By Jonathan Carroll
The Land of Laughs had been on my list forever, back in the day when I was intrigued by fantasy-realism (like Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place or Jack Finney’s Time and Again) and when I saw it at a used bookstore in Berkeley, I went ‘what the heck’.
The novel begins quite conventionally (hence realistically) with Thomas Abbey, who lives a ho-hum existence as a teacher at an all-boy’s school somewhere in New England. His one true passion is the work of Marshall France, a mysterious and reclusive writer of fantastic children’s books, who died at 44. Although well-known, no biography exists of France, due to the author’s difficult family. In a fit of early-life crisis, Thomas decides to go on a sabbatical. Soon he and new girlfriend, Saxony Gardner, journey to France’s isolated hometown in Missouri where they’re warmly received, surprisingly, by France’s daughter, Anna. Even more surprising, they're eventually granted permission to embark on writing the long-awaited Marshall France biography. For a period of time, everything seems to be going well. Then strange things start to happen to Thomas, like seeing the face of a local fleetingly transform into one of France’s beloved characters, or overhearing a bull terrier muttering to himself in his sleep. Gradually, Thomas and Saxony learn that the vivid imagination of Marshall France has had a persisting influence over the town of Galen, even long after his death.
TLoL is also categorized as slipstream, as opposed to conventional magic realism or fantasy. As much as I was enjoying the realistic, almost rom-com style narrative of Thomas and Saxony meeting, their journey to France’s town, their interactions with the townspeople, their research, etc. it took a looooong time for any kind of ‘magic’ to appear. This was likely intentional as the pacing of the intro of supernatural elements seemed deliberate, then you finally get some sort of explanation and then suddenly an ending that was rather jarring and a little disturbing, a bit like how the Japanese film, Audition, was structured (but not nearly as horrific). In building up the disquiet and surreal, by the time it gets to the unexpected denouement, I was quite taken aback.
There were times, however, where the writing style lacked a certain flair for words and maybe a kind of coolness factor. I think this had to do with US-born Carroll having relocated to Austria permanently when he was a young man, thus becoming somewhat isolated from American culture for a period of time. At times the exchanges between him and girlfriend Saxony were rather corny, almost derivative of an 80’s TV movie (the novel was published in 1980). Same goes for some of Thomas’s internal dialogue. For example, here’s a passage where he fantasizes about rescuing a roped and naked Anna from a basement (which is also corny in itself):
The plywood door explodes and I come flying in with two Bruce Lee kung-fu chains whirling around my hands like airplane propellers.
My first thought, other than “man, this is hokey-ass”, was “dude, those things are called numchuks”.
Despite all this, I enjoyed The Land of Laughs, but I wasn’t totally wowed by it. If you’re interested in fantasy-realism, I’d recommend Peter S. Beagle’s A Fine and Private Place or Jack Finney’s Time and Again first.