Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fantasy Masterworks #25: Jonathan Carroll, Voice of Our Shadow

Fantasy is a very tricky word to define.  For some, "fantasy" may  be interpreted as being other places, other times, anything "other" than right here in a GPS-searchable world.  Secondary world creations, whether they be epic or more personal in scope, fall under this label for fantasy.  For others, "fantasy" may be an alienation of the senses, a vague, creeping belief that something is not "right" and that "odd" and "weird" things may be taking shape.  This definition, related to the newer horror category, is exemplified in works such as William Hope Hodgson's The House on the Borderland and Other Novels, already reviewed as part of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series.

But there are other definitions of what constitutes "fantasy."  In some works, the "fantasy" is a trick of the mind, overlapped with the juxtaposition of the mundane, expected events with the unnatural, both "real" (in the mind of the characters, at least) and unreal alike.  Under this last category may fall works that are sometimes labeled as "magical realism," where a Buendia doing her laundry may be assumed into Heaven just as the Virgin Mary was reportedly to have done upon her death.  So too can the works of American writer Jonathan Carroll be placed here.

Voice of Our Shadow (1983) is Carroll's second novel (his first, The Land of Laughs (1980), also is part of the Fantasy Masterworks series).  It is perhaps the shortest of the books that appear in the Fantasy Masterworks list, clocking in at around 65,000 words and 189 pages.  However, despite the relative paucity of words, Voice of Our Shadow might be one of the more emotionally powerful works in the Fantasy Masterworks series.

The story begins with the narrator, Joe Lennox, recounting his life growing up in New York.  As Joe tells of his upbringing and of his older brother, Ross, it becomes apparent that certain things are not right in his life:

I remember all this because some time ago I woke up in the middle of the night after having had one of those remarkably clear dreams; the kind where everything you experience is in such cold, clear light that you feel out of place in the real world once you wake up.  Anyway, my dream took place in his old room, and when I came awake, I grabbed a pencil and paper and wrote down a list of all the things I'd seen.

If a boy's room is an out-of-focus picture of what he'll later turn out to be in life, Ross would have antique dealer?  An eccentric?  Something unforeseeable but very special, I think.  What I remember best was lying on his bed (whenever he'd permit me in the room - I had to knock before I entered) and letting my eyes run over his shelves and walls and things.  Feeling as if I were in some land or on a planet that was impossibly far from our house, from my life.  And when I'd seen everything for the hundredth time, I would look at Ross and be delighted that however foreign or strange or cruel, he was my brother and we shared a house, a name, our blood (p. 8)
Reading between the lines here, there is a sense that Joe is unhappy, that his dreams are haunting him, and that something about his older brother still troubles him after a span of a few decades.  This vague sense of discomfort and guilt is later revealed when Joe discusses his brother's death by accident and his own role in it.  However, this is not the central theme of the novel, or rather it's not central in the way one might expect.

Joe goes on to become a writer, making a living off of a story he pens about his brother and him, a story that is at odds with the actual occurrences.  Uneasy, Joe leaves his native New York and moves to Vienna, where he makes the acquaintance of a married couple, India and Paul Tate.  India is an artist and Paul is a magician of some renown.  The three become very close until India and Joe betray Paul's trust, leading afterward to Paul's death.

Up to this point, Carroll's story seems to be that which can be found in a typical realist novel.  But it is with Paul's death that India and Joe discover that the dead, especially the dead who are aware of their being betrayed in life by the living, do not necessarily rest easy.  It is in this second half of the novel that the story turns on a dime, suddenly becoming a terrifying tale of guilt, recriminations, and spooky fantasies of the mind and of apparent reality.  Readers familiar with Carroll's other novels will recognize this as being a staple of his writing, but here, this switching between the mundane and the fantastic occurs so abruptly that it can temporarily jolt the reader out of his/her connection with the unfolding story.

Carroll's prose for the most part is quiet and yet absorbing.  Joe is not the most trustworthy of narrators, prone to find other explanations for his actions than what the reader eventually will manage to piece together.  It is Joe's fantasies about himself in relation to both his dead older brother and to the now-dead Paul that give this tale a power beyond that of a spooky haunting.  Despite the abruptness of certain plot advancements, Carroll does manage to give the final plot twist a plausible and powerful conclusion, one that can alter how the reader views the work as a whole.

Despite liking this short novel, I would have to question why Voice of Our Shadow is included as a "Masterwork", when several of the novels that followed after this show Carroll continuing to develop the narrative approaches that he first began to refine in his first two novels.  Voice of Our Shadow is not as emotionally terrifying as his first, The Land of Laughs, nor does it contain the same quality of prose, pacing, and characterizations that are found in the novels that follow.  If anything, Voice of Our Shadow is a pleasant enough story that only manages to reveal glimpses of the talent that Carroll managed to reveal more fully in his later novels.  It is a minor work, albeit a minor work of an outstanding writer, and while it is well worth reading, it just is not as masterful of a work as are the works that succeeded it.


  1. Hey, just tuning in to say that this blog is a great idea, and I'll be following it! I've put a post about it on my blog.

    Keep up the good job!

  2. Loving the new blog. I've read a few of the Masterwork series and have several more on the "to be read" pile.

    Out of interst, are there plans to link the reviews to the series indexes?

  3. Thanks for the compliments!

    Uncertain if the reviews will be linked to the series indices, but I would like for that to happen, because it would give the clearest picture of what's been reviewed and what still remains to be reviewed. I do have something like this linked to in the sidebar of my main blog.