Monday, October 5, 2009

Glen David Gold's "Sunnyside": Book Review

Chaplin, Rin Tin Tin, and the Allied incursion vs. Bolsheviks combine, if off-kilter and open endedly, in this ambitious novel. Gold enjoys telling a vibrant story. He keeps the characters and plot churning. It adds up perhaps to less than the sum of its three often disparate parts, but it's rewarding for recreating the WWI era.

Scenes of Los Angeles when you could smell and see orange groves everywhere, of a ruined winery on the French-German front line, a Cowboy-Indian battle enacted before the Kaiser, of puppies and war-bond drives and conniving con-artists and San Francisco streets all come alive. Gold can summon up a tangible sense of participating in such vignettes. He puts his energy into this effort, and it pays off for inspired stretches. The novel, however, jolts and races, tossing you about.

The first half moved skillfully. I was never quite sure what happened in the opening scenes off the California coast, but this sort of ambiguity keeps you page turning. Not all the strands will be neatly woven into a tightly knit ending. It does feel more like three novellas interspersed, for nearly all of the action. While this may upset some readers, it appeared truer to the messy life that its protagonists endure.

Later, as the war overtakes two of its three main characters, the novel slowed noticeably. It never bogs down into a rut, but the ignition propelling it on appears to have been quenched. This downshifting may be intentional, or it may show a weariness on the author's part in keeping his sprawling project driving forward. For instance, the dogs that Lee Duncan adopts gain poignant description, but even as a dog lover myself, the detail given their adoption did not interest me much. A minor character placed early on to be of some motivating, if sinister, force fails in the end, for me, to be explained satisfactorily. I'm not sure the novel regains its earlier verve, but the spirited tone does darken as the themes of futility repeat and widen with imperialist war as sad backdrop.

Halfway through, there's much less, actually, of the war than I expected. This surprised me. Yet, Captain Edmund Ironside offers a more nuanced insight into what happens outside the clichés of the usual historical epic one might have anticipated earlier in the novel. He's pondering how history repeats: "You were never at the beginning or middle of anything. You were always at the middle, in a mist, and it was always up to someone else to announce later what your time on earth had meant." (352) The omniscient narrator will tell us about the fate of one protagonist in advance; this type of editorializing shakes us up and draws us in to the frailty of one's own struggle, shared by all in this story, "to learn a lesson."

This character will find himself contemplating the fate of a dead soldier, frozen upside down in the ice, his trousers and boots stolen from his corpse. The living witness "realized the war was never going to end. Everyone would die and be replaced by people who needed the clothes you died in. This was the future." The character thinks "this was the future, too. He almost wanted to die, except for knowing that men like these will survive him, and take the things from his pockets." (401)

Such existential truth permeates this novel. We learn too well: "A comedy ends with a marriage. A tragedy begins with one." (549) Chaplin listens to a preacher: "Was life basically random, and were our agile human brains, trained in analogy and connecting dots, always making constellations out of chaos? Or was there a deeper meaning, and was it when we were in touch with the divine that we allowed ourselves to see it?" (551)

Faith and its lack in a mysterious world spurs its characters to act and fumble. This choice of what to make yourself believe in elevates the novel's tone, if subtly. Chaplin-- who remains rather enigmatic and distant throughout-- witnesses a similar destruction of verities as man wreaks havoc in the pursuit of dreams. People outside Hollywood watch a film and see "where they could live in tune with what they had always wanted to be. It was obvious, upon seeing the beaches and hills and palms, that your current self was just a stand-in for someone not yet arrived. If only you could live in such a beautiful place, the rest would change. People at their weakest, most trusting, and childlike moments believed there was out there a place for them somewhere in Sunnyside. Which meant the place was eventually one hundred two-bedroom bungalows. The mystery not yet solved was how to love a place when your mere presence destroyed it." (490)

I type this review where I live, a mile from where Chaplin and early stars once hunted quail on a weekend retreat with their mistresses, a half-hour's drive from his studio. These words certainly spoke to me, a native Angeleno. Gold takes as he admits slight liberties in telling his tale: no red-car trolley could get from Hollywood to San Pedro's port in half-an-hour and seagulls don't fly inland as far as downtown L.A. in the opposite direction, Yet, he does capture well the eradication of the wild beauty that films captured, even as they lured so many to this city to bulldoze and pave over the canyons, groves, and shores. After filming a scene from "Sunnyside," Chaplin indirectly reflects: "When they have left the screen, there is a full second of the landscape, a perfect day preserved, a place still beautiful without them." (492) (Posted to Amazon US 10-5-09)

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