White Apples

by Jonathan Carroll

Published by Tor Books

304 pages, 2002






Genre Without Boundaries

Reviewed by gabe chouinard


Oh, the sheer joy in finding a poignant, engrossing novel... the incomparable soaring of the heart that accompanies an all-night reading session, when it's quiet and still and the rustle of the pages are like a whisper of desire, beckoning you onward into the wee hours of the morning. A sensual pleasure for a reader.

It's been a long time since I've felt that joy burning inside, and praise to Jonathan Carroll for bringing the feeling back.

As I write this, I've been awake for 33 hours and the streams and strands of Carroll's latest novel, White Apples, still swim through my head like glimmering beads of thought. I find myself paging through the book, stopping at a random passage or a favorite line -- "She was small and had the thin carnal face of a naughty angel." -- to savor again the tale of Vincent Ettrich and his many loves.

Ettrich is a successful advertising man who is always "on," always at the top of his game... and he is a man who loves women. Everything about them, from the curves of their bodies to the fascinating ways in which they speak and gesture. Vincent Ettrich is a philanderer, a lover and not a fighter, a complex and complicated man that just happens to have left his wife and children for his on-again, off-again lover Isabelle Neuker. There are a few complications: Ettrich is dead, and Isabelle has brought him back from death to teach his unborn son, Anjo, things that only Vincent knows... and the fate of the universe rests in the balance, natch.

That, of course, is just the start. White Apples is a mosaic novel, with patterns emerging throughout the course of reading, doubling back upon itself in a patchwork of time and space and... and... other. Looking for a linear plotline? Remember, it isn't the destination that matters; it's how you get there and what you learn along the way.

White Apples showcases Carroll at his poetic, accomplished best, in complete control of a multilayered and textured novel that is simultaneously more ambitious, yet more intimate than anything he's written before. In fact, White Apples is a study in contrasts, from the difference between life and death (not what you think either) to the difference between reality and the real reality. It grips with a cold dark hand that warms briefly with humor then passes on into bleakness once again. It manages to exist somewhere between entertaining and thrilling, yet it is also dark and disturbing. Carroll surprises us with a breakneck pace that races from episode to episode, in a series of surreal, dreamlike not-quite-narratives that nonetheless weave a tapestry of story that is taunt and compelling.

Filled with metaphor that becomes reality in the bizarre afterworld of afterlife, and described in lush, delicious detail,White Apples is a rich and compelling read:

The cigarette tasted awful. Why did people like these repulsive things? She had started smoking only for Ettrich's sake, and then found herself doing it more out of habit than for any other reason. She quickly rolled down the window and tossed it out. But she was so nervous just sitting there helplessly watching that she had to do something with her hands. Pulling the cigarette lighter out of its socket on the dashboard, she bit into it. Now that tasted a lot better than cigarettes. Coco sat there more or less contentedly eating the still-warm object while watching the beautiful menacing light move over Vincent's car. The sound of plastic and metal being crunched and chewed was surprisingly loud in the small cockpit of the Austin-Healey.

What is most important, though, is the underlying capital-T-Truth that cuts a current through Vincent's tale. I find it fascinating that many people will pass this off as "just another fantasy" novel, which couldn't be further from the truth. Carroll is a True fantasist (note the cap!), using the tropes of fantasy not as escape, but as a well-honed razor to peel back the layers of reality in order to expose the secretive, hidden bits of humanity beneath. And when Carroll is at work, no other author comes close to his skill.

White Apples may be a hard story to wrap your mind around, and a hard story to wrap around your finger, but you don't really read White Apples; you experience it.

For too long, Jonathan Carroll has existed at the outskirts of mainstream literature, somewhere in the shady boundary between genre and non-genre. Science fiction fans have claimed him as one of their own, yet he is consistently found in the literature section in bookstores. So where does Carroll belong? Where does White Apples belong?

It's a question that should be left dangling, unanswered and ignored. Jonathan Carroll is a fine author who doesn't need a category, who refuses to be neatly packaged and placed into a well-lighted and -labeled niche. Does it matter what genre White Apples belongs to? No. Whether you read the novel as straight literature or as fantasy-cum-magic realism, it's a wonderful tale that challenges preconceived notions and demands more of its readers than 90 per cent of its competition, regardless of genre.

Read White Apples. You've earned it. | October 2002


gabe chouinard is a writer, editor and critic. His online home is at http://hypermode.blogspot.com while his real home is outside America's Twin Cities. His wife and two daughters are beautiful.