Friday, November 20, 2009

Jonathan Carroll and Margaret Oliphant: Cranky Romances

There’s something appealing about alternating Victorian literature with fantasy - it’s nice to have a literary novel and a genre book going at the same time - and right now I'm reading Margaret Oliphant and Jonathan Carroll. Yet it may be a mistake to classify Jonathan Carroll as fantasy: White Apples is much better written than the usual literary novel, let alone SF, and yet more "mainstream" than Marcel Theroux's Far North, a worthy SF finalist for the National Book Award (it would have been nice if a science fiction book had won the award, but of course they called it speculative fiction instead of SF). Carroll was recently recommended to me by a bookstore owner who admitted he didn't know whether to classify him as literary fiction or science fiction. (I suggested he try both!)

White Apples is a surreal Kafkaesque romance, which I bought because of the title, thinking that it might be related to the golden apples of fairy tales and myth. That's not the case, but the writing is great: his novels have been compared to Philip K. Dick’s (and actually I think he’s better). White Apples is published by Tor, a publisher of fantasy and SF, yet the novel is billed cagily as a tale of “a genial philanderer, (who) discovers he has died and come back to life, but he has no idea why, or what the experience was like,” rather than locked into the fantasy genre. One of Carroll's early books, Sleeping in Flame, was classified as literary fiction and published as a “yuppieback,” one of those well-designed Vintage Contemporaries like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. How to market him? Publishers just don't know, though I gather he has a big following.

Carroll's character Vincent Ettrich is dead and doesn’t know what to do about it. He has two girlfriends: an on-again, off-again relationship with Isabelle, the love of his life, a model-beautiful Viennese woman who loves food and sex, and brings Victor back from the dead when their unborn child insists on it; there's also Coco, a pseudo-lingerie saleswoman who is really a supernatural agent assigned to guard him. The book is funny, beautifully written, and philosophical. Carroll is very poetic.

Mrs. Oliphant is, of course, completely different: a very brisk, prosy, competent Victorain storyteller, who wrote 120 books so there are plenty more to read. Having finished her novella, Two Strangers, , I am starting on Harry Joscelyn, a novel recommended in some bio or intro in a Virago book; I hunted it down at Amazon in an Elibron edition. It costs the earth - it’s in two volumes - but is definitely nicer than an interlibrary loan edition. Some of the interlibrary books crumble in my hands. This was first published in 1881, and it’s my guess that that’s the very edition that would arrive at our library long after I’d forgotten about it. Whereas at Amazon - what can I say? - they fly through the mail!

This novel reminds me so much of Anthony Trollope’s novels. Harry seems to have been a popular Victorian name, certainly the name of many a character in many of Trollope’s novels, and often, if I remember correctly, of a son who has gone slightly on the skids. Oliphant’s Harry is a recalcitrant younger son, a prodigy of his uncle, working now as a clerk, who wants to borrow his “mother’s money,” about 1,000 pounds, to invest in the business. Mr. Joscelyn, the abusive, nasty and fatuous father, refuses to hand over the money. Then, after Harry storms out of the house to a bar, Mr. Joscelyn locks the house and shuts his wife into her room so she cannot help Harry. Harry’s sister, Joan, an older, very competent, unmarried sister, has no fear of their father. But when she goes out of the house by a back way to let him in, the door locks behind her. Harry is so furious that he takes off and is not seen again by his family (at least not in Vol. I, though we follow his adventures in Italy under an assumed name).

The novel is not just the story of Harry, but a story of the family. His sister, Joan, is an especially colorful character. She does not respect their mother, who has been squashed into a trembling submissive ghost by her father. Yet when Joan's suiter, an older man, Sidney, comes calling, he manages to draw out Mrs. Joscelyn on subjects like literature (her mother is quite well-educated) and Joan is impressed. Joan dimples around Sidney, amazed that he would want to marry her at age 30, an age when she herself had given up on marriage, but she is ambivalent. For one thing, her parents’ marriage has not provided her with a good model. And she becomes cross when he tries to find Harry and his trail goes cold.

I’m very intrigued by this cranky romance!


Anonymous said...

Jonathan Carroll also happens to write one of the great daily blogs on his website


Frisbee said...

I'll add it to my blogroll!

Ellen said...

I've not yet read an Oliphant I didn't like, and the Elibrons are beautiful. I'll tell Trollope19thCStudies about this blog.