Jordan returns with convoluted, dark fantasy
By Neil Jordan
A road accident four years ago grounded Neil Jordan. It prevented him from making films while he rehabilitated because getting around was a major problem. It allowed him, however, to return to prose, his first love.
Fiction is something that Jordan has consistently plugged away at, releasing a book or two every decade since 1976's award-winning short-story collection A Night in Tunisia. This can often be forgotten given the director's cultural ubiquity in this country via generation-defining movie releases such as The Crying Game, Michael Collins and his adaptations of Pat McCabe's The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto.
The break in film work, Jordan recently said in an interview, has meant he's been slightly forgotten in Tinseltown (his last release was the lukewarmly received Anne Rice saga, Byzantium). That said, you'd still never immediately assume that Carnivalesque is a stealthy move to author his way back into the minds of Hollywood producers once again.
For starters, this bizarre blend of fantasy, Gothic horror and coming-of-age has an entire mythology to get across and at times can feel as if it is doing so laboriously.
At the root of Jordan's world are carnies (carnival folk) who are, in fact, a mysterious race with special powers who hide in our world, travelling about with their carnival and all its customary attractions while also harvesting a mysterious substance called mildew.
A boy of 14 called Andy is sucked into this dimension during an encounter at the carnival's Hall of Mirrors, where his eerie doppelganger ends up strolling away with his parents and taking up residence in his Dublin household. Andy is renamed Dany by a new adopted family of magical carnies and quickly becomes indoctrinated in all they are. There is a love interest, emergent powers and a showdown with a monstrous spirit called "the Dewman" that wants all the mildew for himself. Or something.
Starting and finishing with some abruptness, Carnivalesque has a middle section that works rather well in places. Here, Andy's mother Eileen is slowly cottoning onto the fact that the thing sitting at the kitchen table, its hands and verbal interactions both cold to the touch, is not her son. Strange occurrences escalate in Dublin suburbia as Jordan deftly folds together his fantastical dark realm and the more mundane one we know all too well.
Running parallel to these chapters, however, are long and convoluted exhumations of this admittedly rich folklore that Jordan has dreamt up, a bringing together of Gothic intrigue, Celtic mythology and macabre body horror that is introduced to us in cumbersome blocks.
Again, there are times where it weaves through real 20th-century history - see the excellent tract about a character negotiating the rise of Nazidom - and one must give credit to how Jordan, his movie-set viewfinder clearly working, is able to conjure moments of strikingly memorable imagery. But too much of it is untethered and divulged via flowery, verbose exposition.
The language in general, in fact, veers close to exhaustive in places, and needlessly so. There are words and phrases that the author clearly likes a lot, to the point that he is happy to use them again and again. Laughter, for instance, usually comes in "peals", feelings and sensations are often "delicious" and I don't want to see the word "roustabout" in print again for a long time.
Perhaps Carnivalesque would work better in celluloid where its flights of fancy could be given a more manageable shape. Thoughts of a $50m-budget, young-adult fantasy starring Asa Butterfield and Mia Wasikowska spring to mind.
There is undoubtedly something worthwhile about how active Jordan's imagination continues to be. It's just the presentation that is not quite right.