Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold's marvellous debut novel, was set largely in the showbiz environment of stage magic and had as its central character a fictionalised version of a real Golden Age magician and his (fictional) involvement in the death of (real) US president Warren Harding.
Sunnyside, Gold's long awaited follow up, at first glance has a similar starting point, focusing on another branch of showbiz - movies - and is also centred on a real prominent individual, the iconic figure of Charlie Chaplin. Again Gold weaves many other actual people and events into an engrossing fictional web. But here the scale and ambition are larger, and the tone and mood while occasionally comic, is less exhilarating than Carter, tending instead to the gloomy and unresolved.
Gold's Chaplin is a tortured genius, weighed down by so many problems and frustrations that he is trapped in a creative dead end. He is an intriguing, flawed, but also somewhat tiresome, character who needs something that his Tramp character was good at dishing out - a good kick in the pants. At least these parts of the book provide an opportunity for a fascinating scrutiny of Hollywood's early years, the struggle for dominance between the stars and the moguls, the changing face of Los Angeles as the film-makers discover its quiet canyons and hills, the burgeoning cult of celebrity, the magnetic pull that could attract royalty and revolutionaries. But this is also the period of the First World War and the novel also covers part of the American (and Allies) adventures in France and Russia.
The book starts on the day of 12 November 1916, when there were over 800 sightings of Chaplin across the USA, a form of mass hysteria that illustrate just how pervasive Chaplin or rather his Little Fellow persona had become. This serves to introduce, as well as Chaplin himself, the other two main characters. First there is Leland Duncan, a movie star handsome `hero' who via a series of misfortunes ends up looking after a pair of puppy dogs in a war ravaged area of France. Yes, really. (Duncan incidentally is also a based on a real person). The third protagonist is the pretentious and glum Hugo Black, a not very appealing character who by ill luck finds himself in the ranks of a motley multinational military force in a hell-frozen-over part of Russia supposedly there to fight the Bolsheviks.
Each section is modelled on part of the programme of an old time night at the movies (newsreel, serial, comedy short) and so the book flicks back and forth between the three protagonists, perhaps intending to reflect that monument of silent cinema Intolerance, where cross cutting was supposedly deployed for the first time. Teeming with characters and incidents both grand and small, the book is really a series of audacious set pieces that switch between comedy, tragedy, irony and melodrama.
Taken as a whole, Sunnyside is much less focused than Carter, and Gold seems to be straining to be more consciously literary. The sentences are frequently dense and packed with obsessive detail which often feels too much like unnecessary clutter. A small example; Hugo Black has disembarked with the rest of the 339th Infantry Regiment at the Russian Port of Archangel: "Soon the Americans stood in formation dockside...There was a tang of marine waste and metal slurry, a hint of old sawdust. It reminded Hugo of the ghostliness of the hoop-and-stave works, which he and his father, the engineer of engineers, visited on Sundays."
I don't know about you, but my experience of hoop-and-stave works isn't vast, so why the tang of marine waste, metal slurry and old sawdust should remind Hugo of one makes for a pretty arcane comparison. Are productive hoop-and-stave works always ghostly or are just the specific ones that Hugo is remembering ghostly? Were they ghostly because they were abandoned or because they didn't operate on Sundays? Have I forgotten an earlier reference to a hoop-and-stave works that would explain why one has been mentioned now? There are quite a few examples of this sort of unenlightening hyper detail which rather than aid or clarify understanding just get in the way.
There is no denying that many passages and sections taken individually are entertaining and engrossing but overall Sunnyside lacks the consistency and gripping narrative of Carter Beats the Devil. It is the, sometimes dazzling, parts that one comes away admiring rather than the whole.
on 12 July 2009
Glenn David Gold's follow-up to "Carter Beats the Devil", his massively entertaining debut novel, may well disappoint fans hoping for a repeat of the nail biting plotting and historical reconstruction of that magnum opus, but there are enough high spots to excite any readers excited by ideas and style.
"Sunnyside" has taken 8 years to get to us and weighs in at a formidable 555 pages. In it he develops some of the ideas about celebrity and personality he began to develop in "Carter" but eschews the page turning plotting that kept that book so alive. But this is a much more considered attempt to analyse a key point in the development of modern America as Hollywood gets it legs and begins to establish itself in the public psyche. He centers on Charlie Chaplin, the king of the two reel silent comedies, who has established a power base for himself, but who is beginning to dry up artistically. Meanwhile the Hollywood entrepreneurs are trying to broaden the market for films to claim the artistic and intellectual market they are currently missing. All this is at the time when America enters the WW1, the first war in which film played a central part in portraying the supposed reality of war.
To hold all this together he invents a plot about two outsiders who join the war in Belgium and Russia respectively through a series of co-incidences that pull them both within Chaplin's orbit. Their naratives are designed to counterpoint the prevailing images that Americans are presented and to underpin his general analysis of the way that film narrative undermines popular perceptions. However, it is in this area that Gold has difficulties in sustaining the pace and liveliness of the Hollywood scenes.
In its depiction of Hollywood and the characters that populate it, Gold's style is reminiscent of EL Doctorow. His potrayal of Chaplin, Fairbanks and Pickford is very entertaining and these are interspersed with some brilliant set-pieces that, occasionally, rival those of his previous novel. But this is much more ambitious thematically and perhaps it is this which holds it back.
For the patient reader, however, this entertaining book offers rewards as it moves towards its deeply moving and hopeful conclusion as the characters' fates are sealed.
on 1 December 2009
It seems obligatory to mention Gold's first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, when talking about Sunnyside. However, from the other reviews here, you'd suspect that debut was a far better book than it is. It's a great read, certainly, and manages to write about magic quite magically in places; it's a page-turner, too, and is undeniably enjoyable. However, in retrospect, it also seems to be easy to forget how long it took to get going, how poorly its female characters were written, and the fact that its playfulness isn't necessarily the same as the brilliance that's claimed for it now. Perhaps its reputation is as much a trick of the light as the show it described.
Sunnyside is a different book in many ways. For a start, it's more serious and reflective, and covers celebrity in a way that is as much about the melancholy as it is about the spectacle. Where Carter enjoyed performing, and the artifice behind the magic tricks, Sunnyside shows how hollow or empty the reality behind the publically consumed images can be: not as a series of tricks but in lives linked by history, dreams, and ideas.
In Leland, for all the overlong descriptions of dog training, we have a character who is a wonderful example of its central themes. He's a product of a broken home, and of a failed performer of bad illusions, and is driven by a desire for fame that he cannot truly understand to the point where he is always performing himself in his own illusory screenplay. The consequences of his performances in the real word are both tragic and comic, as much for their context as their narrative pull. The protracted passages on his dogs still build towards a set piece and reveal that is moving as well as knowing, and almost pays off the pages put into it.
Similarly, where others have criticised the portrayal of Chaplin for seeming unsympathetic, it's that aspect to him that makes the split between his appearance and his identity so dynamic, and that gives such a drive to the sections centred on him.
It's no surprise that Sunnyside isn't as much fun, then, because it is examining a different aspect of the themes of Carter, as well as others beside. It's just a shame if, in being more serious and less fun, this might lead readers to dwell on flaws they glossed over before. That seems unfair, not least because this is a so much better written book. There's so much more complexity and depth to its characters and ideas, and more ambition in their stories. Those characters are explored more fluidly, and Gold continually exhibits a wonderful knack for inhabiting both their outlook and the times they are in. He has more to say about - or at least to question of - all of them, which is among the key strengths of this book.
Obviously in a book of this length there are lulls, or less successful characters, but these are nothing to rival how long Carter's take-off was, or how painful its blind romance. Sunnyside's set pieces are just as wonderfully realised, if not better, and stand out too; I don't want to give any away here, but the party in particular is fantastic. It's not just seductions and gossip, but artifice, performance, Hollywood politics and more, and is compelling and breathtakingly achieved.
Sunnyside is too long, but on reflection, Carter is just as overlong and patchy in places. And I'd argue that Sunnyside only really fails where it shares its forerunner's flaws. What stands out for me is the genuine development in its writing style, a greater depth and complexity (even if this occasionally causes the focus to fail), and its consistently realised tone and context.
This book is all the better for not being a re-run, and deserves to be read for what it does, rather than misjudged on Carter's terms. If you can get past the light show of his first novel, you may find far more meaning here, as well as hints of how Gold's voice is growing. I, for one, hope there are more `disappointments' this good to follow.
on 14 September 2010
Just like 'Carter Beats the Devil,' Gold takes the reader back to an incredibly well realised point in American history and builds an authentic seeming and believable world for his characters to function in. Sadly, he seems to have dropped the fast paced and gripping sotryline and characters that made 'Carter...' such a great book. Other reviewers have covered those characters in more detail so I won't go into it here, just to say you don't really end up rooting for anoyone but Lee Duncan, a reluctant draftee who struggles with the war he's fighting and finds something to hold onto in an unlikely place.
The book takes time to get going, possibly due to the amount of scene setting that's needed. After it does, the middle of the book is more pacy and enjoyable, with storylines that take 2 of the protagonists to Russia and covers the rise of Chaplin and the evolution of a burgeoning Hollywood. The ending however, is something of a let-down. There's a fair amount of deaths and it ends on an rather blank note. Maybe the message behind it passed me by, but I found it somewhat disappointing and bleak.
'Carter...' was a page turner from the start, with an excellent central character and an intriguing plot. In comparison, 'Sunnyside' seems difficult to get into something of a trifle at its conclusion. Very well written certainly and by no means a terrible book, (I feel the 1 star review on here is slightly unfair,) but not the masterpiece I was expecting.
on 10 March 2012
After "Carter beats the Devil", this book is rather disappointing.It is really 3 books in one, none of which is particularly interesting. One of the themes is the futility of war and I must admit that this reader more than once debated the futility of continuing to read the book. However, having said that, Gold is too good a writer to produce a really bad book and there are sections which are absorbing. The main character, Charlie Chaplin, is portrayed in a minimalist way and comes across as distant and somewhat lonely. Though I didn't particularly enjoy "Sunnyside", I stilll look forward to Mr Gold's next work - though if he maintains his current rate of production, I may have a long wait.
on 20 January 2014
After a long pause, Glen David Gold published Sunnyside, the follow-up to his brilliant first novel, Carter Beats the Devil. Sunnyside is a hard book to dislike, but it still fails to deliver the effortless entertainment of Carter.
The book is about three linked lives - Charlie Chaplin, Leland Wheeler, whose destiny is in Hollywood, and Hugo Black, who life is briefly touched by Chaplinmania. It is set in the First World War, at a time when Chaplin has begun to be bored by the limitations of the silent film, and uneasy with his relationships with his wife and mother. Meanwhile Wheeler has been drafted to fight in Europe, where he finds the start of his path to Hollywood, and Black is drafted to fight in a now-forgotten multinational army in Bolshevik Russia.
Gold is a brilliant writer, and his writing is always worth it for the throwaway humour and effortless stylish prose, which when it works makes for a wonderfully entertaining read. This book feels very baggy though. It's 550 pages long, and apparently was edited down from a novel twice as long. That might be the problem here - too many of the scenes seem isolated and disjointed, as if their original context had been lost in the editing. Each of the three strands would make a fascinating novel in its own right, but together they just don't cohere closely enough to support convincingly the overall theme, which is the forming of a new order both in world politics as the war draws to an end, and in Hollywood where Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks are wrestling with the rising power of the studios.
I liked the Chaplin strand the best. Gold does a good job of making a complex man stand up and talk. He's that uncomfortable thing, a genius who knows only too well that he is a genius. He is vain and ambitious, yet charming, and wants to abandon the simple slapstick that made him famous and try to make a deeper film that "will be as good as he is". The relationships are convincingly drawn between Chaplin, his wife, his mother and Mary Pickford, the only other star whose fame (and artistic potential) rivals Chaplin's.
Wheeler, meanwhile, is a simple boy who wants to be famous, and whose wish is to be granted by unexpected means. And Black is in Russia, his snobbish fastidiousness outraged by a country so cold that spit freezes before it hits the ground and a war where soldiers have been known to be given slow but fatal wounds by the insertion of a pine cone in the rectum.
All interesting stories, and when it works well, the book is wonderful reading and you could almost wish it was 1100 pages not 550; but too often the eye slides over another aimless plot twist or a superfluous character. One day Gold will write a novel as good as he is (as good as Gold?), and while Carter might have been it, Sunnyside, for all its charms, isn't.
on 14 August 2012
I suspect that a lot of readers, like me, bought Sunnyside on the strength of Gold's outstanding debut Carter Beats the Devil. That was a rollicking tale that places real and fictional characters against an intriguing backdrop of strange events, which worked because it was so fresh, entertaining and fascinating. After such a bright start there was always a risk that his next book would be a disappointment; unfortunately that's what's happened.
Sunnyside's premise is promising, covering the rise of early cinema and Charlie Chaplin, set against the events of the First World War and beyond. I was extremely hopeful on reading the first chapter of Sunnyside that Gold could repeat the success of his first book. It's a bravura opening, in which hundreds of strange sightings of Chaplin are quite impossibly reported across America on the same day. This evokes the hysteria that came with the public's first experience of stardom and the movies, and the quirky spirit of "untold history" that made Carter Beats The Devil so good. After that though, it's downhill all the way.
Gold has done his research and some fascinating stories are told, on three fronts. Chaplin fighting to be a bigger star than Mary Pickford, plagued by self-doubt about his value to the war effort and trying to make films of more substance than Keystone shorts; a young man wanting to break into Hollywood has his ambitions interrupted by the War; an English general finds himself fighting a lonely and strange war on the coast of Russia. Sadly, a lot of the stories and characters from history are well-known and documented, giving Gold less to work with on his fictionalised story. The pace of the book is much slower than his debut, which is harder to pull off and sadly the writer fails to keep you engaged.
The three interwoven storylines are in themselves fascinating and Gold makes them enjoyable to read, but he doesn't quite pull off the balancing act required with the parallel narrative. One story has a big reveal at the end which is actually a very sweet and fitting end to the whole Hollywood/War theme, but it just takes too long to arrive. Gold has fallen into the trap of feeling he has to cram in all the research he did for the book and there's just too much material in there. The Russia-based storyline especially just feels unnecessary. It's perhaps harsh to judge this against "Carter" and there's nothing wrong with a more epic and stately pace to a novel. It's just that this doesn't quite work.
I would still recommend reading it because there's lots of good stuff in there. But there is a feeling of what might have been with tighter writing and editing. Still, better an interesting failure than consistent mediocrity.
A colleague recommended "Carter Beats The Devil" to me a few years ago as he thought I'd like it. I took a copy on holiday and devoured it in a couple of days, scarcely able to leave it alone, wanting to know what happened next and whether Carter would succeed in the end. It was a fabulous book.
"Sunnyside" is, for the most part, the complete opposite to this. The cover indicates that it is a novel about Charlie Chaplin, but if truth be told he only pops up every now and again, the main parts of the narrative dealing with two men who go to fight overseas. It's a shame that they take up so much of this doorstop of a novel because their sections are on the whole fairly dull, whereas the parts which concentrate on Chaplin are mainly excellent. I'm no Chaplin fan, but I could feel his frustrations and looked forward to his next appearance in the text.
There are clearly a lot of set pieces in the book, where the author goes to town and flexes his muscles, and these stand out as highlights - the opening section for one, and various others here and there - but when the story is just turning over it's frankly hard going, and there seems to be little plot.
"Carter" was a superb novel, and Glen David Gold is clearly a very talented author, but sadly "Sunnyside" is a huge disappointment. Hopefully his next novel won't take eight years to write, and will be a return to his past form.
on 4 August 2009
I loved Carter Beats the Devil, and snapped this up as soon as it came out. I needn't have snapped so fast, as it turns out.
This is a book where child turns against mother, and mother against child. There is death, much death- which makes sense as it is partly set on the harsh battlefields of the 1st World War- but as well as soldiers, you have death of babies, puppies, and an especially horrible and seemingly pointless end for one of the main characters. Even the princesses in the tower die in this book. Oh, horribly, apparently. With no explanation as to why the "hero" doesn't rescue them. But it's not all misery! You also get crushed dreams, death of hope, creative agonizing- oh, and some very heavy philosophizing over profit/loss and film theory. I guess I'm not bright enough to understand why there is a amoral blackhaired Russian girl who touches all the protagonists lives, bringing bad luck whenever she appears. I especially don't understand why she is able to appear in a remote Russian village to murder somebody needlessly when until now she has been based in America. I also didn't understand why the book opens with a mass delusion where people imagine they see or are expecting Charlie Chaplin to appear. It's makes a flashy opener, but isn't really followed up. It's beautifully written, and the parts involving Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks are interesting, if you can get past Chaplin being portrayed as an unsympathetic obsessive, who makes everyone around him miserable eventually.
It's not a bad book. But it's right up there with "Hatters Castle" or "Marjorie Morningstar" as a depressing tome which should probably be re-marketed with black-bordered pages and a skull on the cover. You know, so people know what they're getting into.
on 25 April 2016
Like many others (I suspect) I bought this on the strength of Carter Beats the Devil, which I loved and is absolutely a 5 star read - go out and buy it now if you haven't read it already.
Unfortunately this book is confused and rambling.
I tried - I really tried - to get through it, but it was in no way compelling, and in the end I abandoned it only 50 pages from the end - such was the lack of curiosity as to how everything tied together and ended.
Fortunately I know Glen David Gold can write, and to follow up Carter with something as good would be a hell of a feat. I await his next book with interest.