only accepted without much in the way of judgement it’s also forgiven without any kind of atonement. I was waiting for terrible things to happen to Abbey, whose arch appeared only to become increasingly irritating and self-important. Sadly, he never changed, and was scarcely even threatened.
Carroll is known for combining various genres, and I was in hope of feeling a sense of dread or horror – even just conflict – that I persevered. The only feeling I got from The Land of Laughs, though, was shock at the handling of the protagonist’s philandering. Which was presented dismissively (despite a few vacuous comments that he felt pretty bad about it, but kept doing it) and was ultimately inconsequential.
It’s a shame, as in all I could sense the building blocks of the greatness others see in Carroll here – it’s testament to his writing ability that I managed to finish the book despite any particular interest in the plot or characters. And the ideas in there hinted at his ability to create interesting new worlds. It just all felt too lacklustre, too lacking in pace and drama and, most unforgivingly, too accepting of its main characters flaws.