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April 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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White Apples by Jonathan Carroll
Tor UK Trade: ISBN033398983X PubDate: April 2003
Review by Iain Emsley

259 pages List price £10.99
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Much has been written about Jonathan Carroll’s ability to view the world from an askew perspective; that he opens up the world which the reader knows and makes us view it afresh. He has trodden his own path, utilising genre tools to see where they will lead him. Yet the supernatural underlines the natural, his novels are ones where the protagonists must increasingly come to terms with themselves and their own situation rather than expect an outside agency to right them. White Apples has a strange mythological undertone to it; it is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth and how it might come to pass in a modern setting.

Vincent Ettrich has been brought back from the dead, yet he does not know this – indeed he has no memory of dying. Instead, he is introduced to Coco with whom he goes to dinner and becomes involved in a strange journey which makes increasingly less sense to him, less so when his partner, Isabelle, lets him know that she is pregnant with their child, Anjo. As Vincent carries on living his new life, he must piece together the fragments of memories and clues around him to reassume his place in the world but, as he does this, he is beset by the problems of Chaos, who is trying to prevent Anjo being born as the child will play an important role in the maintenance of the cosmic mosaic.

Only when he is able to piece together his own memories and puzzles is he able to understand his own (and indeed, everybody’s) role in the universe but he must come to this determination himself, the supernatural agencies are their merely to guide him. However, when Coco and Bruno begin to bend their own rules, to take matters into their own hands, they find themselves in deeper trouble than expected. Carroll sets out to push his own boundaries and Vincent and Isabelle move into a metaphysical phase in terms of making themselves understand what it is to be human – that it is difficult and painful as well as exhilarating. As Vincent gradually exits the gloom, he is introduced to the idea that life forms a mosaic, that each memory and experience is part of larger puzzle, that he has to give back to Isabelle, and that he cannot continue to forget the happy periods of their life as recounted to him during brief temporal sojourns.

Indeed, Isabelle, it transpires, has pulled Vincent from the realm of death; has taken her immense love for him and pulled him back towards life and as he slowly returns, he needs to understand what he learned on the other side to protect both of them and the baby. As he returns from the Underworld, he is forced to confront his own weaknesses in terms of commitment to one person and becomes a greater person than the one that we originally see. Isabelle is not immune to these changes either. She is forced to face up to her own cowardice, her own tendency to run away from difficult situations, which forced the split up in the relationship in the first place. Anjo only guides Isabelle into what is necessary, as does Coco with Vincent.

Carroll further invigorates the Underworld myth through his reversal of the roles. It is not Orpheus who must descend but Eurydice and it is she who guides him up the stairs, taking care not to look back it seems and is rewarded for her patience at the end when the Chaotic prophecy, it would appear, is about to put her life in danger and she is rescued. Carroll’s conclusions are often ambiguous (and this applies to White Apples) but in this novel, he answers Isabelle’s prayers in full at a basic level. We are not given to understand that all is well, it may not be but that is for another book to answer, but the essential wish or prayer has been given its conclusion, there is a benevolent deity that is determined to complete the mosaic of life.

This is Jonathan Carroll’s most human novel to date in its outlook and possibly the one that comes together in its own way most completely. He reminds us all that, to some extent, we are all Vincent, that he is part of our experience and that we must enjoy what is precious to us. Carroll is still a master at showing us the world through a different eyes.

Jonathan Carroll Talks to SFRevu's Iain Emsley about White Apples.

Jonathan Carroll has enchanted his readership ever since the publication of Land of Laughs in 1980. Utilising natural and supernatural elements, he has created his own unique voice. White Apples is his latest novel and in it he resurrects Vincent Ettrich with some surprising results. Although born in America, he has lived in Vienna for quite some time.

SFRevu: Vincent Ettrich was a character who you killed off in an earlier short story. What made you bring him back as the main character in White Apples?

 JC: Actually the story The Great Walt of China, where Ettrich appears for the first time, is a prelude to White Apples. It is told from the point of view of Bruno Mann, also a character in White Apples. For a long time I thought about actually putting the story at the beginning of the book but finally decided against it. Ettrich has interested me for a long time. I once considered writing a series of short stories about him because to me, he is an "Everyman" for the late 20th century. Sharp, successful, confused, a libertine yet a decent person when you scratch off some of his Yuppie surface. I must say however that some readers of the book haven't thought so at all. Their reaction is that Ettrich is a self-indulgent pig/womanizer and good riddance. To that I can only say… look again. Or read something else. I think White Apples has drawn more mixed reaction than any book I've ever written. People LOVE it or HATE it and from what I can see, there is little in between reaction. I don't know if that's good or bad. Kisses and punches. A strange combination.

SFRevu: You seem to meditate on the relationship between Vincent and Isabelle, that both have got to recognise their own frailties and come to terms with them. Was this a modern take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth? How do you view mythology in relation to your fiction?

JC: I've always been fascinated by the Orpheus myth. Can you imagine loving someone so much that you would risk going into the afterlife to try and bring them back? Even when you're fully aware of their shortcomings? In this day and age, love and romance are as disposable as wet Kleenex. Yet in that myth it is as important as breath. So yes, I wanted to do a turn on the story. Only in my novel it is the woman who goes into death to bring back the man and not vice versa, as happens in the traditional story. But that's only because I like women a lot more than men and think they're more capable of real heroics.

SFRevu:  What did strike me was how you dwelt on the urban details, such as the dining scenes, and pushed the supernatural to the side. Is this a conscious moving away from the supernatural elements of your writing? How do you view the balance between the natural and supernatural in fiction? They seem to focus the reader's attention onto the human elements of the story.

SFRevu: I have always said that I am open to anything when I'm writing. I remember very well writing The Land of Laughs twenty years ago. The book turns odd when the dog talks and I remember very well the moment when I wrote that scene. Rather than say "Dogs don't talk – come on, get serious" I thought instead "Oh, that's interesting – a talking dog. Let's see where it goes." And it has been that way with my work ever since. I never try to be purposefully fantastical or realistic or anything. Whatever story I'm working on goes wherever it wants. I simply follow with my pen, making notes. I *am* more interested in the human drama, the interplay between people, rather than that between ghosts or the dead. But if a story says we're going there, then I can only follow and damn my own inclinations or intended map.

 SFRevu: In this novel more than others, you focus upon the larger picture in that human lives make up their own mosaic and that after death, the mosaic joins the larger mosaic that forms God. Did you want to push this boundary, to put things into some sort of cosmic context? Or are you giving either yourself or your character some answers so that they can finally move on?

 JC: White Apples is the first of a two, maybe three book series. The second novel which I am working on now, begins two months after the end of White Apples. The concept of the "mosaic" came to me when I was writing White Apples and so excited me that right then I thought this idea, this system, concept, whatever, is much larger than one book. I have to pursue it for at least one more and see where it goes. As has so often been said, there are really only two kinds of writers – those who know exactly where they are going when they start a book, and those who have no idea. I have no idea and in this case, it is very exciting.  Particularly with this mosaic concept and these two characters who I have grown to like very much as I've worked with them. We're all in this together and where it stops, nobody knows...

SFRevu:  This book reminds me of Land of Laughs from a different perspective. Whereas Thomas Abbey puts together Marshall France's life and pieces together how the god game works in the small town, in White Apples, Vincent must put his own life together (almost in a style reminiscent of the film Memento) and realise his own game. Is this a valid comparison?

JC: I never thought of it like that but you're right. I've been both applauded and cursed many times of doing riff after riff in my work on who God is and how we play into His scheme (if at all). White Apples just seems to be version number 87 (or whatever) of that ongoing tune.

SFRevu: Dogs feature heavily in your books, in terms of being guides. Is there any particular reason for this?

JC: Dogs are minor angels, but they're so commonplace that we never think of them as anything more than moving furniture. They love us unconditionally, they're always thrilled to see us (even if we've only been gone five minutes), they'll jump straight up out of sleep to play ball or eat chili or go for a walk... at three in the morning. They forgive us our sins and trespasses against both them and the world again and again... I could go on but I won't. I use them because they are small wonders and that is reason enough for me to include them in whatever stories I'm making up.

SFRevu:  You have lived in Vienna for some time. Does this afford you a different perspective at all when you write about small town America or Europe itself?

JC: No, not really. I live in Vienna because I have always felt very comfortable and at home here. When I was in the US in the fall doing a long book tour for White Apples, I was reminded again and again about how much I like America and Americans. But when the tour was over I was very happy to return to Vienna. When asked if I would like to move back to the US, I said as I always do "Not any time soon."

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