The Marriage of Sticks

by Jonathan Carroll

Published by Tor

270 pages, 1999


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An Overt Fantasy

Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

 

Charles de Lint, fantasy author and critic, is quoted on the jacket of The Marriage of Sticks as saying that this novel is Jonathan Carroll's "most overt fantasy in some time." It is true that his previous novel, Kissing the Beehive, a mystery of sorts, was not fantasy at all. But the one just before, From the Teeth of Angels, his most horrifying and moving novel, was as overt in its use of supernatural elements as The Marriage of Sticks. However, as the publisher's jacket copy more accurately points out, The Marriage of Sticks is Carroll's first novel marketed as fantasy since 1987's Bones of the Moon.

The jacket of The Marriage of Sticks is the work of famous fantasy illustrator Thomas Canty, who also painted the cover of Bones of the Moon in 1987. The new cover is clearly intended to evoke the previous one, emphasizing Carroll's "return to fantasy." (It should not come as a surprise, then, that the editor who acquired The Marriage of Sticks for Tor is the same David Hartwell who had originally edited Bones of the Moon for Arbor House.)

Bones of the Moon was Carroll's third novel and something of a breakout success. His next six novels were all published as mainstream fiction and he set out to conquer a vaster audience. In Europe, Carroll has been very well received. For example, he is seen as a major writer in the United Kingdom and his first story collection was published in German years before it appeared in the author's own language. In North America, however, he is more a writer's writer. He is read by a die-hard loyal core audience that, despite his publishers' best efforts, refuses to significantly expand.

Fantasy is a loaded word in publishing. It unfortunately evokes elves, wizards, kings, princesses, magic swords, pseudo-medievalism, juvenilia, and a strict formula based on The Lord of the Rings and Arthurian legend. There are many fantasists whose fiction does not fall into this narrow definition, but their work is hard to market. This is especially true in North America, where genre labels are often more important that the work itself, because it is not recognizable as commercial fantasy and its fantastic elements potentially alienate those readers who favor strict realism.

The Marriage of Sticks is not set in a never-never land filled with Tolkienesque paraphernalia. It takes place in the here-and-now and is populated with art dealers, performers, cops, booksellers and shopkeepers. Its characters are preoccupied with love, family, career, pets, memories and friendship. Horrible things happen -- devastating, hideous, frightful things. For example, the protagonist is relentlessly and literally haunted by the son her dead lover never had because of her interference and by visions of the happy life the man she loved would have led if not for her.

I've always considered Jonathan Carroll a horror writer. He writes contemporary supernatural fiction in which malevolent forces interfere in ordinary people's lives: that's horror in a nutshell. Again, marketing rears its ugly head. Horror does not, in popular perception, connote heartbreakingly beautiful prose, or delicately painted characters whose every word and action deeply move the reader, or subtle revelations that work within the reader a long time after the last page has been turned. Nevertheless, it is for these very qualities that Carroll has been praised more loudly in the horror field than anywhere else.

Despite the trumpeting of this novel as Carroll's "return to fantasy," the book's first section, comprising 145 pages of the total 270, contains only a hint of the supernatural, and the first hint occurs quite far in, on page 123. By the end of the novel, the reader realizes there were earlier occurrences, but without the proper illumination the supernatural nature of these events would have remained imperceptible. That whole first section is a delicious, passionate love story told from the point of view of a woman, Miranda Romanac, who had previously found it very difficult to wholeheartedly experience and act upon her own emotions.

The characters in The Marriage of Sticks (and in Carroll's fiction in general) approach all of life with their whole being, giving tremendous importance and attention to their friends and their work. Their intensity is both alluring and inspiring. Carroll's depiction of Miranda's emotional life is vivid and engaging. As is often the case in Carroll's work, the protagonist's depth of compassion is flawed by an unadmitted egotism that corrupts an otherwise fulfilling life.

The first section of The Marriage of Sticks describes a series of encounters that shake loose Miranda's emotional mask. First, she is confronted with her past: a sexual encounter with a former lover, a high school reunion, news of her teenage flame, a restrengthening of bonds with her long-time best friend. Then she meets her future: Frances Hatch, an old recluse who will ultimately have a shamanistic impact on Miranda's life, and Hugh Oakley, with whom she will fall completely in love and through whom she will learn to shed some of the emotional inhibitions that have made her life drabber than she wanted.

In the second half of the book, the supernatural revelations and occurrences happen at an accelerated pace that contrasts sharply with the slow burning passion of the first half. For the long-time Carroll reader, the revelations are surprising and shocking -- mostly because they are present at all. Carroll usually prefers to suggest and imply rather than explain. Here, there are pages and pages of explicit information that reveal much more of the heretofore hidden aspects of this novel than the habitual Carroll reader would expect. The nature of these revelations is itself surprising. The gradual peeling of layers is fascinating and gripping. In the end, the revelations open more questions that cannot be explained within the confines of the story and, as is usual with Carroll's fiction, the reader's imagination is titillated and aroused, teased into embarking on its own fantastic and dangerous inner journey.

Fantasy? Horror? Mainstream? It couldn't be less important. The Marriage of Sticks is seductive and haunting, a rich, rewarding story in which the protagonist must make difficult decisions and combat the oppression of destiny. | October 1999

 

Claude Lalumière -- a freelance writer, editor and translator -- is the founder and former owner of Montreal's Nebula Bookshop. His book reviews, essays, and articles can be found on his Web site.