Reading: The Wooden Sea

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.

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3 Responses to Reading: The Wooden Sea

  1. Walter Grobchen says:

    Couldn’t disagree with you more. I think Carroll does both a brilliant and satisfying job of tying up all loose ends by the end of the novel. Not to mention the book was chosen as one of the best books of the year by the New York Times and shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award (along with LeGuin and Gaiman, among others). No, he doesn’t say this is because of this and this is because of this, but there are enough strings for the reader to easily draw things together on their own without an invisible puppeteer doing it for them. Bail out? Nope.

  2. midiguru says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Walter. All I can offer is one person’s opinion — for you and doubtless for many others, there was enough explanation to make the story satisfying.

    At the end, though, I felt myself wondering about a lot of things:

    Why did Astopel come back, after being sidelined? How was Gee-Gee brought back to life, after being murdered? What was the body of Dreampilot doing at the bottom of the hole? What will happen when God wakes up? What will happen if God doesn’t wake up? How did Old Vertue happen to be in the 1750 painting that George showed to Fran? What sort of indication (of his cosmic importance) caused the aliens to start messing with Fran’s life in the first place? Why is Astopel so maddeningly oblique, from start to finish, about explaining anything? Why is the Schiavos’ house being reconstructed? If the Schiavos were aliens, what were they doing in town for all those years? And where did they go? How did old Floon travel back in time — and why did he bring a gun and start shooting people??? If the feather is manmade, who made it? If Antonya had in fact been shooting up for six months, why did she tell Fran she was murdered?

    Or is there a more recent edition that explains all this stuff? That happens in the software world, but probably not in print….

    The underlying philosophical problem, I feel, is this: Even magic has to play by certain rules. If the aliens from behind the Crab Nebula can rearrange reality to suit them, then they could have generated Fran’s entire world from scratch ten minutes ago, memories and all. Also, Fran’s bargain (trading Magda’s life for his own) is meaningless, because the aliens could just as easily have let them both live.

    I was unable to discern the rules or limits of the fantasy element in this book. It seemed entirely whimsical — adventitious, ad hoc, choose your own term. As I indicated in the original post, you can do precisely that for literary effect, if you choose. The world we live in is entirely meaningless, when all’s said and done, and one of the functions of literature is to reveal reality to us.

    But in the absence of concrete answers to the questions above, I can’t feel satisfied with the book as fantasy. Magic realism/surrealism, yes. Fantasy, no.

    –JA

  3. I’ve probably read every Carroll novel, despite feeling let down by the endings. I like the insights in the muddles, I guess. Do check out his collection of short stories, The Panic Hand, though. They wrap up nicely.

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