Do not finish reading Jonathan Carroll’s books right before bed.
You won’t go to sleep easily. Not because he writes horror—although After Silence is horrifying in ways both strange and mundane—but because in the last words you read, in those final sentences before the blankness of the end-pages, you will encounter profound questions about what it means to be human and you will get a swirling, heavy-empty feeling in the pit of your stomach just above your gut that feels like you’ve been kicked hard by a very tough truth. You’ll be kept up, brought fully awake and thinking about your life, your choices, your loves and your losses and just how weak we are, each and every one of us. Sleep will recede from your brain like an ebb tide, leaving a wet beach full of detritus and debris and the empty foam promises.
It’s 12:51 AM as I write these words. I am yawning and tired, and will probably not finish this entry tonight, but there was no way to avoid putting down some of my reactions after finishing After Silence:
profound distress awe love fear isolation
The novel ends not because the story is over, but because the wounds it has produced are so great, so terrifying, that we cannot look directly at the bone and gristle revealed beyond the lacerated flesh of the characters.
I got to sleep around 2 AM last night after I wrote the preceding thoughts. Ironically, I’d been planning on starting an entry about Jonathan Carroll after reading his book The Wooden Sea. So before I go on with some further thoughts about After Silence, let me back up a moment . . .
The excitement you feel when finding an author whose work reverberates with you is not a jump-up-and-down kind of excitement but rather a feeling of deep joy, like when the moon smiles or the ocean sings and a part of you inside says, simply, “yes.” You may get jump-up-and-down excited later, especially when you want to share your remarkable find with others around you—Ohmygod you have to read Neil Gaiman (or John Crowley, or Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, or Tom Robbins, Jonathan Lethem, or Paul Auster, or . . . etc.,)—but the moment when you find an author whose work you truly and passionately love is a quiet and awe-inspiring moment.1 Sometimes the moment happens within pages of first encountering an author. Sometimes it takes paragraphs or whole books to realize that yes, this is a writer for me.
I greatly enjoyed the first Jonathan Carroll book I read, White Apples. He reminded me a bit of Tom Robbins, but less frenetic. Just as twisted and impish, but less flashy. His characters felt more rooted in the everyday than Robbins’ characters, even as Carroll put them into just a equally odd situations. I knew I wanted to read more, but wasn’t emotionally floored by the novel. Still, I asked for several of his books for Christmas and received The Wooden Sea from my grandfather and grandmother. Again, an enjoyable book with moments of delightful humor and compelling clarity about the human condition. I was going along, enjoying the oddities of time travel and aliens and three-legged dogs and the general air of mystery and surrealism when all of a sudden I hit the last ten or so pages and BAM the book suddenly took on a weight to it that brought me falling back into my own going-on-forty-body and an awareness of the terrible responsibility each of us has for the running of our lives. This is one of those books where the end truly does justify the means. Suddenly, what seemed frivolous in the earlier sections took on a profound meaning. The following quote distills the book down to its purest essence, but is empty without each and every other word that precedes and follows it. However, as soon as I read these words, I knew I was going to share them here.
Not know thyself, know thy selves. All the yous, all the years, the days of Magda and Pauline, and orange cowboy boots and when you believed penises grew back inside a man at forty years old.
We look at who we were, once upon a time, and see that person as stupid or amusing, but never essential. Like flipping through old snapshots of ourselves wearing funny hats or big lapels. How silly I was back then, how naive.
And how wrong to think that! Because now when you are incapable of doing it, those yous still know how to fly, find the way into a forest or out of a library. Only they can see the lizards and fill holes that need to be filled.
Out of context, this means little, but in context, the words floored me, making what happened in the following pages both necessary and heart-breaking. This was the moment that I recognized that Carroll’s work was important to me and that it spoke to my heart, my blood and the very bones of me. So I was eager, after getting my new library card at the Rochambeau branch of the Providence Public Library, to get more of his work and checked out After Silence on Saturday afternoon. Yes, for those of you who are counting, I read it in two days. Kicked the emotional hell out of me as well. I’m not going to go into the story details, but this is a much darker book than White Apples or The Wooden Sea. The fantastical elements that I’d grown accustomed to in his previous books was missing, and the revelations were of death and sin and failure. I had to re-read the ending pages three times to comprehend them, not because Carroll’s writing was confusing, but because I simply couldn’t comprehend the abyss into which the narrator had fallen. I think the last time I had such a visceral reaction to a novel was Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, which I wrote about back in October of 2007. In fact, I’m going to plagiarize myself when I say that you should totally read Jonathan Carroll, but don’t expect to read his works lightly. I know the next time I start one of his novels, I will approach it with a great deal of care and respect as well as excitement and joy.
And if I’m in striking distance of the end I will not be reading it right before bed.
Unless, of course, I just can’t help myself . . .