Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll – Book Review
Written by: Jonathan Carroll
Published by: St. Martin’s Press
Fantasy/Sci-Fi Novel about five strangers who have the same hyper-realistic dream that leads them to fulfill their destiny as cosmic “Mechanics.”
Bathing the Lion
Good and evil, light and dark, protagonist and antagonist, this is a well worn and often used concept in writing. This concept is so often used we come to expect them in certain genres, the entire speculative genre falls under this umbrella along with westerns, mystery, and romance. Often a brilliant, so they and some critics think, writer comes along to show us that the bad guy isn’t really bad and the good guy isn’t really good. That’s all fine. But what if we are given two opposing concepts and we can’t even fathom one of them?
We traipse through the lives of five very believable, but quite normal people in a quiet New England town in winter. Though they don’t know it, the five people all once shared a job more important than anything they do with their new lives. Time slips at some point some find that they are reliving previous moments while others stumble into a time long before they were born. Impossible things pop up but they slipped in the novel so subtly the reader doesn’t really notice. All five characters are pulled out onto a road in the middle of summer confronted by a talking chair and a giant red, watch-wearing elephant named Muba.
All five people wake from the same dream, including Kaspar, who was on a flight to Vienna at the time. While the rest try to sort out the dream, Kaspar wonders why this is happening now. Unlike the others, Kaspar didn’t have his memory wiped when he retired from being a mechanic, an extremely powerful creature that repairs problems in the universe. The mechanics are being called back. Chaos is coming and it will take all mechanics retired or active to try to stop it.
Carroll threw out any notion conventional storytelling right at the beginning. He doesn’t bother with a main or view point character. From the beginning all the way through he switches perspective jumping from one character to the next, occasionally switching to third-person omniscient. It gives the novel a dreamlike quality in the beginning and then pushes the reader off balance later as the skins of the mystery are peeled away.
Bathing the Lion follows similar ideas laid out in his previous novels, Glass Soup (Tor, 2005) and White Apples (Tor, 2002), with Chaos creeping in as an unstoppable, entropic enemy that was held at bay by the mosaic, God. Here we didn’t see agents of Chaos pitted against agents of order. We briefly learn about mechanics, which repair or create new things that Chaos has destroyed. But Chaos stays in the background, much like death, it is coming but no one is sure when or what to do about it.
At times the novel felt like a more literary version of Ubik (Doubleday, 1969) by Phillip K. Dick. Instead of giving the characters a spray to keep them from dying in cryosleep/half-life, they are given things like clouds that act as toolboxes. This was actually the only point of contention I had with the novel, though I shouldn’t. Carroll tends to take mundane things and add them in as important aspects that move the plot along. While it was wonderful in Bones of the Moon (Century Press, 1987) and Outside the Dog Museum (Doubleday, 1992) the magic of it has been lost on subsequent novels. The mechanics language being translated into words that don?t seem to fit was a tad jarring, knocking me slightly out of the flow of reading. But there is something here that makes sense as when languages are translated things are lost or sound silly.
Bathing the Lion is a delightful read that looks at many aspects of life: the meaning of work, the importance of memory, and dealing with death as both an abstract concept and a reality. If you are a fan, sorry to say, he doesn’t use his super-realistic first-person perspective he used in his early novels. However this feels more like vintage Carroll, that is to say much stronger than his last few novels by far. If you’ve never read a Jonathan Carroll novel before it is a wonderful place to start.
Reviewed by Adam Armstrong
SHOP- Bathing the Lion: A Novel