I'm going to let you in on one of the big secrets. But you have to promise
not to tell.
You may think you know secrets. You may know who shot Kennedy, or what happened
to Jimmy Hoffa, or just what that stuff in the center of Twinkies really is.
But you don't know anything, not really. Not unless you know one of the writer's
Writers are, by nature, fairly secretive people. We have to be. We scribble
nonsense onto paper, or hammer away at word processors, filling up white space
with little black marks, and some time later, someone somewhere decides that
it's art. Or at the very least, not entirely crap. But it's really just marks
Writers are also liars. Huge liars, to tell the truth. We make things up as
a matter of course, and in time it becomes habit. As Aristotle said, habit leads
to character, so in the end we all become inveterate liars. We claim access
to secret processes to which the reader is not privy, and quote from dead Greek
guys to make ourselves sound smart. If pressed on whence an idea comes, or what
a symbol really means, we rattle off some high sounding pseudo-intellectual
screed, and hope that no one catches on to the truth. If we're lucky, no one
Writers, finally, keep the best stuff to themselves. Not their own stuff; we
push our best stuff out the door as quick as it comes, hoping to maintain what
prestige we have. No, we keep the best of other people's stuff. Not intentionally,
you understand, it just seems to happen that way.
Here, then, is one of the big secrets: There is a writer out there, of whom
you very likely have never heard, who is better than all of us. Better than
most of us, at any rate, and giving the rest a run for their money. He is little
known in his native land, but like washed up American actors and Abba he is
huge in Europe. And his name is Jonathan Carroll.
I gave the impression when I began this tirade that this was to be a review.
But I told you that writers are liars, and you should have listened. I'm not
going to review Jonathan Carroll's Sleeping in Flame, primarily because
I wouldn't know where to start.
Once upon a time I wanted to be an academic. I was going to get a doctorate
in American Literature, or English Literature, or Literature of some kind at
any rate, and devote myself to spreading the word around the intelligentsia
about all the good things they'd never seen. Or at least the things they never
talked about in college lectures and scholarly reviews. In the end, I realized
that my sole contribution to the study of literature, if I were to follow that
course, could be summed up in a single sentence: "You should read this,
it's really good." After brief reflection, I came to understand that this
would make for a somewhat paltry and repetitive career, and went off to work
in a bakery instead.
Now, years later, I'm here again at the same point. I could, if I weren't
careful, fall into the standard writer trick, and dazzle you with big words
and lofty concepts. I could tell you about Carroll's characters, like the California
shaman, who loves sandwiches, his pig, and teaching people to fly (though not
necessarily in that order). I could mention the spellbinding way that Carroll
weaves characters and plots effortlessly through each of his books, such that
it becomes difficult to tell where one leaves off and the next begins. I might
go on about his mastery of the language, how his prose reads like poetry, never
a sentence or word out of place.
But I won't. It wouldn't be fair. When I first read Carroll, I didn't have
anyone holding my hand. I dove in the deep end by myself, leaving my water wings
at the side of the pool, and didn't come up for air until I was done. When I
had finished, I rushed out to get everything he had written, and haunted the
bookshelves regularly until each new volume was printed.
The bad news is that, for some reason, very few people read Carroll in America.
Oh, a great many writers do, and critics, and academics, but very few regular
people. The good news is that (1) one of Carroll's first, and best books is
still in print from Vintage (it's called, if you hadn't guessed, Sleeping
in Flame) and (2) that Carroll has a new publisher, Tor, who is doing their
level best to get him the exposure and respect he deserves.
That's the big secret, laid out for you. Carroll is good, and sooner than later
everyone will know it. Get in on the secret now, and like the rest of us you
can gloat when everyone else finally realizes the truth.