The Land of Laughs is the first novel by the idiosyncratic, unclassifiable writer Jonathan Carroll. I'd call what he does Magical Realism. It's closer to Angela Carter and Italo Calvino and Isabel Allende than it is most fantasy fiction. The Land of Laughs is a novel all about those moments when characters tip over the brink from the humdrum into the plainly impossible and we as readers are forced to go with them. It's fair to say that Carroll is dramatising this very phenomenon of teetering on the cusp; this business of walking into magic and magic meeting you halfway. In his world, though, it isn't really about magic at all - it's about the products of the imagination and the fierceness and skill of the individuals who can bring their creations to life, for good or ill. The Land of Laughs is always ruled by the person who can invent most vividly.
It's a book about fans. Thomas Abbey is a lifelong fan of Marshall France, and has spent much of his life collecting up rare editions of this writer's most exquisite works. The book opens with a good-natured tussle in a rare bookstore between Thomas and another fan, over ownership of a particularly desirable volume. A bargain is stuck - our hero gets to visit and photocopy the book - and a bond is forged as the bibliophiles become lovers. And the reader gets a powerful sense of the weird fascination Marshall France's books exert over their devoted owners. France is a deceased one-time reclusive - we gain an impression of a melange of Sendak, Salinger, Gorey and Dr Seuss. A cult author, living in a remote small town, distantly removed from his rabid admirers and collectors.
The action of the novel follows Thomas's attempt to research and write a life of France. To this end he journeys with his new girlfriend into the heartland of America and they find themselves warmly welcomed by the inhabitants of Galen - the apparently ordinary town where Marshall France and his daughter made their home. The daughter, Anna now lives alone - she's aloof, mysterious and straight away attractive to our hero. Throughout the rest of the book he'll drift away from poor, dull Saxony towards the magnetic pull of the author's spooky daughter. She, meanwhile, becomes convinced that Thomas is just the man for the job of writing about her father. Though initially resistant to such a proposal, she comes fervently to hope that the biography Thomas starts to write will bring Marshall France back to life.
It's at this point - just when Thomas Abbey thinks he's starting to live the writerly dream in a homely utopia - that everything goes completely bonkers. He overhears dogs chatting surreptitiously. He catches glimpses of impossible stuff out of the corner of his eye. It seems, all of a sudden, altogether likely that the characters from France's books are alive and well and haunting the vicinity. And also, that there’s a plot afoot. This town and its inhabitants seem to be living out a predetermined destiny that has started to go awry…
It's a delicious, shivery exercise in cranking up tension, as Carroll toys with the whimsical aspects of his invented writer's oeuvre - and then turns them thoroughly sinister. It's like the creepiest aspects of every classic children's book are being shown at their darkest and most disturbing. For Thomas there's no escape from the daughter, the autobiography - or even the town.
I read this book first over twenty years ago and I've read it probably eight times in all. The most recent time was last summer, when I was teaching on a residential course for Children's Writers near Loch Ness. It was wonderful to think about children's books and in my spare time vanish into Jonathan Carroll's world again. I knew the book, I discovered, just about by heart.
One of the oddest, most memorable events of that week was when our guest reader - Julia Donaldson - gave a talk late at night in the sitting room of that farmhouse in the middle of the moors. She got all of the students up on their feet and dressing up as characters from her most famous picture book, The Gruffalo. Everyone was wearing animal ears, noses and tails. The text of the whole book was read aloud - dramatically, excitedly - and everyone took their parts with great gusto. A fair amount of wine had been drunk, as it often is at these affairs and the atmosphere was great, and rather heady and strange. For a few moments at least it was as if that children's author's most celebrated book was coming to life before our eyes - and that August night real life was chiming beautifully with the book I happened to be rereading yet again that week: the book I most wish I had written myself.
(illustration is by Charles Vess.)