- Knopf, 576 pp.
The Rise of Acid Realism
Now and again, I like to picture the current literary landscape at night. All around the country, as dusk bleaches into black, little spots of light are appearing. A lamp of literary fiction here, a kerosene blaze of poetry there. Flickering neon signs of crime, dribbly candles of romance, fluorescent strips of horror.
The more I read of Dean Koontz and Peter Høeg and now Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside, the more I get this strange feeling that I’m seeing a different kind of bulb shining in the tenements. Bright, white and laced with mercury.
On the surface, Gold is doing nothing particularly new technique-wise. Like E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Sunnyside is an engaging mix of history and hyperreality. But instead of Houdini, Gold drafts Charlie Chaplin to be his shapeshifter.
Chaplin is an excellent starting point if you, like Gold, wish to explore the birth of American cinema. For Chaplin was cinema in the early years, an inventor and an absurdist, a director/writer/actor struggling daily with this new form of storytelling.
What’s more, the truth of his life – his relationships with underage girls, his early years in poverty, his mentally disturbed mother and his phenomenal fame – is just as fantastic as anything a screenwriter could have dreamed up.
To arrange Chaplin’s exploits into some kind of order, Gold structures Sunnyside like a day at the cinema: a newsreel, travelogue, two-reel comedy, serial, feature presentation and sing-along. He even takes his title from an early film that Chaplin works on during the novel. Yet despite a deft exploration of his character, the Tramp is only one part of the show.
There is the Kaiser, for one, who enjoys Wild West displays. And a lighthouse keeper’s son named Lee Duncan who is obsessed with becoming a star. And a mysterious young girl adept at thieving. And a prissy American caught up as a soldier fighting in the godawful Archangel campaign.
Chaplin, Kaiser and Co. all share one fate. In Gold’s hands they are all ruled by the movies. Here is the Kaiser, for example, despairing at footage of Native Americans charging through the battlefield in tatty costumes:
Once, he had seen Indians paid to re-create their glorious battles for sport, and that had hardened him. But now, in front of him, onscreen, there were Indians, not re-enacting their lives but pretending to be Indians for the golden calf that was the motion-picture camera… This was the future. It was inescapable.
Lee Duncan experiences a similar moment. Thrown into the war and sent to fight, he sits down one day to watch the “NEWS FROM FRANCE!” on soldiers going over the top. The documentary, where “the realism is unparalleled,” takes the time to show a nurse lovingly placing a pair of child’s puppets around a soldier’s neck. Puppets he, funnily enough, also owns.
Duncan may not realize it, but the Kaiser knows the game is up. From now on, war, famine and pestilence, the Kaiser and the lighthouse keeper’s son, are captives of the camera, incredible fictions that we will banish from our brains before bed. If war is not real anymore, why worry about people fighting it?
That is, of course, until someone loses an eye. Or his pants.
This is the problem, in any case, of Hugo Black, the prissy American. Sent to northern Russia to fight in the Archangel campaign (a real life and little known Allied operation against the Bolsheviks that ended badly), he finds himself in a movie of Gold’s making. Whether he’s charging the Bolsheviks on a runaway train or protecting Russian princesses with a crossbow, he is lodged in the surreal plot of a silent film. At one point, the princesses even offer him popcorn. But Gold, unlike Charlie, is not required to provide us with happy endings. In the book, Chaplin wants to end Sunnyside, the film, with the Tramp being hit by a car (some of this footage made it into the final version). He doesn’t, of course. It’s Hollywood.
Hugo Black, trapped in a frozen wasteland, isn’t as lucky. His reality is the requirement to shoot a man on command or witness a corpse frozen upside down in the ice. With his trousers stolen.
Here’s where the mercury in the lightbulb that I mentioned comes in. For Gold, like Koontz and Høeg, has a way of combining farce and futility that says something about contemporary fiction. They make you laugh, they make you cry, at times they make you want to strangle them for an overuse of irony.
I wouldn’t call it magic realism, though there are certainly aspects of the fantastic in each book. It’s more like acid realism, as if they were all on an amazing trip that could go bad at any moment.
And much like the characters, we’re stuck, for better or for worse, in the tragicomedies that they choose to create. Here, for instance, is a description of Chaikovsky, the man the U.S. chooses to lead the new Russian government:
He had spent twenty-five years in exile. He spoke English, believed in God, and was able to produce testimonials from a couple of Russians who pined for his return. Further, he spoke well of capitalism, so the United States sent him to Archangel.
One doesn’t have to be a genius to realize that Gold isn’t just talking about the past.