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From the Teeth of Angels, Jonathan Carroll

Long time readers of my commentaries know of my fondness for Jonathan Carroll. He’s one of the authors who I try to collect in first edition hardbacks, and I’ve even written an article in which I attempted to critically assay his entire ouvre. So when I say I enjoyed Carroll’s latest, no one is surprised.

Trying to describe why I like Carroll’s writing, however, I find myself somewhat tongue-tied. I tried to pinpoint in my article, “The Importance of Details,” as a level of description that he perfectly captures, just the right amount of intimate knowledge of his characters that draws a reader in. Sometimes these details are extraordinary, sometimes mundane, but they are never uninteresting.

Thinking about it, I realize that I did leave something out of the article that explains a large part of the draw of his novels for myself. I guess I thought it obvious in context, yet I should explicitly state it–Carroll’s novels are fantasies that have a basis in reality. Unlike some fantasy novels whose entire purpose is action/adventure, Carroll’s stories are serious studies into the nature of being human through the analogy of the fantastic. The difference is like comparing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to something like “Bladerunner.” While both are well-made films starring Harrison Ford jumping about, one is simply a fun-filled rollercoaster, while the other asks “what is it to be human?” Only one truly lingers in the mind’s eye.

From the Teeth of Angels is the last (supposedly) of the interconnected novels that began with Bones of the Moon, and it shows its thematic basis a little more so than others, as if Carroll was dashing this one off without veiling his purpose as much as he did in other books. It just doesn’t take very long for you to figure out that From the Teeth of Angels is about Death. Carroll has side-swiped the issue in other books (specifically, Philip Strayhorn’s suicide in A Child Across the Sky), but herein he tackles it headon. The premise is simple and silly out of context–what if you could ask questions of Death, yet suffer consequences if you don’t understand the answers? A bizarre concept, yet Carroll makes it work because you believe in his characters, and once you believe in them, you believe in what is happening to them.

This got me to thinking about themes. What are the different ideas associated with the “Rondua” books? From the Teeth of Angels can only be about Death–it permeates the book. Bones of the Moon is about Guilt, I believe, specifically the guilt of a terminated relationship (in the extreme case there of an abortion). After Silence is about Trust, although it could be about Time as well. I think Trust because of the opening with the cartoonist wondering about his new girlfriend, and trying to gain the trust of her young son. The ending throws that theme off just slightly. Outside the Dog Museum, probably my pick for the worst of the lot, is about Glory. Carroll tries hard to portray the search for wonder, but when he separates it from conflict, it doesn’t work quite as well. I’m not sure about Sleeping in Flame, Black Cocktail or A Child Across the Sky. I’ll have to think on them. Perhaps it’s time to write another article?

[Finished 31 May 1994]


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First Impressions Copyright © 2016 by Glen Engel-Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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