My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A dear friend who knows me well pressed this book on me and said, “Read it, you’ll love it.” She told me nothing about the Land of Laughs, and I’m glad. She loaned me her old paperback copy, which, unlike later editions, has no Neil Gaiman intro. I’m also glad about this, as I’m sure NG, who I love, divulges some plot points because he can’t help himself.
The passing of this book from hand to hand was one of those times when a friend’s enthusiasm was all it took for me to give it a shot. While I didn’t LOVE it, I found it really enjoyable and original, with some golden WTF moments that somehow, amazingly, work. All told, time well spent in Jonathan Carroll’s head.
As I said, I’m glad she didn’t give me any details, and I’m doubly glad I didn’t read any of the reviews on Goodreads (or anywhere else) before I settled in. In the ensuing review, I will endeavor not to spoil any of the surprises of Land of Laughs. And there are quite a few surprises. I was going to list a few hugely successful books that owe JC/LoL a debt, but even that would give you some clues and spoil some of the fun.
One of the aspects that drew me in was Carroll’s ability to create characters who are petty, obnoxious, and selfish, yet somehow magnetic. Narrator Thomas Abbey (great names all over this tale) is the son of a famous deceased actor Stephen Abbey. Thomas is an unfulfilled English teacher obsessed with children’s book author Marshall France, who died unexpectedly at age 44, some years before. Thomas and fellow France devotee Saxony Gardner – damaged, shoot-from-the-hip, high maintenance and my favorite character – travel from NYC to France’s hometown in the Midwest – Galen, Missouri – so Abbey can write France’s biography and Saxony can edit it. France’s editor has told them it’s a fool’s errand – France’s daughter Anna is impossible – but of course they go anyway. Absolute madness eventually ensues. The book you finish is not the book you begin.
For me, it was quite a “meta” experience, as the kids say. At times I was thinking, “I am reading a book about the unparalleled pleasures of reading a book, inhabiting a world in which deeply flawed people discuss inhabiting a world invented by deeply flawed people.” That sounds unappetizing, maybe a little heady, but, when combined with the sharp, economic details of the landscape, the Galen townspeople, and the gradually unfolding craziness, I was engaged, especially for the last 1/4 of the book. I just wish the craziness could’ve unfolded a little sooner. But still, a nice payoff.
Sometimes I loathed Thomas Abbey and actually wanted something bad to happen to him, but when bad things did happen to him, I felt for him, which is a trick only a great writer can pull off. I never wanted anything bad to happen to Saxony.
The Dead Dad Dilemma is the soul of Land of Laughs, and frankly, I’ve never read a story that handles it in such an original way. The two Dead Dads – Marshall France and Thomas Abbey’s father, Stephen – haunt the book and, it turns out, drive the narrative, though you only gradually come to realize it.
Another aspect that kept me glued is Carroll’s ability to fuse dream reality with “real” reality. In fact, when you put down Land of Laughs, you’ll experience that feeling of half-wakefulness, when a receding dream still seems real, for a few delicious, or horrifying, moments.