Jonathan Carroll’s last novel, Kissing the Beehive, marked a departure in his oeuvre. In his nine previous novels, Carroll had created a strange marriage between the detail-oriented fiction of contemporary novelists and the fantastic mythology of the South American magical realists. Reading a Carroll novel was like discovering John Updike novelizing Twilight Zone episodes or finding the source material for a David Lynch film that did not contain the misogyny and grotesque. The critic John Clute grouped the last seven of Carroll’s novels (which share some common characters and events, similar to the way that Robertson Davies, an acknowledged influence, would repeat within his trilogies) under the collective term, “Answered Prayers.” It is an apt phrase that describes the way in which Carroll’s characters often found themselves presented with their deepest wishes, to then discover that there is a catch. This is similar to the 1902 short story, “The Monkey’s Paw,” by W.W. Jacobs, wherein a man uses a desiccated monkey hand that had been cursed by a shaman to wish for 200 pounds sterling, but receives it through an accident in which his son is caught in machinery and the son’s employer, disclaiming responsibility of course, compensates the family in exactly that amount.
With Kissing the Beehive, Carroll put aside the supernatural and concentrated on the realism. Much of the novel was mined from his own experience: a dead body that he discovered as a teenager in his home town and his feelings as a writer who believes himself caught in a rut. Instead of a mystical experience of characters coming to terms with their innermost desires, Kissing the Beehive was more a traditional mystery. The macguffin is the dead body, and the plot, while circuitous, ends when the mystery is solved. Although still containing his trademark touches of better-than-life dialogue and clever situations, most of his regular readers were unsatisfied. They had come to expect magic from Carroll, and no amount of smoke and mirrors could conceal that Kissing the Beehive was about everyday illusions.
Those same readers will not be disappointed by Carroll’s new novel, The Marriage of Sticks. Miranda Romanac still recalls her high school boyfriend, James Stillman, with fondness, and when she returns to Crane’s View, New York, for her fifteen-year reunion, she harbors an ill-concealed desire to see him and possibly rekindle their relationship. She is shocked, therefore, to learn that he is dead, the victim of a car crash three years earlier. Devastated, she returns to her life as a rare book dealer, during the course of which she makes the acquaintance of Frances Hatch, an infamous paramour of the wealthy and powerful in the 1940s and 1950s. At a party, she meets Hugh Oakley, an art dealer, who knew Stillman in the intervening years between high school and his death. Then she sees Stillman on the street in New York. But is it really Stillman, or is it a ghost?
Miranda and all her friends, to some extent, lead wonderful lives. When Carroll describes her love for discovering a first edition, you feel that whatever you do pales in comparison to that career. Your love life is not nearly as intense as the attraction between Miranda and Hugh or Frances and her true love, The Enormous Shumda, a stage magician in Poland. In Carroll’s world, fiction is stronger than truth, and every event is filled with meaning and significance. From the pen of any other writer, this would by cloying, but Carroll always leavens his text with a pinch of dread. His characters live in the eye of the storm, an idyllic time and place that is made even more so because we sense that it is temporary. The center cannot hold, and when things fall apart . . . well, that’s when the story gets truly interesting. Miranda destroys Hugh’s marriage, albeit with his help; she becomes pregnant with his child; Frances lends the new couple her home in Crane’s View, which precipitates a ghostly vision of their future happiness, immediately shattered by an unexpected death.
Carroll has always had an ability to tell stories in which bad things happen to good people. In The Marriage of Sticks, he attempts to modify that theme into “bad things happen to bad people,” but I am somewhat unconvinced that Miranda is as heartless as Carroll wants her to appear or as the characters in the book accuse her of being. Instead, Miranda’s selfishness and vanity make her appear only more human than some of Carroll’s previous protagonists, who were people that you wanted to know existed but had never met. Miranda is much more like the woman next door, which makes the pathos of the book stronger in that you can identify with the character while it weakens the plot elements that push the story to its ambiguous ending. (Endings have never been a Carrollian virtue, although in recent novels they have ended with more closure than this book, which harkens back to the sudden and open endings of novels like Outside the Dog Museum.)
The title itself is a typical example of Carrollian whimsy that seems saccharine yet is filled with meaning. “It was [Hugh’s] idea: when anything truly important happens in your life, wherever you happen to be, find a stick in the immediate vicinity and write the occasion and date on it. Keep them together, protect them. There shouldn’t be too many; sort through them every few years and separate the events that remain genuinely important from those that were but no longer are . . . . When you are very old, very sick, or sure there’s not much time left to live, put them together and burn them. The marriage of sticks.”
The Marriage of Sticks reuses the town of Crane’s View and the character of Frannie McCabe, the town’s sheriff, both significant parts of Kissing the Beehive. I assume that this means that Carroll has entered into a new story cycle that will somehow differ from the “Answered Prayers” series. With only two installments to examine, it is too early to make any definitive statements, but the corresponding theme between them is the all-too-human urge to reflect on the past and wonder how things might have been. In Carroll’s world, you can go home again, but there are plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t.
[Finished 21 October 1999; originally published on Event Horizon]