After finishing up Russell, I went back to my shelf for more light reading, and grabbed another Gardner book. And didn't read it. Somewhat to my own surprise, I seem to have been temporarily burnt out on light SF. This left me with a bit of a quandary: For whatever reason, the small box of books that I packed up to Detroit was really SF-heavy, but now I was in the mood for something else.
I had about a dozen unread books sitting in front of me, but none of them really looked like what I wanted to read. Although I didn't think much about it at the time, I'm retroactively smug about this problem, as it validates my theory that it's necessary to have at least 100 unread books lying around so that I always have something I want to read.
Fortunately, I'd made an Amazon order not too long ago, in which was contained Jonathan Carroll's Sleeping in Flame . It looked as good as anything there, so I pulled it down. This turned out to be a wonderful idea.
Carroll is one of those fantasists who's gotten gobs of mainstream literary attention -- the main reason I bought this book, in fact, is that I was tired of reading rave reviews in non-genre sources and not having any clue what the guy wrote. I was a bit wary of that whole "mainstream literary" appellation, though -- I despise on principle the notion that once a writer gets good enough, he ceases to be a genre writer and instead writes literary novels.
For this book, though, it's rather more understandable. Sleeping in Flame starts out as a straight mainstream novel: it's set in modern-day Vienna, focuses on relationships, and has not a hint of anything magical about it. And here's the remarkable part: I loved that bit of the novel. I knew (due to an ill-advised skimming of the back cover copy; I wish that publishers would leave off the plot synopses altogether, which is largely why I avoid giving any in my comments) that there was a turn coming which would take the novel into a more fantastic arena, and I actually wished there weren't. I wanted to read the straight literary novel to which this was the beginning.
Because, fundamentally, Carroll is just a damn good writer. And a quotable one, with lots of writerly digressions. I've so far resisted quoting from any of the books I've commented on here, but I couldn't hold back on this one.
It took me less than half a lifetime to realize that regret is one of the few guaranteed certainties. Sooner or later everything is touched by it, despite our naive and senseless hope that just this time we will be spared its cold hand on our heart.
I had always liked blind dates. If nothing else, it was an interesting way of discovering what people thought of you. How often do we have a chance to see what we are in a friend's eyes? On a blind date you're told "You'll love her. I think she's very much your kind of woman." And whether she is or not, you end the evening knowing something new: As far as this friend is concerned, you're the "sexy blond" type. Or a "smoky brunette who has to be convinced kind of guy."
Why did things go wrong? Perhaps because wonderful as it can sometimes be, you can be sure marriage is at all times a quirky, difficult thing to maintain. In certain ways, it is very much like the solid gold family heirloom watch your father gives you for graduation. You love looking at it and owning it, but it isn't like the twenty-dollar liquid-crystal thing made of plastic and rubber that needs no maintenance to keep perfect time.
Every day you have to wind the gold beauty to make it run right, and you have to keep setting it, and you have to take it to the jeweler to be cleaned. ... It is lovely and rare and valuable, but the rubber watch keeps better time with no work at all. The problem with twenty dollar watches is that they all suddenly stop dead at some point. All you can do then is throw them away and buy another.
There are long quiet periods in life that are very much like waiting for a bus on a nice day. You don't mind being there so much because the weather is sunny and nice, and you're in no hurry. But after a while you start looking at your watch because there are more interesting things you could be doing, and it really is time the bus came.
American cities shrug at their brief histories. There are few signs of pride in past tenants or events, notwithstanding the kitschy Disneyland atmosphere of places like "Colonial Williamsburg." It is as if the places are saying no, we're not so old, but who cares? Look how far we have come. Look what we've got now.
What's amazing about this list is that I pulled all of those from the first five pages, and still left out a few choice paragraphs (such as the hilarious Popemobile bit). Like I said: quotable.
Eventually, of course, the book did take a turn into the fantastic, in a way reminiscent of Tim Powers or American Gods. And, despite my wish to keep reading a mainstream book, I wasn't at all bothered by the switch to fantasy -- Carroll handled it well enough that at all times, this was the book I wanted to be reading, not a hypothetical book that went differently. Perhaps I could quibble a bit about the suddenness of the ending, but it'd be a quibble.
In short, I loved this, and have just added Carroll to my "buy entire backlist immediately" list. I really need to quit discovering great writers.