The Wooden Sea
by Jonathan Carroll
Published by Tor Books
304 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Sailing Against the Grain
Reviewed by David Dalgleish
"There are no rules, man. Get used to it." So says one character to another in The Wooden Sea, but it might as well be the author admonishing the reader. There are no rules in Jonathan Carroll's new novel: the book is a bemusing, fascinating succession of surprises, mysteries, misdirections and reversals. It doesn't tread the well-worn paths followed by most fiction, opting instead to light out for new territory. The joy of reading it is the joy of discovery; the risk of reading it is the risk of becoming lost.
There are signposts which might help us find our way. Aspects of The Wooden Sea recall familiar genres, specific writers. There are science fictional elements: time travel, scenes set in the near future, maybe even aliens. A tense gunpoint confrontation and hints of a conspiracy by a multinational pharmaceutical company could, in another context, belong to a standard-issue thriller. The mutable nature of reality and the down-to-earth approach to cosmic revelations recall the works of Philip K. Dick. The offbeat marriage of spiritual matters and human foibles made me think, at times, of the crackpot tales of R. A. Lafferty. There are other signposts, too -- but they are all misleading. The blender of Carroll's imagination synthesizes all these elements to create a unique cocktail, invigorating and intoxicating, which tastes like nothing else. It is best to just drink it straight and not worry about where the ingredients come from.
The hero and narrator of The Wooden Sea is Frannie McCabe, the middle-aged chief of police in Crane's View, a small town in New York State. Readers of Carroll's previous two novels will recognize both Frannie and Crane's View. The town and its citizens feature prominently in Kissing the Beehive and The Marriage of Sticks and Frannie has a supporting role in both books. He is a bluff, opinionated, goodhearted man, enjoying his second marriage, on good terms with his stepdaughter. In his words: "I was in a place in my own [life] where I didn't envy anyone anything."
Frannie is a plain-speaking kind of guy, full of warmth and humor. His narration is peppered with slang, swearing, exclamations, opinions, jokes. He uses analogies and topical allusions which you or I might use in conversation. His words seem offhand, unrehearsed and not everything he says is all that funny or insightful. He is no genius, but he is a clever, self-aware, curious individual, someone you would be happy to chat with in a bar. The novel is, as a result, eminently readable and engaging. We are not kept at arm's length; rather, we are embraced. Indeed, the novel seems almost too friendly, too chatty -- it could be taken as no more than a pleasant diversion. This would be a mistake: despite his seemingly lighthearted tone, Carroll is not a frivolous writer.
It all begins innocuously enough, with the discovery of a scruffy three-legged dog called Old Vertue who Frannie takes under his wing. The dog dies two pages later. Strange things soon start happening. A married couple, longtime residents of Crane's View, mysteriously disappear, and Frannie finds an odd many-colored feather at their house. When Frannie buries Old Vertue in the woods, he digs up a peculiar bone from the earth, and the dead dog soon reappears in the trunk of his car. His stepdaughter gets a tattoo resembling the many-colored feather, which she has never seen. Then Frannie meets a man named Astopel, who may be responsible for some or all of these occurrences and who forces Frannie to participate in a baffling god-game. Astopel can orchestrate the impossible: he projects Frannie into the future, brings his teenaged self into the present. He undermines all of Frannie's preconceptions.
Frannie's initial happiness is thus but the prelude to a fall. He tells a friend that he's "never loved anything enough to worry about losing it," but this assertion will be tested in an extraordinary manner. The stakes escalate as the story progresses, until Frannie is making decisions which could damn or redeem the lives of those around him and Carroll is telling us things we might not want to hear about the traps of identity, the implacable nature of fate and the difficulties inherent in trying to know ourselves fully.
At times there is a sense that the author is repeating himself in The Wooden Sea. It is full of the things he loves, things which recur throughout his novels. These include the city of Vienna, literary quotations, foreign proverbs, odd names and dogs, to name only a few. People and concepts are imported from his other novels as well. Frannie's teenaged self, for instance, is more or less identical to Bobby Hanley, a delinquent young man in one of Carroll's earliest novels, Voice of our Shadow. But the old dog is still capable of new tricks -- even the reader familiar with Carroll's entire oeuvre will be caught off-guard now and then. The Wooden Sea is, so to speak, predictable only in its unpredictability.
When the book is done, the reader is left with one urgent question: what the hell actually happened? Those who prefer neat wrap-ups would do well to look elsewhere. Carroll is notorious for his problematic endings and even those who love his work tend to find his conclusions unsatisfying. Most of The Wooden Sea is filtered through Frannie's consciousness and he is as confused as we are. The ending does provide evidence that Frannie's story is not meant to be understood as a fabrication or delusion. However, his understanding of his circumstances is based mostly on conversations with Astopel, the enigmatic figure whose presence inflects all that happens. Is he God, the devil, an alien, something else? Is he telling the truth? By the end, it seems clear that he is not in fact telling the whole truth and it's anyone's guess whether anything he says can be trusted. This leaves the reader knowing nothing for certain and the story seems to be littered with red herrings, irrelevances and loose ends -- but when nothing has a definite meaning, everything has a potential meaning.
The very title of the book alludes to its lack of closure. Several times during the story, the following riddle is asked: "How do you row a boat across a wooden sea?" The solution to this riddle is presented as crucial, yet we are never vouchsafed a straightforward answer. This will doubtless frustrate some readers. But, in the context of the novel, the question about the wooden sea is simply a rephrasing of the question which Carroll asks, one way or another, in all of his works: how should we live our lives? And his novel, like life, refutes simple understanding. As Astopel tells Frannie: "You keep looking for easy answers, Mr. McCabe. Unfortunately there are none. Perhaps you should find a better way of looking." The task Carroll sets himself in The Wooden Sea is to find a better way of looking at things. In doing so, he opens our eyes for us. There are no easy answers here, but there are many difficult questions. These are, in the final reckoning, much more valuable. | April 2001
David Dalgleish is a Montreal-based writer. He writes film reviews online at subjective.freeservers.com.