Friday, 25 March 2011
A Year in Books 2011 - Sunnyside
Glen David Gold's first novel Carter Beats the Devil was one of the best debuts I've read. It seemed to be one of the those word of mouth successes, where people who read it bought it or recommended it to others (if you've not read it then give it a go - it is a great galloping romp of a read).
It has taken 8 years for his next novel to appear so when reviews for Sunnyside started to feature in the sunday papers anticipation started to build.
Sunnyside takes as its main themes the birth of both the film studio system and cult of celebrity along with America starting to flex its muscles on foreign shores through world war one. As a result there are lot's of parallels with what is going on in the wider world at the moment.
To get this across Gold weaves together 3 main stories, the first and by far the best involves Charlie Chaplin, the second and almost as effective focuses on a frustrated actor who is forced to join up and serve in Belgium, the third involves another army recruit, this time stationed inside a Russia tottering on the verge of revolution.
It is this 3rd part that highlights the problem with such an approach. It isn't nearly as effective as the other 2 and so every time the story switches over to Russia I couldn't help rushing through those pages eager to get back to the 2 other strands. Also although various elements cross over the image of Chaplin rather than the man himself stitches the strands together, I was expecting some convergence at the end. This doesn't happen, instead it is as if a camera just fades to black as the action keeps going so it just felt that the author had a surplus of good ideas, spending all his energy on big set pieces and giving too little thought to fitting those pieces and ideas together. This is made worse by the comparison with Carter which was so tightly plotted.
There are flashes of what made Carter so good, the period detail and sense of time and place are skillfully evoked, fact and fiction blend seamlessly, the big set pieces fizz along and evoke the kind of one reel serials of early hollywood, the myriad of characters are well drawn (although too many appear and disappear too abruptly,leaving you unsure of what they add)
The whole Chaplin strand had me hooked, his friendship with Fairbanks and rivalry with Pickford, his complicated love life and his even more complicated relationship with his mother. He manages to make Chaplin's inner voice as he struggles with his art and his ambitions completely believable. The Chaplin strand left me wanting more and kind of wishing he had dropped the other two elements and stuck with Chaplin's story
Overall, it is a wildly ambitious novel from a very talented writer but as with a lot of big budget films individual scenes stay with you at the expense of a satisfying sense of the whole. Something that you can get away with in film but is much harder to pull off in a novel.
You can buy Sunnyside here