Through the looking-glass
Roll up, roll up for Neil Jordan's latest novel, a magical mystery tour with an intriguing set-up which unfortunately comes crashing to a halt
Throughout his brilliant film-directing career, Neil Jordan has deftly moved between realism (The Crying Game, say, or The Brave One) and fantastical (Interview with the Vampire, The Company of Wolves).
Something like The Butcher Boy did both in one film: a hallucinogenic blend of social commentary and demented dream-world, created inside the fragmenting mind of its young protagonist. That film, based on a book, is maybe the closest cinematic reference point to Jordan's latest novel, Carnivalesque.
The main character here is also a teenage boy. The story attempts to bridge two worlds: quotidian life in Ireland and a strange, colourful fantasia hidden beneath the surface. But there's an important difference: in Carnivalesque, the fantastic is very real. It's alive. It has agency and power.
Andy lives with his parents in a north Dublin suburb. One afternoon they bring him to the merries: a colourful, beguiling assemblage of funfair, circus and the grandly titled Burleigh's Amazing Hall of Mirrors.
The kid goes into the last-named alone. A few minutes later, through some infernal magic which is later explained, his mirror image walks out into the real world and Andy is trapped inside the glass. A carnie girl slightly older than him, Mona, rescues him by literally pushing her hands through the mirror and pulling him free. She calls him Dany: an appropriately muddled version of his name.
The other Andy - a modern iteration of that old horror staple, the changeling - returns to suburban life with the folks. He's a blank, unsettling, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type simulacrum of a human being. Mother Eileen knows, on some instinctive level, that the boy is different, but puts it down to the usual difficult transformations of adolescence.
Meanwhile, for reasons not quite clear to himself, Dany joins this troupe of wanderers as they journey around the country with the carnival. Through work, travel and the rhythms of close-quarter living, he and we piece together the backstory of the carnies.
Jordan draws the ingredients of his fictional universe mostly from Irish legends and the Old Testament. In short, and as far as I could make out (the novel isn't always totally clear on its own mythos), carnies are fairies: what we would have known as the Aos Sí.
They're blessed with superhuman powers, which explain those breathtaking acts of high-wire derring-do in the circus ring. And they're ageless, changeless, deathless - until finally, after long centuries, a sort of natural entropy called The Fatigue ends their days, or rather, drives them to end their days by jumping off a cliff.
As well as fairies, though, they're also outcasts from heaven: the Land of Spices, the carnies call it. They fell to earth after a huge battle with opposing forces led by the monstrous An Fear Drúcht, AKA the Dewman: a demonic, parasitic presence who feeds off a mildew formed by human emotions.
For aeons, the Dewman has been missing, presumed dead. Now, through a confluence of events and historical paths, he/it has returned - and is coming for Dany.
It all sounds quite like the set-up for a Young Adult novel - which isn't a bad thing, by the way. I quite liked the themes and world of Carnivalesque: they're not wildly original, but what of it?
There's something irresistible about carnivals and circuses as a setting for supernatural tales. The music, rituals, painted faces and 'cross my palm with silver' screams of happy terror and terrified happiness, that sense of impermanence, the dark, shadowy through-the-looking-glass vibe… it's all good.
What fatally hobbles this book is not the outlandish tale but the telling of it: the mechanics of plot and quality of prose. Prosaic things, certainly, but necessary to recount any story well, even a fable.
Without good writing, the reader is constantly bumped out of their mental immersion in the narrative; you keep stopping, putting it aside and tutting censoriously, "God, that line is terrible". And the writing in Carnivalesque, while not quite awful, is surprisingly and ironically poor.
I say ironically because Jordan, as well as being a lauded director, is an author of renown. He began as a writer of fiction, winning the Guardian First Book Award aged just 29. He's earned good reviews for novels and stories since. So what happened here?
The pacing is uneven, the plot is sometimes unclear to the point of confusion, and the ending is so rushed, garbled and nonsensical, it feels like the "we've run out of interest and money, just throw some special effects at the screen" climax to a bad horror flick.
I was scratching my head in bewilderment, but also annoyance. What just happened? And how exactly did it happen? And hasn't this essentially torn up all the rules of this fictional universe which have been assembled over the previous seven-eighths of the book?
The prose itself is often lovely but, perhaps even more surprisingly, it is also often clunky, almost amateurish. At times, Jordan really hits the sweet spot - his descriptions of the carnival's disassembly are wonderful - but there are a lot of clichéd metaphors, repeated words, awkward phrasing. Much of it reads more like a first draft rather than a well-worked piece by a proven author (and, incidentally, one of the most 'literary' filmmakers of his generation).
On a personal level, I hate saying all this because I'm basically in awe of Jordan the screenwriter and director. But so it is: this novel was a serious disappointment, more of a straight-to-DVD mediocrity than a magical carnival.
Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl