cover image The Marriage of Sticks

The Marriage of Sticks

Jonathan Carroll. Tor Books, $23.95 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-312-87193-2

In the first half of Carroll's new fantasy (after Bones of the Moon), there is little to prepare readers for the surrealism of the second half. Over one hundred pages of aged protagonist Miranda Romanac's memoirs of quotidian high school and yuppie romance drag by. Although there are wonderful insights and poetic phrases, the whole is drowned in eldersprache: actual scenes are far outweighed by a distancing voice heavy with reflection. Then, in the midst of Miranda's passionate adulterous affair with a New York art dealer, very strange things start to happen. Miranda's lover suddenly dies. Apparitions haunt and bloody her in the house given to her by Frances Hatch, a former mistress of Kazantzakis and Giacometti. Alternate worlds open before her, and Frances helps Miranda navigate: they have an ancient connection, it turns out. The writing abruptly shifts in the second half, becoming poetic and magical, dense with a wonderful strangeness reminiscent of Fellini and urgent with inklings of horrors around the corner. Miranda must discover the awful truth of what she is, while weird ancients watch and guide. Carroll often startles with the deftness of his insights, both personal and metaphysical, and there are many lines that, for their poetry, one wants to cut out and frame. But this book is alarmingly full of shoehorns and ad hoc explanations. It feels as if Carroll drafted part one at a gallop, then crafted part two as an improvisation, reincorporating and reinterpreting the opening material as fantastic: too many rabbits from too many hats. But for all the overweening cleverness, beauty and wisdom reside here. (Sept.)