Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?

By David BreithauptDecember 1, 2014

Who Are We? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?

JONATHAN CARROLL IS a stand-alone literary magician whose closest relatives might be Mikhail Bulgakov or Gerard de Nerval. His latest book, Bathing the Lion, was a difficult trick to perform and was five years in the making. Carroll posted an introduction on his Facebook page which described his ordeal. In it he wrote that he thought of his new book as a “…fiery lover, because when it was in a good mood, I liked nothing better than to spend hours rolling around with it. Yet there were just as many times when I wanted to throw the hopeless thing out the nearest window, or wring its neck or simply walk away from it because I’d had enough of its irrational moods and often impossible demands.”

Bathing the Lion is certainly one of Carroll’s more complex works. In it he pursues his usual preoccupations with the mechanisms of the universe. What unseen forces are behind our existence is a frequent obsession in his writing. His characters are often thrust into alternate realities, delving into worlds they never knew existed.

Carroll’s new book continues that venue when a small group of citizens living in a small town in Vermont share the same dream during the same night. In time they discover that they are “mechanics,” former workers whose job it was to repair whatever upheavals happened in the universe. Now they have been “retired” given new lives on earth with the memories of their former existence erased. All of them except one, who was granted retirement with his memory intact.

Baffled by their shared dream they eventually learn of their past resumes as mechanics. The lives they led on earth were planned out in advance according to the wants of the retiree. One mechanic wonders if everything he experienced in his new life had been a fraud, including the love he shared with his spouse and friends. So what happens now when their human life is over? Do they really die? And most importantly, why have they been called out of retirement by this cryptic dream?

Jonathan Carroll began his prolific career with his first published novel in 1980, The Land of Laughs, and continued to create a line of novels which defy categorization. Born into a family with an entertainment background including a mother who was a lyricist and actress on Broadway and a father who wrote scripts (including The Hustler), Carroll grew up no stranger to a variety of storylines. For over thirty years he has astounded his reading audience with his many novels and short stories, never failing to remind us not to take reality for granted. We recently chatted via email across the Atlantic from the Midwest to his home in Vienna, Austria. He spoke of when the magic began and where it has taken him since.

 David Breithaupt: Many of your novels begin with a normal plot line which eventually veers off into an alternate reality. Do you experience these slips in your day to day life such as having a different take on reality that others don’t see?

Jonathan Carroll: I sometimes get the feeling there is only a thin gossamer between our everyday reality and some other much more mysterious one “over there.” We get glimpses of it every once in a while via strange sometimes impossible coincidences, or the behavior of the mad that we happen to witness (you sort of know what they’re doing or saying but not really. Just enough usually to give you the willies). Or synchronicity which seems to happen in my life frequently... I often think of the time in my books when things get strange as that moment in an airplane ride when you’re speeding down the runway and at the split second of liftoff that small magic when you don’t know if you’re still on the ground or in the air. Whether that moment is when the dog talks for the first time in the book, or discovering an animal you just buried in the ground is back in the trunk of your car... again. Or that you just shared exactly the same dream with four other people.. Where are we-- on the familiar earth or in some unknown space above, below or next to it? I thought I knew all the rules but I see now that they don’t apply here.

DB: Sometimes these mysterious moments lead to philosophical interludes. A character in your latest book, Bathing the Lion, suddenly learns that everything he thought he knew about his life was a lie and had to question the validity of the love he experienced. Is there a philosopher trapped inside you?

JC: The only philosophy course I took in college I hated and dropped after fighting forever with the professor who thought ontology and epistemology were defined his way and his way alone. I disagreed. The idea has always intrigued me of discovering that what we take for real and solid is actually not, in both big and small ways. I keep reading about these people who discovered their sweet old Grandpa in Tulsa (for example) was actually a hideous Nazi once upon a time in Poland. Or that case in the news recently over there where the guy turned out to be no Rockefeller but a German faker who not only kidnapped his daughter, but had previously murdered some people he was staying with and buried them under the swimming pool in the backyard. Even the time I took the dog to the vet for a small cough and learned it was cancer all the way through him... We want so much for our world to be firm, fixed and dependable but too often discover it isn’t. I’m fascinated by that and it shows in my books

DB: Do you remember what might have first turned your interest in this direction, maybe an event in your life or a particular author or authors?

JC: I remember very distinctly when I was writing my first published book The Land of Laughs (I had already written 3 un- that no one wanted) there came a scene where I made a dog talk. The thing that sticks in my mind was how calm I was when I stopped writing and said “the dog just talked?” But only a moment or a blink or two later I shrugged and thought okay — let’s see what happens with that. The whole book obviously changed direction with that scene and idea. Until then everything I had ever written was very realistic. Sort of black comedy Harry Crews- gothic with a pinch of the nastiness of comic writers like Stanley Elkin or Bruce Jay Friedman. But here I was letting the dogs talk and not getting my “White-Out” (this was back in the day, obviously) and erasing such a ridiculous scene. That was the beginning of everything that followed in my books.

DB: I think one of the many compelling things about your work is that you never expect such things to happen in your novels. Suddenly the dog talks and you make it seem believable. Or maybe the reader wants to believe it. Not many writers can carry this off. When I try to describe your books to friends who have not read you, I don’t know where to begin, you are your own genre. How would you describe your books to the uninitiated?

JC: One German critic described my work as “hyper fiction.” I asked him what that meant. He said one of the definitions of hyper is taking place beyond three dimensions. I always liked that and it is about as good a shoe as I can think of to fit my work’s foot into. People have been labeling and mislabeling it for years under Magic Realism, fantasy, Sci Fi, thriller, serious fiction... and that’s all true but it isn’t. I just like to use tropes from all those categories or genres and throw them all together into a kind of mixed salad of elements. What’s interesting to me is the people who don’t like my work really don’t like it, which has the aroma of “methinks that doth protest too much.” I.e., why don’t you like it so much? If I don’t like a book I put it down. But these readers finish and then in their criticism tend to froth at the mouth in their ire about what I’ve written. Which leads me to think they’re angry that I didn’t write the book they wanted, expected or needed. Or something even deeper. My story let them down and they took it personally. Which to me means the work, for better or worse, struck some kind of deep chord in them and in the end, that’s what fiction is supposed to do. Reminds me of that Oscar Wilde line that goes something like “better to be spoken badly of than not at all.”

DB: As your work delves into magic and the supernatural I wonder how it ties into your belief in religion. Do you believe in God?

JC: I do. In the two sequential novels White Apples and Glass Soup I described how I think God works and why. I think Roy Batty (the Rutger Hauer character in Blade Runner) had it right in that justly famous last speech he gave before dying. It’s impossible for me to imagine that all of the things we’ve lived, learned, and witnessed in our lifetime disappear “like tears in the rain“ after we die. I think something much more interesting goes on after our final breath and I tried to describe that something in those two books. 

DB: Do you suspect we actually reincarnate? There’s a funny scene in your new book where one of the characters (Kaspar) denies the value of past lives. He says “Most lives are either boring or they suck. Do people really think it was any different in the past?” Do you feel the presence of any interesting past lives in your present life?

JC: No, I don’t believe in reincarnation although it’s a kick to think of your worst enemy coming back as a dung beetle or genital crab next time. I think it would be like repeating third grade to return as a human again and again. There must be a lot more “out there“ which would help our soul’s learning process if I can call it that. To return again to Mrs. Schabort’s third grade class for the umpteenth time (maybe as a girl next time or a roach under the blackboard) wouldn’t help much to move us forward (imho).

You’ve lived in Vienna, Austria for years. You must feel the history of past lives in that city. What attracted you to Vienna in the beginning?

JC: It wasn’t really an attraction — it was a job offer. I had finished graduate school and wanted to go overseas for at least a year to see what living somewhere other than America was like. I was offered a few teaching positions in different countries, but the job at the American International School in Vienna was the most intriguing. I believe home is where you are most comfortable in your day to day. I lived in LA for almost two years in the mid 90’s while writing screenplays. It was a lovely life and I was excited to be there doing that work but never very comfortable for all the cliche reasons we’ve all heard a thousand times about life in Los Angeles. After a while I realized I missed Vienna more than I liked LA and that’s why I returned.

 DB:  Is a sense of home or place important to your writing? 

No not really. I’ve written all over the place and been comfortable doing it wherever. I write everything by hand and so long as I have a favorite fountain pen and notebook I’m good.

DB: With your mother being a lyricist on Broadway and your father working on some of the darker scripts of Hollywood such as The Hustler, it sounds like you were immersed in a cross current of musicals and film noir. How do you think those influences crept into your work if at all?

JC: It’s funny, but they didn’t really. The thing I remember most about my childhood was it was pretty normal although my parents lived larger than life lives right under our (their kids’) noses. For example I loved the parties they gave because the guests were so much fun and interesting. There was Barbara who sat on the couch with her baby who turned out to be Streisand because at the time she was married to Elliot Gould who was my father’s pal. Jack Paar, Arthur Miller, Sam Spiegel, SJ Perelman and Al Hirschfeld — people like that were always in and out of the house. But to us kids, they were just nice friends of the folks who got a kick out of us and were... loud a lot. My mother was on Broadway and then touring with a hit play around the country for my early years(she was both an actress and a lyricist-- the details are on my website) and my father was in LA writing TV and then movies so they were sort of in and out of the house a lot for long periods. But when they were there, life was bubbly and full of laughter.  

DB: Which writers have sustained you over the years and what have you been reading lately?

JC: James Salter, Celine, Bruno Schulz, Robertson Davies, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Julio Cortazar, George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke, Gregory Roberts, Pat Conroy, Diane Wakoski, Mary Oliver, Thomas Lux, Anne Sexton, Wislawa Szymborska.

I’ve been re-reading the poems of Wislawa Szymborska and Journey to the End of the Night by Celine.

DB:  You seem to be busy online. Where can we find you?

 JC: Lots of places. This is my website . But I’m most active my Facebook page. I post many things almost every day and it draws up to a million views a week.  Then there’s MEDIUM.com. And finally Twitter where I’m jscarroll.

DB: What projects are next on your list? As Bathing the Lion was a bit of a wrestling match for you bringing it to light, are you going to take a novel hiatus or jump back in.

JC: I just finished a novella that was commissioned by the wonderful people at Subterranean Press. It’s called Teaching the Dog to Read and will be published early in 2015 in the US, a number of other countries later in the year. I’ve recently started work on another novel that is much more friendly to work on and with (so far...). 

LARB Contributor

David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous Breakdown, Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, and others. He has worked as a bibliographic assistant to Allen Ginsberg, a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone, and a staff member to the great Brazenhead Bookstore in New York City. He currently works for two sports newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, covering the Cincinnati Reds and OSU collegiate sports.


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