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Glass Soup
Jonathan Carroll
Tor, 317 pages

Glass Soup
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 Review: Outside the Dog Museum
SF Site Review: White Apples
SF Site Review: Voice of Our Shadow
SF Site Review: The Wooden Sea
SF Site Interview: Jonathan Carroll
SF Site Reading List: Jonathan Carroll
SF Site Review: The Land of Laughs
SF Site Review: The Marriage of Sticks and Kissing the Beehive
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

In eastern religion, "karma" refers to the cumulative deeds of an individual, both in current and previous incarnations. Generally speaking, good deeds are rewarded with better incarnations; by the same token, bad deeds result in less desirable incarnations, thus justifying the Hindu caste system. A variation of this concept in Buddhism is that all karma (i.e., individual actions) are tainted because they are performed out of ignorance -- enlightenment or Nirvana is literal self-extinguishment, a liberation from the worldly illusions of "reality" and, consequently, release from the karmic wheel of cause and effect that "condemns" the individual to continual rebirth.

In his latest novel, Glass Soup, a sequel to White Apples (about which familiarity is not a prerequisite), Jonathan Carroll depicts karma as sort of like going to school -- when you die, you go to a world formed from your own dreams (and, of course, nightmares) to learn how to be a better person. As you begin to grasp more about yourself -- and your ontological situation -- you "graduate" to higher levels of consciousness (if that's the right word for post-corporeal existence). Though without ever really getting the big picture -- indeed, the novel's title refers to a code phrase sent back from the dead that supposedly explains everything to those who can recognize it, though we as readers are still left to guess. (Raising the problem that if attainment of Nirvana -- the terminal degree, so to speak -- is annihilation of the self, that literally leaves nothing left to finally obtain answers to such questions. Which, I suppose, is the attraction of suicide for some folks. But what if suicide just makes you repeat a grade?)

The prologue to the novel, which previously appeared as "Simon's House of Lipstick" in Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, immediately establishes this notion. However, Simon Haden is not the focus of the narrative, though he does, in the end, become a better guy and is rewarded by in a certain sense getting the girl. (While Nirvana no doubt contains rewards beyond mere physicality, to this non-Buddhist, getting laid in the afterlife sounds like a decent pay-off. Though perhaps that's because, like Simon, I'm only at the grade school level in my understanding of cosmic metaphysics.)

Simon's, however, is a supporting role, though important because it is his subconscious landscape that provides the spiritual field for the retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, whose attempted rescue of his beloved Eurydice from Hades concludes tragically (while, by the way, becoming a rationale for pederasty, which is not one of Carroll's themes). Here the genders are reversed, and the price to be paid has greater implications beyond the fate of a single soul. Conceivably, the sacrifice a character makes for love is intended as Christian allegory.

Isabelle Neukor has, unlike Orpheus, successfully crossed into the realm of the dead and returned with her deceased lover, Vincent Ettrich, to the land of the living. Isabelle is bearing Vincent's child, Anjo. This is no ordinary child, but one who may upset the plans of a "Chaos," a perhaps too-obviously named entity bent upon sundering the delicate mosaic of both worldly and afterworldly existences. To foil Chaos and maintain God's tapestry as designed, it is imperative, for some reason, that the child be born of the dead father in the land of the living.

Carroll's notion of God doesn't seem to have any more control of what's going on than the rest of us. Needless to say, it isn't your garden variety Sunday school depiction. Indeed, God's guest turn comes in the form of a polar bear named Bob. Which just goes to show that God, like Carroll, has a sense of humor.

(On this note, it's interesting to note the cover artwork by Rafal Olbinski, which depicts a large Great Dane with a human face on its belly overlooking two figures who are presumably Isabelle and Vincent poised at a crossroads. As Carroll devotees well-know, dogs always feature in the novelist's work; moreover, dog spelled backwards is, to point out the tritely obvious, "god." Though this is perhaps a fair artistic depiction of Carroll's peculiar cosmology, it doesn't accurately reflect the events in Glass Soup, as the dog is employed as a minion of Chaos. Though that presents interesting theological implications.)

The attempts of Chaos to lure Isabelle and Vincent astray provides the basic plot line. All's well that ends well with a moral akin to Rick's famed speech to Ilsa as the plane readies to depart the Casablanca airport. Carroll, however, sidesteps what could have been a sappy conclusion in recognizing that even fantasy shouldn't ignore that decisions -- for good or ill -- have consequences that we must all learn to live with, though we can make the best of them.

Copyright © 2006 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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