Too much talk clouds a surreal afterlife

Special to The Times

IT’S part of Jonathan Carroll’s gift that his fictional afterlife seems more natural, more logical than a drearily nicey-nice place of cherubs and pearly gates.

His is a Jungian dream world, a customized purgatory populated by the people who loved or humiliated us in life, a physical place that surreally shifts to restage every childhood trauma until each is happily resolved.

Death is “like school,” one character learns to his dismay when he realizes that he is deceased and doomed to relive third grade. The trouble with such a fabulist conceit: It takes way too much explanation. Carroll does too much telling instead of showing and has too many characters sitting around jawing about how weird a place death is and what to make of it.


His character Vincent Ettrich, a reformed womanizer, has been there before. Although “Glass Soup” doesn’t read like a sequel, it follows Carroll’s acclaimed “White Apples,” which is about Vincent’s quest to figure out what he learned -- but can’t remember -- from his afterlife.

In this book, set in Vienna, Vincent is alive and in love with the woman who retrieved him from the afterlife, the pregnant Isabelle Neukor. The fetus is already sentient and prepared to fight Chaos, a malevolent force that at times takes human form. Isabelle keeps shifting between two realities but can’t afford to be in the wrong place when the baby arrives.

Surreal happenings and leaps in logic crop up at every turn, but without violating the rules of fantasy novels that plot devices must be dangled prominently and notice given when reality is about to be bent or broken. When, at a critical moment, Isabelle communicates with Vincent by making letters appear on his hands, the reader has an “aha” moment, as if to say that now it all makes sense.

In this contemporary fantasy too, there are no heavily armored baddies. Chaos and his henchmen must rely on cunning rather than force, and their psychological cheap tricks -- turning up at a New Age book signing to seduce one of Isabelle’s best friends, for example -- keep the plot moving briskly and in unexpected, even humorous ways.

Carroll counts on readers to recognize pop culture references as part of some postmodern, collective unconscious. When a slain character confronts her “Highway to Hell,” you can practically hear AC/DC’s guitar riffs.

But the most effective scenes are between Vincent and Isabelle, having just met: “Neither had said anything for a while. It was enough to be together alone now, two people escaping into a glittering city, into an adventure, each of them nervously content, expectant and deeply surprised.”


Although the narrative jumps among different perspectives, they form the spinning center of the novel, keeping all the pieces in place through the centrifugal force of their ardor.

Now if only Carroll could jettison the windy passages, such as when a talking polar bear describes the universe, minor characters announce why they’re there or Isabelle and Vincent dissect every discovery. Carroll’s explanations can rob his fictional world of some of its wonder, but that may be a necessary flaw in a dreamscape so heavily reliant on symbols and made-up metaphysics.

After all, we’re just visitors there. For now.


Anne Boles Levy, a reviewer whose work has appeared in The Times, writes a children’s book blog at