on December 4, 2002
One of my wife's more literate friends (actually, the only one) gave me this book because she thought I could relate to the gimpy dog ("Old Vertue") who is somewhat central to this story. Well, I'm not sure if I agree with that, but the book was an interesting, if not terrific, read.
A policeman with the same name as my old nanny (Frannie!) experiences many unusual things in this story. In fact, this book is not grounded in the real world, so those of you who like novels based in reality will probably want to skip this one. It veers way south of Murakamiville as the out-of-this-world craziness is pretty much all encompassing. Some examples: A three-legged dog shows up, dies, is buried, and shows up alive again. More than once. Adult Frannie is visited by a teenaged version of himself (in both the present AND the future). Aliens abound (ridiculous!). Time travel mayhem is everywhere and history gets changed. If you can deal with all of this, you will probably enjoy this novel.
It's a fairly engaging mystery wrapped in a tale of love and the bizarreness of life. Narration is first person and at times both humorous and moving. I generally liked the story, but felt it a tad too creative, convenient, and otherworldly to really get into. Still...I did finish it and I told my wife's self-satisfied friend that I loooooved it.
on May 24, 2001
I'm only slightly acquainted with the work of Jonathan Carroll: I've read one early novel (Bones of the Moon) and several short stories. Still, I had an idea what to expect: a contemporary setting, veering off into very strange territory at some time; an ordinary person, deeply in love, faced with an unexpected and unexplainable threat to those he loves; and fine writing with a mixture of almost goofy humourand wrenching tragedy. And that's what we get here. (Writers who come to mind as comparison points are William Browning Spencer, Jonathan Lethem, and Bradley Denton.)
The Wooden Sea is narrated by Frannie McCabe, the 47-year old police chief of a small town, Crane's View, New York. Frannie is on his second marriage, and he has a teenage stepdaughter. He is sometimes plagued by the town's collective memory: he was rather a juvenile delinquent as a youth, and, in high school, he dated the girl who is now the mayor; but by and large he seems respected and happy. One day he adopts, almost perforce, a sickly three-legged dog named Old Vertue -- within a few days the dog is dead, and Frannie's attempts to bury the dog seem to set in motion a series of increasingly surrealistic events.
The strangeness starts out small, as it were: the buried dog disappears, and needs to be reburied. The dog turns up again, sort of, in an Old Master painting. And a high school girl dies of an overdose, leaving behind a notebook with tantalizing hints that she too was involved in these strange events.
From this point things become very odd indeed. The novel involves trips both forward and backward in time. Frannie's 17-year old self becomes a major character, as does a sinister businessman from decades in the future. Frannie finds himself presented with an ultimatum -- figure out what he needs to do in a week, or else -- with almost no idea of what he is to figure out, or what the "else" is. And this is to say nothing of the gods and/or aliens.
In a way, this book might be called "Science Fiction Magical Realism": it uses Science Fictional imagery in ways reminiscent of how more usual "Magical Realism" uses Fantastical imagery. On first reading, I had some difficulty with this: there's a temptation to make the book be about the Science Fictional events, and it really doesn't work that way. They don't end up making outward sense, and they aren't really properly resolved. As one fellow reader told me "It's Carroll's usual 'One darn thing after another'." But reading the book more as a mainstream (or, dare I say, slipstream) novel -- that is, as a story about the life of Francis McCabe -- works much better. We get a portrait of a believable man, a good man, and a happy man, facing a crisis from out of nowhere. The characters are very nicely done: Frannie, his younger self, his wife Magda and stepdaughter Pauline, his strange neighbour George Dalemwood. The action, for all its weirdness, is always interesting, though at times I felt a bit disconnected from things: at times things simply got too weird. The resolution is moving and bittersweet.
The Wooden Sea is a fine new novel from a very interesting writer.
on July 24, 2003
This is the first Jonathan Carroll title I've ever read. I won't go into describing the plot, you can get that from the many reviews this book has already accumulated. I must admit, this book is inconsistent, there are times I had a very difficult time putting it down. Yet, other times, I literally dreaded picking up the book. I'm still processing my first experience of Carroll. I'm somewhat disappointed, and left wondering about too many loose ends, but I'm still willing to give him a another try because I can see the wonderful traits of an excellent author. I know from reading other reviews, Carroll is obviously very much loved by his fans and I do not wish to 'dog' him and I would very much like to see the side of his style that is so amazing. I do believe that this book is probably not the best of the list, nor is it the best one to begin reading for a first Carroll novel.
on February 5, 2001
Let me preface my remarks by saying that I have been a huge Jonathan Carroll fan over the years (ever since I came across Bones of the Moon in a used bookstore. I considered that book a masterwork.) So...I am a bit bewildered by this latest offering. About a quarter of the way into this novel I thought "this may be his best ever." But ultimately the novel becomes too disjointed with some really intiguing plot threads sort of hung out to dry. Mr. Carroll has concluded some of his works ambiguously before, and that's fine, but I'm talking major plot elements here that are either explained away trivially or not explained at all. I don't want to mention specifics as I'm sure many will read the book for themselves.I still think Mr. Carroll is a major talent and will continue to buy his new work and await his next home run: but this isn't it.
on May 2, 2002
The book jacket has a blurb which calls this "a quirky piece of pop writing" and that's about right. The author has fun throwing unexpected plot twists at you left and right, and the book has a palpable sense of fun. In fact, it might be compared to Spider Robinson's "Callahan" books in this regard.
But in another regard it never really seemed to strive for anything greater. Although an entertaining bit of fluff, ultimately it was a bit lightweight and inconsequential. The story developed no internal logic, and the ending was just as airy as the rest. Unlike Robinson, Carroll seems content to float a plot in midair like a feather.
Not a bad recommendation, if you're looking for a pleasant afternoon's read.
on November 20, 2003
This is not Carroll's best work. Though packed with rich real characters and vivid surreal but somehow true situations that are the hallmark of Carroll's work, the book promises much more than it eventually delivers. If you must read it, consider stopping before the final chapters, otherwise try the Teeth of Angels or The Land of Laughs.
on January 3, 2003
Carroll piles on layers of intriguing mysteries, but the puzzle pieces never ultimately come together. This is a fun and well-written book, but it's better at the micro scale than the macro; the overall structure is shapeless and half-baked. Don't expect answers.