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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Wooden Sea

by
Jonathan Carroll


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Wooden Sea



Title: The Wooden Sea
Author: Jonathan Carroll
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 302 pages
Availability: The Wooden Sea - US
The Wooden Sea - UK
The Wooden Sea - Canada
L'Aube du huitième jour - France
Das hölzerne Meer - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

C : lots of hokum, little payoff

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A 2/12/2003 Dietmar Dath
The New Yorker . 14/5/2001 .
The NY Times Book Rev. A 11/2/2001 Alan Cheuse
Publishers Weekly A- 8/1/2001 .


  From the Reviews:
  • "Man muß das alles überhaupt nicht so sehen, man kann Hunde, besonders Pitbulls, sogar recht gräßlich finden, und diesen fabelhaften Roman trotzdem lieben -- der Carrollsche Hund ist nämlich nichts anderes als der Benjaminsche Engel der Geschichte" - Dietmar Dath, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(A) quirky piece of intelligent pop that is also surprisingly moving." - The New Yorker

  • "In The Wooden Sea, Carroll confounds the genre-rigid standards of most literary criticism, crossing from fantasy to psychological thriller to science fiction as easily as Frannie ventures back and forth in time. In the end, whether what happens in this novel is mischief or metaphysics doesn't really matter. What does is that Carroll turns them both into his own distinctive kind of intelligent entertainment." - Alan Cheuse, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Although the story's resolution is weaker than its buildup, this wonderfully offbeat novel will further augment Carroll's growing reputation as the pop writer's pop writer." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jonathan Carroll is a writer with some talent. Jonathan Carroll is a writer with considerable ambition. Unfortunately, his talent doesn't match his ambition -- at least not in his disappointing novel, The Wooden Sea. Here ambition so far outshoots talent that it is almost embarrassing.
       Jonathan Carroll does certain things well. Small-town everyday scenes and the melancholy musings of his slightly jaded but decent-hearted main characters especially. In this book that basically means narrator Frannie McCabe, a no-good bully as a kid ("I was dangerously bad news") who finally saw the light and eventually even became chief of police in almost bucolic Crane's View, New York. He's a good guy, and he watches over his town and he does what he can to help folks out. He's got a nice gal, Magda, and a stepdaughter who he nicknames "Fade" ("a strange girl who works hard at remaining invisible").
       Frannie is the one who tells the story -- most of it, anyway. And when he is talking about how he turned his life around -- with not a note of self-righteousness -- and how he philosophically deals with those around him the book is pretty good. Carroll doesn't develop his characters as carefully and well as he should, lazily using many of them without making their actions seem believable. But enough scenes convince -- he could always sketch a decent picture, capture a moment -- to make these parts of some interest. The book is too obviously populated, with the predictable quirky town characters, but even those one can accept.
       Until, that is, one comes to Carroll's other stock-in-trade: the strange goings-on.
       That's the other half of the Carroll-equation. God forbid he'd write a book firmly anchored in reality (since realism is the one thing he can do). No, Carroll like to take flights of fancy. So there is the obligatory supernatural stuff. Superduper supernatural stuff.
       In The Wooden Sea it begins with the three and a half-legged, one-eyed dog, Old Vertue. Three and a half-legged ! One-eyed ! The quaintly misspelt name ! That's stuff that is already hard to get away with. But Carroll might, one imagines. Indeed, it looks promising when he clears the canine from the scene as Old Vertue promptly dies.
       Frannie buries him. (That's just the kind of guy he is.) But would that it were that easy. And we should know better: Carroll isn't going to introduce a three and a half-legged, one-eyed dog with such a quaint name just to quickly dispose of him. Old Vertue -- surprise ! -- reappears. And it goes downhill from there.
       Other weird things happen. There's a fantastic feather. Some strange goings-on in town -- disappearances and deaths. The deaths, especially, are problematic. Not quite all of the vertuous kind, but with their own little twists.
       And then it gets strange.
       Now, a little mystery and supernatural hocus pocus B.S. are fine. And, if there's adequate explanation and elaboration, an author can get away with a lot -- as Michel Houellebecq does in his similarly ambitious (and nutty) novel, The Elementary Particles (UK title: Atomised).
       We don't want to give away too much of what Carroll does -- not that it would really spoil anything, since Carroll doesn't seem to know what he is doing -- but the books really sets its sights high. Frannie has to save the universe (not just the world, the whole damn universe). God is somewhere out there. As are other ... beings. To confuse matters there is also considerable time-travel, and readers wind up seeing double a lot.
       These are all things one can do in a novel. Sometimes one can even get away with them. But you have to do it better than Carroll, who just seems to be tossing out inane plot twists and jumps here. He doesn't help matters by making split-personality Frannie incredibly annoying when confronted with the unusual. Impatient Frannie doesn't carefully try to figure things out. He just jumps in, without thinking. Posing dumb questions and doing dumb things.
       The book veers in a number of directions. Frannie has several options as to how to go about trying to save the universe. Carroll doesn't seem to like any of them (neither did we), as he tries one, gets bored with it, and then tries something completely different.
       It's a dizzying book -- and not just because of the double-vision. Carroll juggles so many different ideas (from futuristic Vienna to hibernating deities to other selves) that none of them get the attention they deserve. Too many are indifferently disposed of.
       Early on philosophical Frannie says wise things about marriage. His example is a different one, but the conclusion is apropos: "Sometimes you end up with a toilet so full neither of you can flush it." Indeed, that is what reader and author find themselves with, as they peer into pages, turning them in vain. There's a mad vortex here, and everything is aswirl, but it ain't going nowhere. Not even, mercifully, down the drain.
       Carroll seems to be aware of the dilemma he has wrought here. Frannie, like the reader, remains essentially clueless. That is certainly part of Carroll's point. It is, however, not a very satisfying one.
       There is only so much bafflement readers want in their books. The progression in the book is a frustrating one. Early on a friend tells Frannie:

You want clear answers where there are none. What you have to do is create a real question and put it honestly in your heart. Then go looking for a clear answer. (p.41)
       This sounds reasonable enough, and one hopes that Frannie will take it to heart. But another 60 pages later Frannie is involved in this exchange:
    "This is completely crazy."
    "Hopefully it will eventually make sense to you." (p.104)
       One senses that Carroll was starting to lose his bearings. A bit farther on it gets worse:
    "This is insane ! How am I supposed to know what to do if the rules keep changing ?"
    "There are no rules, man. Get used to it." (p. 143)
       Authors can play by any rules they want to -- including having no rules. But it's a tough sell, and Carroll seems as confused as his readers are likely to be. Pretty soon Carroll is waving the white flag of surrender. All he can acknowledge (through Frannie) is:
I didn't have a solution but I had to admire the enormity of the problem. (p.237)
       And at least he sums the whole thing up perfectly near the end:
The situation was so surreal that it should have been funny but it was too late for that. (p 272)
       Too late indeed. The boat sailed long ago -- across the wooden sea. Ah, yes, the mysterious wooden sea. It's a decent touch, typical Carroll (though he really should stop having to explain his inventive titles in the books themselves). But it's only a drop in a big wooden ocean.
       Carroll writes decently enough much of the time. He's a bit lazy here: the characterization is weaker than in many of his other novels, and a lot of the homespun wisdom is something of a stretch. The book is a quick read -- which, given how much is stuffed into it, probably isn't of much help. The story deserves more space than he gives it.
       As is the story doesn't work. It's inane hooey that doesn't gel. Ambition got the better of Carroll, and he has fallen fairly flat on his face. We're not much for superstition, but one might note that this is Carroll's thirteenth book ..... A disappointment.

       Carroll has lots of fans. (You might not be able to tell from our review, but we are among them: we've read (though not reviewed) all of his titles, and enjoyed a fair number of them.) He's long been a sort of cult favourite, popular in Britain and continental Europe but never really catching on in the United States. But even in the US he has his longtime supporters -- Stephen King prominent among them.
       The American hardcover edition of The Wooden Sea comes with a half-dozen blurbs -- pardon: words of "heartfelt praise for Jonathan Carroll". Among the comments: Jonathan Lethem calls him "a master of sunlit surrealism" and says that: "The Wooden Sea is one of his funniest, strangest, and most melancholy offerings." Katherine Dunn says: "It's gorgeously imagined and the style is impressive." And Stewart O'Nan writes that: "In this marvelous, tricky novel" Carroll leads "his characters and readers though a loopy funhouse, complete with mind-bending time travel and a triple-edged mirror maze."
       And Stephen King suggests:
If you've never read this wonderful fantasist, buy this book. You'll stay up all night and thank me in the morning.
       (Shockingly the identical blurb (which also compares Carroll to Hitchcock and Jim Carrey) also appears on Carroll's previous book, The Marriage of Sticks. It remains unclear which of Carroll's books King is actually endorsing -- or whether he is simply summarily endorsing them all with this one general recommendation.)
       Ah, yes: publicity. Gotta love it.
       But it's not just the blurbers-for-hire that sing the book's praises. Although perpetually under-reviewed and ignored (in the United States), this book did get a splashy and very favourable review in The New York Times Book Review (see review summaries). And Publishers Weekly generously (though to our minds insanely) suggested that this book combines "George Perec's pleasure in puzzles and Philip Dick's interest in metaphysics".
       So maybe readers should try it for themselves. Certainly you should be aware that there are a multitude of opinions regarding the book. But if you do read it, remember: we did warn you.

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Links:

The Wooden Sea: Reviews: Jonathan Carroll:
  • The Official Jonathan Carroll site. An exemplary author site, highly recommended.
  • A Japanese Jonathan Carroll site.
  • Some German information on Carroll.
  • Interview at RainTaxi
Other books by Jonathan Carroll under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Jonathan Carroll was born in 1949. He graduated from Rutgers University and the University of Virginia, and has lived most his life in Vienna, Austria, where he teaches at the American International School.

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