Sunday, 3 March 2013

Week Nine - Jeanette

The Panic Hand by Jonathan Carroll (1996)
Recommended by Ellen

I was on the phone to my esteemed co-blogger.

‘Yeah, I can talk, that’s fine, Jude. I’m at home. I’ve just had a tea of chips and vanilla vodka.’

After our chat, I picked up The Panic Hand and immediately read the following line:

Some people change as they grow older, while others only become more of who they were at fifteen.

I have read a Jonathan Carroll book before – actually, I’ve read it three times. I was given The Land Of Laughs, Carroll’s 1980 debut novel, in my early 20s; it was a present from a man I didn’t know very well. I was grateful, because it was a nice gesture, but I was rather perplexed. My confusion was not as to why he’d given me a book (I hoped it was because he liked me as a person, but also suspected there might have been a more, erm, ‘earthy’ motive); but rather why he’d given me this book.

As you can see, it is part of a series called ‘Fantasy Masterworks’. Orcs and elves and forests and sun gods and women in Red Sonja costumes. Not for me! I liked Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Angela Davis.

I slung The Land Of Laughs on my bookshelf and I didn’t read it.

A year passed. One day, I got sick. A week later, the lurgy still hadn’t gone anywhere. Confined to bed, wastepaper bin emptied out for a sick bucket next to me, I needed something to distract me from self-pity. Dostoyevsky and Davis weren’t about to do that. So I picked up The Land Of Laughs.

It wasn’t ‘fantasy’ in the way I had pigeonholed the genre, at all. It was easy to forget it was anything other than well-written realistic contemporary fiction until the last third. Then – holy, holy! – it slides into something completely incredible, yet at the same time, utterly logical. It’s about how we escape from the world into books. I escaped from my illness into The Land Of Laughs, and the other two times I’ve read it have also been when my body wanted to hide for a while.

The Panic Hand, a collection of Carroll’s short stories, was the trickiest of my Two Readers books to track down so far: out of print, not in the library, not in any secondhand shops. Less than twenty years old, and the recipient of great reviews, it seems to have sold little and faded quickly.

Which brings me nicely to a conversation I remember having with Ellen. A brilliant singer-songwriter, and former part of the psychedelic folk band Saint Joan, Ellen and I had met through a mutual friend at 2008’s Green Man Festival. I was immediately taken with her: charming, literary, funny. We both loved many of the female artists who had spent years in obscurity before being (re)discovered: Bonnie Dobson, Linda Perhacs, Vashti Bunyan, Susan Christie… ‘They were so good,’ Ellen said. ‘Why didn’t people pay attention at the time?’

Ellen’s own album, 2009’s The Crescent Sun, was poetic and nuanced and superb, but also served to answer her question: why people don’t pay attention at the time. Put out by a label that almost immediately went under, the album got snagged in the record industry’s cogs. The Crescent Sun wasn’t widely reviewed, and was difficult to find even in the early days of its release.

As for The Panic Hand, it too seems to have been badly served by its industry. That terribly misjudged cover must have had something to do with its failure. Just as I was put off The Land Of Laughs because of its association with stereotypically nerdish fantasy, The Panic Hand screams trashy-horror-bought-at-a-petrol-station. That embossed font! That blue demon claw! That small (i.e. not ‘literary’) paperback size! Toss it back in the bargain bin.

The panic hand is not a blue demon claw. It is a computer game played by Heidi, a twelve-year-old girl with a stutter. Heidi also conjures up a beautiful mother, Francesca, because she wants to see men falling in love and having sex with Francesca. These men always do, that is apart from our narrator: he’s far more interested in Heidi (in her personality, and in her vagina).

And that’s Carroll in a nutshell. We don’t get caught up in how Heidi created Francesca, she just did, because magic is everywhere, and the reader must accept this. In fact, it might have even been the narrator who invented both Heidi and Francesca. At the end of the story, we’re left wondering about the narrator’s intentions towards the daughter of his real-life girlfriend. Many of Carroll’s narrators are, to put it mildly, flawed.

It’s hard to précis these stories, because they usually only sound worth reading once you’ve given away the ending. The same with quoting chunks of prose: his writing is good, yet it’s the plot and its twists he excels at rather than any stand-alone lyricism.

A bizarre obsession of Carroll’s – it’s there in The Land Of Laughs, too – is of how animals watch us, judge us, relate to us. He imbues his animals, usually pets, with as much character as his humans. There’s also a powerful quasi-religious element to The Panic Hand stories. Just as Carroll accepts the personality of animals and the existence of the supernatural, he deals in hell, God, and angels throughout the book. The divine might not be conceptualised in the usual way, but its essence is consistent. It adds a magical realist morality to these tales.

I didn’t think this was as fabulous as The Land Of Laughs, but I think that’s because it frustrated me to get into one of Carroll's intriguing concepts, only to have it end five pages later. I like Carroll when he explores his ideas, revealing them slowly, rather than just exposing their raw meat. It felt as if many of these stories should have had more time invested in them.

            Nevertheless, even if those ideas aren't fully developed, they're original, and have a lot in 
            common with children's literature in both their whimsy and their scale.

For years, this small house had hosted family after family of losers, creeps, cheque-bouncers and wife-slappers who hadn’t paid their bills, loved their children, cared for anything other than their own thin skin. Then one day a family moved in and suddenly everything was different. These people loved each other, their lives, the house. […] The house gave back whatever it could to show its appreciation. It kept its windows from breaking in a storm, when the roof leaked into the parents’ bedroom, the house kept the leak from falling on the bed and ruining the patchwork quilt.

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So if your guttering keeps breaking, look to your humanity as well as your drainpipes. The Panic Hand: where the world is alternately sinister and hopeful.