A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #28:-
THE WOODEN SEA
Gollancz hb, 247pp, £16.99
For Frannie McCabe, Police Chief of Crane’s View, the strangeness begins when a dog he’s already left for dead and buried turns up alive and well in the boot of his car and smelling of something nicer than roses. Next thing his seventeen-year-old self shows up in the middle of the night and starts telling him what a mess he’s made of his life, from which point on things steadily get weirder, until Frannie’s left feeling that he’s stepped into a painting by Salvador Dali. The strings are being pulled by aliens, and the fate of the universe itself hinges on the actions of one Frannie McCabe.
Regular readers of TTA will know that I’m a big admirer of Jonathan Carroll, but every so often he delivers a book that I’m uncomfortable with, one where the metaphysics swamps the human story, and this is one of those. Often, like From the Teeth of Angels, they’re the very books that other readers see as best demonstrating his genius.
Plotwise this reads like a hybrid of Back to the Future and Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, with God thrown in to get the machine up and running. Like Winston Niles Rumfoord, Frannie McCabe has come unstuck in time, though the mechanism by which this is achieved alters at the author’s whim. First up he meets his seventeen-year-old self. Then he opens the door and steps out into the 1960s, getting to chat with his old man Future style and set pater’s mind at rest about a few things. After that he’s pulled forward into the body of his ninety-year-old self, but with none of that worthy’s memories, and so has to make sense of a strange future world. Finally, with our hero on his last legs, a boy scout troop of young McCabes steps in to help him out. And, as at the conclusion of Titan, Carroll presents us with a mind boggling concept at the back of it all, but whereas Vonnegut’s offering was a witty and ironic comment on the absurdity of life as we know it, Carroll seems to intend his to be taken seriously, the metaphysical raison d’être for all that takes place.
One of Carroll’s great strengths as a writer is that he takes time to create a believable reality before tampering with its structure, but with this book we’re in The Twilight Zone by page twenty (you could of course argue that the characters have already been introduced in Carroll’s two previous novels). In the promotional material much is made of the different outlooks of a seventeen-year-old and his mature self, but in the book this intriguing idea is simply a throwaway piece of invention, good for a few pages chat about what type of women McCabe Sr and Jr each prefer and how they take their coffee, but not a lot more than that. Most of the really good ideas in this book, the ones that would’ve made a cracking novel if they had been explored in any depth, are abandoned along the way as we race to the ending. Characterisation throughout seems perfunctory, so that it becomes hard to actually care what happens to these people as the shit keeps on keeping on. For all that Carroll continually ups the stakes you’re left with the impression that from the viewpoint of the individuals involved it all remains academic. And at the end we’re no further forward, just left clutching at the hint of yet more to come. This is a ramshackle novel from a writer capable of much better, one for whom sophistication is usually a defining quality. His method here seems to be to throw as much oddness as he can at the page in the hope that some of it will stick. Unfortunately it all sticks, resulting in a right old mess.
Anyone familiar with Carroll’s work is going to want to read this book, and never mind what any smart aleck reviewer has to say. Certainly I would. But for those who haven’t yet tried him out, please don’t start here.