Jonathan Carroll’s Voice of Our Shadow (1983)

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Paperback cover (L) and current e-book edition (R). Lethem’s not the only literary darling to praise Carroll. Neil Gaiman’s included Carroll on his essential Halloween reading list.

Voice of Our Shadow is a weird novel. It’s compelling, creepy, lame, uncomfortable; it leaves you wondering if it’s going anywhere or just dilly-dallying inside an unlikable Joseph Lennox’s head.

Joe is a horrible, selfish and self-obsessed brat of a narrator — but his voice is also utterly uncomfortable precisely because, in being horrible, he’s toeing a line that most of us have difficulty with. E.g., he uses friends for personal gain, all the while convincing himself and his audience that he’s playing the Nice Guy, that maybe he’s being unjustly victimized.

A lot of this novel’s horror comes from that: He’s just a disgusting personality. Too human and too me-and-you.

Joe’s your average romanticized writer living a romanticized life abroad, just with all the romantic notions beaten out of him. He fictionalized his dead brother’s teenage exploits while getting his undergrad, and made a fortune on royalties from Broadway and film adaptations. He spends most of his free time — really, most of his time — living a high-brow literary life with a like-minded couple in Vienna. They don’t really do anything other than flip witticisms back and forth and talk about how much they all care for one another at classic American movie showings.

It’s, again, weird — in every sense of the world. I liked it, and I didn’t. I spent the novel feeling a bizarre concoction of captivation and anxiety, or just really upset with being stuck in Lennox’s head, with being stuck with such uninteresting (intentionally-so) characters such as these They spent too much time being walking witticisms and breathing in self-importance. Lennox and his friends social parasites to the letter.

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Author Jonathan Carroll with his dog, Jack.

What really captivated me, however, was Carroll’s writing style; how everything through Joe’s eyes was just off-white, including the horror elements delivered in quick, unexplained punches. It’s something that kept my heart thumping away, on edge, and a little confused as to why.

“Little Boy” is creepy. Any scene with those floppy cartoon gloves and their floppy reality had me reeling. (It’s not something that should be spoiled beyond the name.)

Voice of Our Shadow feels disconnected. Its 3 short acts feel like 3 short novellas about the same characters. The connecting threads of love and dishonesty and juvenile betrayal don’t hold it together very well, and most of its mythic structure is slightly off and yet totally real.

What a weird book — there’s no better way to describe it beyond those simple words. It ends drenched in further obfuscation, in something akin to a punchline — a punchline that’ll leave you thinking “What…? Huh? Wait…” one or two or seven times.

7 / 10

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