Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Sunnyside of Reading

In which I look at Carter the Great, Charlie Chaplin and why there are some books I just can’t finish. 

On my Goodreads profile there is a bookshelf I have named gave-up-on (the dashes were forced upon me) and on this shelf are seven books that I couldn’t bring my concentration to persevere through and finish.

The seven unlucky inhabitants of the gave-up-on shelf are:




However, this post will look at Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold, because I recently started reading Gold’s most recent novel Sunnyside. Well, I say recently, I actually started reading it in July; as with Carter I am having trouble motivating myself to keep reading it. The book is five hundred and sixty pages long and it’s taken me over three months to get to page ninety two! As with Carter, which is five hundred and sixty three pages long, I spent a considerable amount of time working my way through to chapter ten, which is only on page one hundred and fourteen!

Therefore, I am going to examine both books, with reference to the other members of the gave-up-on shelf, to see why I have had such a hard time sticking with them and to see if there is any hope for me to ever finish them. 


Subject Matter

At the birth of the Jazz Age in San Francisco, Carter walks on to the stage for the most daring performance of his life. Two hours later, President Harding is dead. So begins a mystery, a love story, and a fight against loneliness, set during a period of enormous change. 
- Carter Beats the Devil Synopsis

When I first read this synopsis, I felt as though this book had been written for me. The Jazz age, early twentieth century American culture, a fight against loneliness and Charles Carter the magician are all elements that appealed to me and which I hoped would come together for a first class read.  


From the author of Carter Beats the Devil comes a panoramic tale of power and stardom, ambition and dreams that reaches from California to Russia. At the heart of its enthralling cast of characters – which includes a thieving Girl Scout, Mary Pickford, a charismatic British general and even the dog Rin Tin Tin – lies the troubled genius that was Charlie Chaplin.
  
Here America debuts on the world stage in the Great War, Hollywood blossoms into a global phenomenon, and the cult of the celebrity is born. Here, in a novel as darkly comic as it is thrilling, the modern age dawns. 
- Sunnyside synopsis.

While this book deals, again, with early Twentieth century American culture and Hollywood, only one element was needed to win me over – Charlie Chaplin


I am huge Chaplin fan and I have already read his Autobiography and two other biographies, so the prospect of a delving into a fictionalised account was both an appealing and a refreshing prospect. 

So it is certainly not lack of interest in the subject matter! 


Structure

It is the structure then? With Doctor Whom: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Parodication the fact that the chapters were presented out of chronological order did my head in. Likewise, with Carter and Sunnyside they also have unconventional structures, but with these novels it is something that appeals to me.

Carter is laid out like a magic act performance, so the book is split up into sections with each section having their own collection of chapters: Act 1: Metamorphosis (fifteen chapters), Act 2: An Inquiry into the Spirit World (twenty five chapters), Act 3: Carter Beats the Devil (ten chapters) and an Overture (prologue) and Curtain (Epilogue). 


This structure appealed to me because it was very reminiscent of the cinematic adaptation of The Prestige, where the three act structure of the magician’s performance is integral to the film’s very intricate plot. I had hoped that with Carter this would prove the same but, as I never actually finished the book, I still don’t know. 

Likewise, as Sunnyside is about a cinematic icon the book is structured like a Cinema program. This was something that went out of fashion in the 1950s, but originally a cinema program would present other features, in addition to the main feature, such as: short films, cartoons, newsreels, travelogues etc. Sunnyside is split up into six sections with each section having its own collection of chapters and with each section constituting a particular item of a cinema program; In this case and in this order: a newsreel, a travelogue, a two reel comedy, a serial, a feature presentation and a sing along

Chaplin's short film which the book is named after.

The way in which a book is structured can be a useful tool for creating suspense, as J.R.R. Tolkien does in the latter two books of The Lord of the Rings; in the way he keeps Frodo and Sam’s story separate from the rest of the fellowship. However, the structuring of a book can also lead to the book being incredibly baffling as Laurence Sterne illustrates with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman; wherein he goes off in all sorts of tangents. In all fairness, though, that book is baffling regardless of its structure! However, with Sunnyside Gold uses structure to give the book a novelty; in this case a cinema program.

Film is something that I have a passionate interest in and if a book ties into and emulates the medium of film then it is a book that I am going to want to invest my attention in. With Sunnyside I am enjoying the various nods to classical Hollywood and of its famous figures who keep popping up; Douglas Fairbanks made his introduction in the most recent chapter.

Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin

I am only in the third section of Sunnyside, the two reel comedy part, and as yet I can not see how the structure helps to reinforce the overall narrative. It may be that the structure of Sunnyside isn’t there to reinforce the narrative and is just a novelty. While the structure potentially may not prove to be vital to the overall plot, it will not dissuade me from reading it as it’s referencing the art form and industry that I love.

Therefore, does problem lay with Gold’s prose style? 


Prose Style

Getting into sync with the writers’ prose style was the problem I had with The IPCRESS File, The Sleeper Awakes, Doctor Whom and Tristram Shandy. With The ICRESS File I found the stream of consciousness style a strain to follow, The Sleeper Awakes had a very cold, scientific presentation that made the prose come across as boring, Doctor Whom was just baffling and Tristram Shandy…well, let's not even get me started!

However, with Carter and Sunnyside I could follow the prose, but I think Gold drowns out all of his action with too much description:

In the Colorado Rockies, at the Grand Imperial Hotel, which had indeed look imperial in its mining days, the manager uncorked the intercom tube that, in theory, addressed all public areas – in practice, it worked about as well as stretching two tin cans along a length of string – and called, in a voice whose transposition along the ether made it shimmer like a mirage, ‘Will Charlie Chaplin please come to the lobby?”

(Sunnyside, pg. 11)

Not a lot happens in that extract – the manager speaks into the intercom and asks Chaplin to come to the lobby – however, the first time I read it I missed that piece of action altogether, because my mind was focusing in more on the description of the intercom. Therefore, the main problem I have with Gold’s prose is I tend to miss the beats of the action in the plot. As Gold's use of vivid description is relentless, in both Carter and Sunnyside, I think this is the reason why I have always felt lost and out of sync when reading either book.

Glen David Gold

Saying this, though, it would be unfair to lay the blame fully on Gold; while he might be accused of using too much description he does, however, have a very rich and intricate prose style. Therefore, I think there is one more factor that I still need to consider.


A Lazy Reader?

When I say a lazy reader, I don’t mean that I rarely ever read; rather I am referring to how I may not give a text the amount of attention that it deserves. I have noticed this with the set reading I have to read for my Film Studies module, in that, I don’t always pick up what the writer is trying to tell me. Likewise, I have also noticed it when workshopping others' work in my writing module - I tend to only be able give them a couple of very vague pointers, because I don't read their work close enough. 


This is something that I find very frustrating; especially when it means that I have to read something four or five times just to fully articulate what it is trying to tell me! Really, then, I need to change my reading habits.


The Eager Reader

I think that reading something like Sunnyside will help me improve in this respect, because only by getting in to the habit of reading texts that are rich and intricate am I going to train my mind to automatically read more closely into their writing and the ideas they are conveying.

I think it would also be a huge insult to Glen David Gold not to not finish a book that, in terms of subject matter and structure, he has unintentionally catered for me to be interested in.


Therefore, I am going to force myself to finish this book and I will endeavour to enjoy it! Then, when I have finished it, I will write another post reflecting on the book as a whole. Who knows, reading Sunnyside it may even propel me to finally finish Carter and the other members of the gave-up-on shelf...
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