Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Book of the Month: Sunnyside (Glen David Gold)

Glen David Gold’s hugely successful debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, regaled the readers with the exploits of a popular American magician of the 1920s, named Charles Carter. Although few outside of America (and I suspect even in America) would have heard of the long-since-forgotten magician, it detracted not a jot from the inventive and highly entertaining novel.  The critical acclaim and commercial success of Carter Beats the Devil catapulted Gold to the A list of writers.

Therefore, when, a full eight years after Carter Beats the Devil, came Sunnyside, Gold’s extensively researched second novel, expectations were high. And the advertisement and promos proclaimed that at the centre of Gold’s new novel was another hugely popular entertainer from the early twentieth century America, one whose fame, unlike that of Charles Carter, went beyond the shores of the United States, one who was a truly international star in his time who is considered one of the greatest entertainers of the last century: the British born comedian Charlie Chaplin. 

If you start reading this behemoth of a book (560 pages, each one crammed from top to bottom with words in small type) with the expectation that Charlie Chaplin would really be at the centre of it, you would be disappointed. Chaplin forms one of the three strands of the story. The Chaplin story (which I found the most interesting) focuses on the three crucial years in Chaplin’s career which saw him forming the distribution company United Artists along with arch rival Mary Pickford (at least that is how the relationship between the two is depicted in the novel) and other leading names of Hollywood such as Douglas Fairbanks, ostensibly to protect the creative independence of the artists, as the leading Hollywood producers and distributors joined hands to control the rocketing star-salaries and have the decisive say in the production of films. The novel also recreates the events leading to Chaplin’s disastrous first marriage to the actress Mildred Harris, and the rapid disintegration of the relationship, which would end soon after the death of their son—born with severe congenital defects—three days after his birth.

The backdrop to Chaplin’s story is America’s entry into the inferno of the First World War. The war takes the centre-stage in the other two strands of the novel, which have fictional protagonists: Leyland Wheeler, who fights the war in France, and Hugo Black who finds himself stranded in the forgotten campaign of the allies in Russia long after the war comes to an end.  Wheeler, the result of a brief liaison between a lighthouse-keeper and a variety entertainer—a cheap imitator of the Buffalo Bill who heads the world’s worst Wild West entertainment group and gives a dreadful performance in front of Kaiser Wilhelm—, has an ambition to become a movie-star himself. However, he gets entangled unwittingly in the scam of a family—one of the several supporting characters, historical as well as fictional, pullulating in the novel—and finds himself in the trenches in France. There, he rescues two puppies from a bombed out winery and trains them. The female shows great promise but dies on the return voyage to America at the end of the war. Leyland decides to train the not-so-bright dog, and it is suggested that this is the same dog which later finds fame in the 1920s in the Hollywood films under the name Rin Tin Tin. Hugo Black, the solitary, priggish and bookish son of an engineer of engineers ends up in Archangel, Russia, and fights under the (real life) British general Edmund Ironside in what is now a largely forgotten half-hearted campaign the allies fought against the Bolsheviks.

Sunnyside is a hugely ambitious novel. As in Carter Beats the Devil, Gold gives a panoramic view of America, Hollywood (on the cusp of becoming a global merchandise), and America’s role in the First World War. The novel is the literary equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. And, like in a Hollywood Blockbuster, there are some tremendous set-pieces. The novel has one of the most breathtaking openings I have read in recent times. Leyland Wheeler, working in a lighthouse off the Pacific coast, spots a sinking skiff in the stormy weather, the skiff’s only passenger being Charlie Chaplin, who drowns. At the same time, in Beaumont, Texas, crowds gather to see Chaplin who is coming into town on a train; however, when the train arrives, there is no Chaplin on it, and the crowd gives vent to its frustration by setting fire to the train and knocking the daylights out of its snooty engineer (Hugo Black). Afterwards no one can quite recollect why they were expecting Chaplin to be on the train. The bravura opening sequence is based on a true historical event: on a day in 1916, Charlie Chaplin, then the biggest star in America, was a subject of mass hysteria and was allegedly simultaneously spotted in several places set apart by thousands of miles. (He was, in fact, in the Los Angeles Athletic Club.)  There are more such dramatic highpoints in the story—for example, the culmination of the aggressive Liberty Loan campaign run by the then Secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo (another real-life character who makes periodic appearances in the novel) in Los Angeles, or the grand and bizarre ballroom dancing of Hugo Black with the three princesses of the defunct Russian aristocracy in a crumbling palace in the middle of a forest to in Russia in freezing winter, to name just two—which Gold describes with great relish, and which, on their own are highly entertaining.

However, as the novel progresses, the reader begins to suspect that Gold has been perhaps too ambitious, as he (the reader) struggles to appreciate a sense of continuity, a sense of coherence, to the narration. Putting it bluntly, Gold has bitten more than he can chew and the reader can’t swallow. Each of the three strands of Sunnyside is a novel by itself and, they do not gel. The story of Hugo Black and the American Campaign in Russia, supremely entertaining as it is, sits particularly awkwardly in the narrative.  Matters are not helped by Gold’s uncontrollable eye for detail. Each and everything—be it the countryside Ironside happens to glance at while travelling in his sleigh in the wintry wilderness of Russia, or the interior decoration of Chaplin’s sets, or the three course meal eaten in a banquet—is described with the ruminative delight of an obsessive. Even the simple act of listening to violin is described in a manner that leaves the reader reeling under the twin assault of Gold’s towering imagination and masterful prose. (“As he listened to the single violin, whose tremulous notes spoke of failed crops, loneliness, wide autumn winter skies with no sign of rain, Alf understood he was unable to write a memo to Accounting that explained how the set had become in his absence.”) Here is another randomly selected sentence:

“A newsreel photographer was there to capture it, a vision too broad for that camera’s small, dull eye: a sea of black wool, upon which seemed to bob many bright faces, the uniform of straw boater or tweed cap making it seem like a shoreline upon which shivered an infinite rockery of seagulls and terns.”

This is one of the easier, shorter sentences in the novel. Add to this the torrent of technical information Gold unleashes. A chapter begins in the following way:

“Lee Dunacn’s job was to maintain the machine guns for a DH4 airplane called Lenore. The observer seat had a pair of Lewises mounted on a Scarff ring that allowed them to swing up, down and approximately 270 degrees. Unfortunately the arc of fire included the empennage, the plane’s own tailpiece. For the pilot there was a pair of Marlin .30 calibres which fired through the arc of the propeller via the amazing precise harmonics of Constantinesco synchronizing hydraulic gear.”

If the idea was to convey to the reader that the aeroplanes were a bit dodgy, it has been done more than adequately. I have no idea what ‘a pair of Lewises’ or ‘Scarff ring’ or ‘Marlin’ or for that matter ‘Constantinesco’ is; however, this chapter began on page 284 of the paperback edition I was reading. By that time it was only a sense of grim determination that was propelling me on; I still had more than 250 pages to plough through, and had neither the inclination nor the energy to find out more about these terms. (Earlier in the novel when I had a bit more vigour I did make an effort to google diegesis on which Gold waxes eloquent without actually explaining what it is). 

Sunnyside is a very clever novel, but reading it can be very fatiguing. (I had to take a two week break after reading the first three-fifty pages before I picked up the novel again.) Mind you, the prose is excellent and crackles with wit and erudition on every page. Gold has a great feel for language, and the novel overflows with sentences like ‘Democracy bloomed, as it always blooms when forcibly planted in a kakitocracy [that was a new word to learn] of worst possible men.’

Sunnyside is a rich elixir containing minced, half-dissolved, and macerated ingredients of historical facts, biographical speculations and unrestrained imagination that makes the period tangible for the reader. The trouble is that amongst the giddy mélange of momentous events and an army-load of characters, the novel has lost its soul. You admire the rich tapestry Gold has woven; you are full of awe of the huge canvas against which the dramatic events unfold; yet you either don’t care or feel you don’t really know the main characters. Reams and reams of pages are spent describing Chaplin’s romance with Mildred Harris and the rapid falling out of love (on Chaplin’s part) soon after they are married. All of which, however, remains at the outer, superficial level. It is like reading a food-review that describes in excruciating detail how the food looks but remains silent on how it tastes. Surely, Gold, who has very cleverly mixed facts and fiction at other places in the novel, could have given us a glimpse—albeit speculative— into Chaplin’s inner world. Similarly when Hugo Black meets his strange fate on the Russian prairie, it fails to move you.

The title of the novel is taken from one of Chaplin’s less successful films. It is a shame that the novel, just like Chaplin’s film, despite the grand vision of its creator, is not a resounding success. However, just as no film of Chaplin was a total disaster, you will find plenty to enjoy in Sunnyside