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The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll (1980) 241 p.


“I can’t remember when I’ve last been so blown away by a fantasy novel,” says the Stephen King blurb on the front cover – which I didn’t actually notice until I’d nearly finished the book, and which is ironic, given I spent most of this book thinking it felt like an early 1980s King novel if King had only had quarter of the talent. The Land of Laughs captures that same King-esque feeling of the homely nostalgic creepiness of early 1980s down-to-earth Americana – when the 1950s were closer to them than the the 1980s are to us, as strange as that sounds. But it doesn’t quite hit the mark. It actually felt a bit like a book written by an outsider trying to describe what America’s like – probably not fair, because although Carroll moved to Austria before ever writing this, he is actually a born and bred New Yorker.

There are other problems. The main character is an unlikeable wanker; I’m usually the first to scoff at people who complain about unlikeable main characters, and in fact I think it’s a sign of intellectual weakness, but the protagonist in The Land of Laughs is specifically a wisecracking cynic, and here’s the thing – if your asshole main character is in that vein, he also need to be self-deprecating. He needs to dish it out to himself as much as he does to others. But Thomas Abbey is a glass-jawed manchild. You can still get away with this if you’re writing a character like, say, David Lurie in Disgrace; but Carroll, like most of us, is no Coetzee, and unless you’re writing a Nobel-worthy work, then yes, your characters do at least have to be somewhat sympathetic. Thomas Abbey is nowhere near as charming or funny as Carroll thinks he is, and after fifty pages I was sick of him.

Which is the third problem: this book is glacially slow. It’s a fantasy – magical realism or urban fantasy or whatever you want to call it – in which Abbey travels to the hometown of his favourite author to write his biography, and slowly realises not everything in this picture-perfect town is quite right. Again, though, there’s a difference between teasing things out slowly (good!) and writing a book which is 80% straight generic fiction but then all the semi-interesting stuff kicks off in the final 70 pages. (Bad!)

Furthermore, the central conceit is much less interesting than it’s built up to be. No spoilers, but… this magical and talented writer used his mysterious talents to create this when he could have created literally anything? Yawn.

I was often irked while reading The Land of Laughs but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a bad book – probably because I may have been irked but, while never engaged, was never too bored either. (And I will grant that the brilliant last few paragraphs very nearly redeemed the whole thing – and displayed a level of restraint I’m surprised Carroll was capable of, after taking us through Abbey’s entitled whingeing for 200+ pages.) I don’t recommend it, I was disappointed by it given the recommendations it has, and I’m not going to seek out any more of Carroll’s work, but… I don’t know, give it a chance if you think it sounds interesting. Clearly a lot of people liked it much more than I did.

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September 2017