Philip K. Dick meets Kurt Vonnegut in The Wooden Sea, by Jonathan Carroll.
That may sound like a ringing endorsement, but it’s not. The book kept me turning the pages right up to the end, but after finishing it I felt badly cheated.
The Philip Dick angle: The story is set in a classic small town (traces of Ray Bradbury there as well) in which Things Are Not As They Seem. The impossible occurrences start slowly and built in a steady crescendo. The main character, police chief Francis McCabe, is challenged to understand why a dead dog that he has buried returns mysteriously to the trunk of his car. The next night, in the dead of night, an ordinary house in town is surrounded by bright lights and scaffolding as it’s being rebuilt (or something of the sort) … but no one else can see the scaffolding or the workmen, only McCabe.
Before too long we’ve got several flavors of time travel, a disappearing tattoo, enigmatic aliens, and a dead girl who shows up in the back seat of a car to tell McCabe a riddle. Eventually, one of the aliens delivers a brief and very unsatisfying explanation of what’s going on: After creating the universe, you see, God took a nap. Which has now lasted for billions of years. But He put in motion a sort of cosmic alarm clock, which will shortly wake him. All sorts of odd events have to work together, on many different planets, in order for the alarm clock to do its thing. And one of those odd events involves McCabe. But the aliens, though smart enough to engage in casual time travel, have no idea what it is. McCabe’s job is to do … something or other, which is undoubtedly of enormous cosmic importance, except that the aliens never bother to explain what will happen when God wakes up, or doesn’t.
The Vonnegut/Bradbury angle: The real point of The Wooden Sea seems to be a celebration of the preciousness of each moment in McCabe’s life. From that angle, the book is satisfying. The characters are richly detailed and believable, and the writing is beautiful.
But as a fantasy novel, it’s a horrible cheat. None of the riddles propounded during the course of the book is resolved. At the end, McCabe dies. Life goes on.
As well as I can judge, Carroll wrote the book by riffing. He kept coming up with cool, mysterious things and tossing them in, but he never had any intention of providing an explanation that would tie it all together. From a literary standpoint, you could make a case that this is okay: Life is actually like that! None of the mysteries in the midst of which we live is ever resolved, not really.
But, see, one of the big reasons people read fantasy is because we want to savor the possibility that it does all make sense. We know that in the real world Sauron is never truly defeated; he’ll always keep coming back. But we root for Sam and Frodo anyway, and we celebrate their victory because it makes sense of a senseless universe.
The Wooden Sea fails to even attempt to make sense of a senseless universe. It bails out. It pulls the plug. Dang.