by Jonathan Carroll
“The Land of Laughs was lit by eyes that saw the lights that no one’s seen.”
Carroll’s first novel sets the stage for what becomes a kind of trademark later in his career, and his style is tough to explain. The words ‘magic’ and ‘surreal’ come to mind, but generally in Carroll’s stories the operative word would just be ‘real.’ These are real characters, with real emotions, in real situations, and then some kind of craziness skews the reality. A uniting thread of weirdness exists throughout Mr. Carroll’s works, and The Land of Laughs marks ground zero.
An English teacher and his girlfriend travel to a small town to track down information on their deceased favorite author with hopes of obtaining permission from the author’s surviving daughter to write a definitive biography–one writing and the other researching.
Most of this novel plays out as a mystery. Closed-lipped townsfolk alternate between acceptance and rejection of the couple, with the author’s daughter providing the lion’s share of early information and misinformation while the two main characters pry into the author’s life. It’s a quick read, as Carroll seems to have an ability to keep any scene interesting enough to keep the reader motivated. Somewhere around 2/3 of the way through the mystery elements take a back seat as the weird fiction part of Carroll’s expertise takes over. By novel’s end you’ve witnessed the birth of a master fantasist.
A book like this isn’t for everyone, but everyone owes it to themselves to give this author a chance. If you’re a short story reader, a strong suggestion is to dip your toes into his world with his retrospective collection, The Woman Who Married A Cloud. No one writes like him, and his style is undoubtedly effective. The Land of Laughs is part mystery, part romance, part fantasy, and just a little part horror. It’s addictive enough you won’t really want to stop unless you have to.