Carroll, Jonathan (2001). The Wooden Sea. New York: Tor.

Reviewed 14 April 2001

Carroll, The Wooden Sea (cover) This is quite an unusual book. One should expect that from Carroll, who has quietly built an exceptional ouvre of work that remains seriously underappreciated in this country. Perhaps that's going to change, though. Something very unusual occurred with this book. It was reviewed positively in the New York Times Book Review. By a non-speculative fiction writer, in the main section of the fiction reviews. Without condescension, or even mention that Tor is a speculative fiction1 imprint.

Carroll works between core speculative fiction and the so-called mainstream. Imperceptive readers—probably including too many reviewers who have never really studied postmodern literature—will call the book "magical realism." Yeah, right. Magical realism with aliens worrying about the end of existence unless the protagonist makes an unspecified, and undefinable, decision.

The Wooden Sea opens with the short-term—seemingly, very short-term—entry of a crippled old dog into Chief of Police Francis (Franny) McCabe's life. Two pages, and perhaps five minutes, later, the dog

… stopped shaking its head and looked up at us. At me. It looked straight at me and winked. I swear to God. The old dog winked at me as if we shared a secret. Then it fell over and died.

As weird as this sounds, it's only the beginning of a long, surrealistic odyssey that Fellini would have envied. Fellini could not have conceived of The Wooden Sea, however, because Carroll is creating a nonnihilistic surrealism that actually has both internal coherence and subtle anchoring in the "real" world outside. Unlike the overblown surrealist and absurdist works of the mid-20th century (which, it appears, are beginning to make a comeback, at least cinematically: Being John Malkovich, The Cell), Carroll actually offers an explanation for the events that, in a sideways fashion, makes sense—and then builds his story around this explanation, or at least something resembling the explanation.

Carroll's work has always been challenging, in a good sense. Unlike the bombast served up by, for example, Jay McInnerny, Tama Janowitz, and Tom Wolfe, it's not a challenge that makes one want to throw the book across the room and read an old Spidey comicbook, but an intriguing challenge that makes one want to dig in a little bit deeper. Without being unfair, Carroll manages to keep the critical piece needed to understand what's going on about five pages beyond where one is at the moment. One of the methods that he uses is a paradoxical narrative voice: a first-person narrative who is doing his best to tell us the truth, but is nonetheless almost completely unreliable. Fran is a police chief who seems to care about doing his job right, implying that he recognizes and appreciates thorough investigation; yet, throughout this book, he wavers between Olympic-caliber conclusion-jumping and complete credulity. This is all presented through deceptively simple prose.

However technically accomplished it may be, surrealism ultimately fails unless it is in service of an appropriate, worthwhile subtext. Carroll has chosen one of the three subtexts that seems to work: the grounding of the POV character's self.2 Francis McCabe must confront both his juvenile-delinquent younger self and his senile older self, simultaneously living through some of his past (and future?) circumstances. This is not just a recasting of Dickens's overblown A Christmas Carol, which is really just a vehicle for some not-very-convincing preaching on the need for charity toward one's fellow man (effectively refuted by Blackadder's Christmas Carol a few years back). Carroll remains concerned with character as theme, although one's immediate focus is on the surrealist/magical realist techniques on display. The magician has successfully preserved a sense of wonder with some distraction so that we don't see him pull the missing card out of his sleeve.

There remains a great deal of other (entertaining and worthwhile) misdirection in this book. For example, one of the questions that Franny must answer concerns the title of the book: How does one row across a wooden sea? The literal answer, coming from "young" Franny, is "with a spoon." This answer is passed off as just crazy, or unexpected. However, that's not consistent with the underlying conceit of the book. Instead, although the characters never learn this, and Carroll never says so explicitly, one rows across a wooden sea by turning the page.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Not really core speculative fiction, nor boring mainstream, this book is a sly, reflexive metafiction. Part of the interest is that Carroll lets the reader write part of the story, but only in the sense of applying the reader's perceptions to a very ambiguous text. Technically, this is a very smooth effort—but far from effortless. My greatest fear is that Carroll's panache in making this look easy will let inexperienced writers think it really is easy. It's not, and for that alone this book should be read carefully…and savored.

1.  I've been using the term "speculative fiction" to describe works that usually get thrown into the "science fiction," "fantasy," "horror," and occasionally "magical realism" publishing categories for over twenty years. Not only is it more inclusive, it's more accurate. There's a lot of "science fiction" out there that has little or nothing to do with science (cf. Star Wars); a fair amount of "fantasy" that has little or nothing to do with the Western tradition of the fantastic (cf. anything based on Dungeons & Dragons); a lot of "horror" in which the only thing horrible is the thought that the author actually got paid for it (cf. just about anything about vampires written since the early 1980s).

2.  For anyone who cares, the other two (for textual works—the rules seem to be significantly looser and in any event different for visual and dramatic works) are the world as hopelessness (although it's dramatic in nature, Beckett's Endgame is a good example), which slides all too easily into nihilism, and the journey into a diseased/defective soul that changes both the traveller(s) and said soul. It's the change in both foci that seems to present the biggest barrier in the latter subtext.
   Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind later.

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