Charlie Chaplin and friends in "Sunnyside" (1919).
I don't read fiction much anymore. My reasons for this are embarrassing and somewhat pathetic, but I'll admit them anyway. First, I write my own fiction and I have such a deep fear of plagiarism, that I'm worried that something I read will sink into my spongey brain, I'll put it into what I'm writing and then next thing you know, I'm sued for plagiarism and mortified for life. I've never had this happen to me, but I guess the plagiarism scandals of the past few years have become my equivalent of the tales that keep you up in the middle of the night, buried under the blankets. Ghosteys, monsters, Kaiser Soze, plagiarism lawsuits. This is what terrifies me. The other reason is that I worry that reading successful, accomplished authors--mostly contemporary ones--will discourage me so much I'll just give up. You could certainly argue that reading great fiction will make me a better writer, but I read a lot up until recently and still read the occasional author from the 19th century literary canon. And it's not like you can't find great prose in nonfiction. So instead I shrink away from those who I know have outpaced me. Yes, this does show that I am sadly insecure. Yes, I should be embarrassed. But it's the truth nonetheless.
A few years ago, though, I let my guard down. I love reading about magicians, especially in the 19th and early 20th century (this is all the fault of Jim Steinmeyer's history Hiding the Elephant), so when I saw the novel Carter Beats the Devil, a fictionalized account of a real (though somewhat obscure) magician in the 1900s, I had to give it a try. Well, it turned out to be one of those books that made me miss my train stop, which is pretty high praise indeed. I also developed an enormous crush on the book's main character (note to the world: if you are going to fall in love with someone in a book, make sure it is a fictional person; doing this with a real person can only lead to humiliation and heartbreak). I loved the book, and recommended it to a number of people who also fell for it.
As I've noted before, I'm an incredibly loyal reader. If I like one book by an author, I'll probably read everything else he or she writes. So I was, then, incredibly excited when someone mentioned to me that the author of Carter, Glen David Gold, had a new book coming out (apparently I wasn't the only one waiting--there were 27 people on the NYPL's reservation list before the book was even published). When my copy of Sunnyside became available, I rushed up to the library, took it home and read it as fast as possible. And now, here I am.
Chaplin and Mutt in "A Dog's Life" (1918).
Usually when I write about books here, I give a blow-by-blow account of the story, somewhere between a synopsis and a rewrite. If I'm writing about a nonfiction book, it doesn't really matter that much if the whole story comes out, as in most cases we already know the end (**spoiler!!**Teddy Roosevelt loses the 1912 election!!). In this case, though, I don't want to give away too much. I'll just say that Sunnyside tells the stories of several different people during the closing years of World War I: Hugo Black, an educated, cultured engineer who is sent as part of the American Expeditionary Force to the cold city of Archangel in Russia, to carry out a mission that no one seems to understand; Leland Wheeler, the son of a lighthouse keeper and a failed Wild West Show star who dreams of being in the movies (renaming himself Lee Duncan) but gets sent to fight in France where he finds his emotional salvation and ticket to stardom in the form of two puppies; and Charlie Chaplin, who struggles with making his comic shorts while knowing he is capable of something greater, although he is not sure how to get there. Along the way, many others weave in and out of the story, including a larcenous girl scout, a refugee from the Wilson administration, White Russians on the run, and a host of Hollywood's reigning silent era elite: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Adolph Zukor, and Frances Marion.
The three main characters never actually meet, but rather glance off each other's storylines like molecules bouncing and pinging off each other in rapidly boiling water. Some of the minor characters provide links (but I won't tell you who or how, as you really should read it yourself), but the main stories are linked thematically; a physical meeting isn't necessary. And although there is no grand moment when everyone comes together, there is instead a moment at the end when you (or I should just say "I") say, "Oh! Now I see," which is a very gratifying feeling to have at the end of a book.
As with any book with multiple heroes and storylines, you (or again, perhaps I should say "I") like some more than others, and when the story cuts away to those you find less appealing, you can feel impatient. Or at least I do. In this book, my least favorite was the Hugo Black story. Archangel is cold and bleak, and Hugo is prissy and not particularly likable. However, he fills his role as a representative of the Old World, the courtly pre-World War I era where fine manners and class distinctions matter; Hugo seems at his best when he encounters a group of Russian princesses, themselves relics who also will soon be swept away in the wave of the onrushing modern world.
Hugo's counterpart is Lee Duncan, someone very much of the modern world. Without much in the way of social status or education, but armed with the determination and good looks, he sets his sights on that most modern of goals, the vague "become famous," that suddenly seems achievable to anyone with, well, determination and good looks, through the fast-growing motion picture industry. Lee isn't interested in art or driven by the thought of giving a great performance as he is by the idea of being on the cover of Photoplay; he quickly figures out how fame and stardom are manufactured and is ready to play the game. Just when it seems as if he's on the verge of his big break, though, Lee is forced to enlist and fight in a war he wants no part of--not because of an anti-war stance, but rather because it interrupts his attempt to start his career. In France, Lee is emotionally dead, sure that he's lost his chance. The only thing that awakens him are a few war dogs he meets; when he rescues two puppies, they give him a reason to live. If you know anything about movie history, you can figure out where this story is going, but that doesn't matter. Lee is naive in many ways, but attractive and sympathetic. In Carter Beats the Devil, Gold showed that he had an understanding of the bond that can form between people and animals, and he deepens that here. He shows beautifully how much an animal can mean to a person, which of course meant that there were moments in this story when I cried. A lot. Good lord, I'm easy.
Can you name this movie star? No, not the one with thumbs.
It's also easy to sell me on the Chaplin storyline, as I've been a sucker for the old movies since I learned the name Fred Astaire (who was just switching from vaudeville to Broadway when this book gets going). Like any good little student of film history, I'm pretty familiar with the time period this covers, particularly the formation of United Artists by Hollywood's most powerful stars--Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin, and director D.W. Griffith--in an effort to gain control of their careers and profits before the studios forced them into perpetual servitude. It's always a little odd when you're reading a fictionalized version of a real person. If I'm reading a biography or history book and the author invents dialogue or overindulges too much in "Here perhaps he thought..." "He likely would have said," I am infuriated and want to throw the book across the room. When it's in a novel, though, I kind of shrug, realize the author has license to do what he or she feels is right; novelists are not held to the same standard of accuracy as a nonfiction writer. In a case like this, I have to remind myself that this is essentially a character based on a real person, rather than the actual real person. Nevertheless, it's hard at times not to wonder a little bit if we've wandered too far afield (Charlie Chaplin attracted to Frances Marion? I wasn't sold on that; if this is true, well, then I'm just an idiot). And at those moments, again, I have to pull back and remind myself again that this is a novel--and stop flipping to the back looking for the index!!! In the end, though, I felt that the Chaplin drawn by Gold has some essence of truth in it; whether it is true to the real Chaplin or just our imagined idea of him is not something to worry about; after all movie stars are always more what we imagine or want them to be than what they really are.
Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin, and Griffith, the powers behind United Artists.
And that to me is the heart of this book--how movies transformed in a way what it means to be ourselves. You, the waitress and you, the mechanic, can be a movie star and be more famous than a prince or princess. You can create your image, whether you are a movie star or a regular person. You can be the hero of your own story which you expect to play out like a movie. Your image is something that is endlessly manipulated by you, or others. A movie star can mean a million things to a million different people and can be a million places at once. And somewhere out there, there is the real you and the imaginary you, who can run into each other, with only one surviving the confrontation.
(I'm not sure if that makes sense to anyone but me, and I'm not sure if it is what Gold was writing about. This is probably why I shouldn't write about fiction much. So let me try to tie this one up.)
Sunnyside isn't as easy, or perhaps as instantly lovable as Carter Beats the Devil, but its occasional thorniness results in a bigger payoff (something Chaplin eventually learned). Again, sometimes I felt myself grow vaguely annoyed when the book went to a story or character that interested me less than another, but I learned to understand the purpose of everyone. This isn't so much a book with a plot as it is a portrait of a time and some of the types of people who lived in it. Luckily, I didn't fall in love with anyone in it, and maybe I didn't even fall in love with this book. But after I finished it, I found myself thinking about it numerous times in the days afterwards, and with a book, maybe that's as good as love. And definitely safer.