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The Marriage of Sticks / Kissing the Beehive
Jonathan Carroll
Indigo, Orion Books, 282 and 252 pages

The Marriage of Sticks
Kissing the Beehive
Jonathan Carroll
Jonathan Carroll was born in 1949 in New York. His father was a screenwriter; his mother an actress and lyricist. He attended Rutgers University then the University of Virginia. He became an English teacher, eventually moving to the American International School in Vienna, Austria, in 1974. Carroll still lives in Vienna with his family.

Jonathan Carroll Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Reading List: Jonathan Carroll
SF Site Review: The Marriage of Sticks
SF Site Review: Kissing the Beehive
SF Site Review: From The Teeth of Angels

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

I came a little late to Jonathan Carroll, having first became aware of him with his marvelous 1994 novel, From The Teeth of Angels, an allegory about dealing with the inevitability of death that, as the best fables do, employs a fantastical motif to illustrate an essential truth of our existence. It's the sort of book you recommend to anyone trying to cope with the devastation of death. Of damn sight better use than any simplistic self-help book on the New Age shelf.

While I'm still working to catch up with Carroll's entire oeuvre, I've recently made some headway by reading his last two novels, The Marriage of Sticks and Kissing the Beehive, recently published in serviceable, if unremarkable, UK paperback editions under the Indigo imprint of Orion Books. There's also a limited edition (1,000 copies) novella called The Heidelberg Cylinder signed by both Carroll and cover artist Dave McKean, just published by Mobius New Media.

The two novels share a setting -- Crane's View, evidently modeled after Carroll's own childhood hometown on the Hudson River in New York. There is also the appearance of, as Carroll aficionados would expect, several dogs, burning or otherwise, that figure in the fate of the human characters. And, as also oftentimes occurs in his other work, a supporting character, in this case local police chief Frances McCabe, appears in both books, though the protagonists and plot lines are different. [We interrupt this review to give you a brief SPOILER WARNING: while the reviewer takes pains not to ruin a story for anyone by revealing plot twists or endings, the following statement, broad though it is, could conceivably have negative consequences for those who enjoy trying to "figure out" the story. If you are one such person, you might want to skip the next sentence and proceed to the next paragraph.] Indeed, because I read the books out of sequence, reading the more recent The Marriage of Sticks (1999) first, I kept expecting that a certain character would turn out to be a reincarnation of another, not knowing that Kissing the Beehive lacks the fantastical elements generally characteristic of Carroll's work.

So to take them in order of original publication, Kissing the Beehive is a metaphor for what happens when you get too intimate with dangerous things. For Edward Durant Jr, it is the alluring Pauline Ostrova, for whose murder Durant is convicted, and is followed by his in-cell suicide. It is also the fascination of novelist Sam Bayer, who years ago, as a boy, found her floating body and, in an accidental return to his hometown, is inspired to write a book that promises to reveal the real murderer, not to mention restarting his career. Bayer is also currently romantically involved with an obsessed fan whose behavior is eerily reminiscent of what made the late Pauline such an intriguing obsession for the men in her short life. As soon as Bayer opens up his investigation, people related to the case start turning up dead.

So the book you're reading is ostensibly a memoir about how the non-fiction book comes to be written, a story behind the story. Of course, both stories are fictional. But since the character is an author, you might not be blamed for wondering how much is autobiographical. In fact, some of it is. As a young boy, Carroll did once discover a floating corpse, as the 12 year old Bayer does in the novel. And Carroll was once stalked by a disturbed fan. But I think that's about as far as it goes.

Nor has Carroll written any sort of straightforward "who-dunnit," at least in the sense that the point is for the reader to solve a puzzle of clues. While perhaps true to a certain extent, certain key details are kept from the reader until the denouement, which wouldn't be playing fair. That's because the puzzle Carroll is dealing with here is the puzzle of existence, a persistent theme of his work, and it's not one that necessarily can be solved, only pondered.

The Marriage of Sticks (a reference to the Stephen Dobyns poem "Silence" as well as a character's habit of inscribing sticks with names and events that can be burned as a way of releasing their memory, or their pain) is similarly concerned with the notion of not being able to go home again. Like Sam Bayer, the narrator is providing a memoir, only this time it is that of a very (with emphasis on the very) old woman looking back on the events that trigger a highly disturbing discovery about herself, and her highly admirable response to set things right -- or at least do the best she can about it. Miranda Romanac (what a great name!) attends a 15 year school reunion with vague hopes of reuniting with a lost flame, who turns out to have died under regrettable circumstances. She does, however, begin seeing his ghost. At about the same time, she embarks on an affair with a married man who may be an even truer love, but which also has tragic consequences. Seems that Miranda has a knack of changing things that were meant to turn out differently. Although the fantasy threatens to almost get out of hand in the second part of the book, Carroll manages to keep things under control and provide a surprisingly hopeful resolution that maybe what goes around comes around.

I heartily recommend both these books, and would similarly urge upon you The Heidelberg Cylinder, except I don't think you can get it. This book was offered exclusively through the Jonathan Carroll website (one of the best author sites I've seen, by the way, nicely designed and chock full of information) and I believe it is currently sold out. My impression is that there aren't any immediate plans to distribute it in a mass market format. Even if you can get a copy (eBay apparently has listed some for the highest bidder), I might wait to see if it ends up in some future short story collection. I didn't mind paying full book price for a novella length work as I assume the profits are mostly directed to Carroll, and I certainly don't mind supporting an artist of his stature. On the other hand, it's annoying that a so-called collector's edition has three typographical errors and engages in the curiously disorienting practice of underlining words to indicate emphasis, as opposed to the standard italics, which gives the impression it was produced on a typewriter.

That aside, this is a humorous story about what happens when Satan decides the solution to an overcrowded Hell -- which turns out not to be nearly as bad as we are made to think -- is to move inhabitants of his fiery dominion right into suburban tract homes. Funny stuff that deals with Carroll's ongoing exploration of humanity's tendency, however inept or irrelevant, to try to do the right thing, no matter what truth we'd rather not know it reveals.

Copyright © 2001 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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