Book written by Jonathan Carroll
I have not written much at all about one characteristic of art that I find particularly interesting: its ability to capture within a new work all that has gone before. I don’t mean that self-referential wink when a movie shows a fight sequence in slow motion or when a poem discards punctuation like so much packing popcorn. Here, I am thinking of a movie like The Godfather which seems to pulse with the entire history of Hollywood, let alone Shakespeare.
The history of long form storytelling in film is just pushing a century, which almost seems manageable to comprehend. The short hand used by directors has certainly evolved, but it remains possible to sit in a movie-plex and have the images teach you something about all the art that went before- at least when the art on the wall is made by people who know their history and appreciate it.
I don’t know if this embedded history counts as subtext, but it surely imparts additional meaning when handled well. For me, when I read Carroll, I feel as though I am looking back at the entire history of fiction. (Note that history is only a couple centuries longer than that for cinema.)
That is not to say that you get a history lesson when reading Sleeping in Flame– far from it. The magic that he weaves feels like a natural progression from Daniel Defoe through Charles Dickens and on through James Branch Cabell.
Art is always
influenced by what came before. Whatever the craft, it developed its techniques long before any of us entered the scene. As an artist, you might break with the past or embrace it, but both are responses to precursors. The more difficult trick is to absorb those predecessors and then chart a new course. Like all trailblazing, you will lose your followers if you can’t leave them breadcrumbs marking the new way.
Read any of the stories in The Panic Hand. They’re a bit like Umberto Eco or Bernard Malamud with the gloves taken off, which is really saying something. It’s like he has taken the best of American writing and embedded it in the best bits of those European stories that were assigned in World Lit I and II.
More than that, Malamud, Eco, and Carroll may move beyond hard reality, but they never leave behind the humanity of their characters. Those well-drawn portraits allow their work to be about this world as we know it, no matter how far afield they may wander from realism.
Isn’t that what we want from our art? That ability to walk a tightrope over previously un-imagined dangers, showing us that miracles are possible. Perhaps more that they are possible. We can co-exist with the strange and, maybe, just maybe, find the marvelous within the strange.
What’s it all about?
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 199 more to go.
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