The Little Tramp In Modern Times
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
By Glen David Gold
Knopf. 559 pp. $26.95
Glen David Gold's new novel takes its title and perhaps too much of its spirit from Charlie Chaplin's weirdest movie, a rare financial flop called "Sunnyside." At just 34 minutes long, the 1919 film cobbled together several incongruous scenes, including some classic slapstick, a surreal dance with wood nymphs, a violent suicide and a baffling happy ending. Having already made more than 60 movies before he was 30, the Little Tramp could take a pass for this creative misstep, but Gold sees the film as the culmination of personal and professional crises in the artist's life, and uses it as the finale to this brilliant though swollen biographical novel.
Fans of his delightful first book, "Carter Beats the Devil," have waited eight years for this second one -- at that rate Joyce Carol Oates would have to live to 400 -- but it's obvious now what Gold has been up to. "Sunnyside" is like the smartest kid in the class, who calls out the answer to every question. Gold doesn't just know Chaplin's life and work and the lives and works of fellow movie stars Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rin Tin Tin, et al.; he also knows everything about cameras, the psychological theories of Hugo Münsterberg, the development of the studio system, diamond cutting, lighthouses, World War I finances, machine guns and a thousand other subjects that burst from this fire hose of a novel.
With that warning, I say, jump into the spray. As discombobulating as the book is as a whole, its parts are magnificent, and "Sunnyside" is flooded with funny, horrible and downright bizarre details of early 20th-century life. Gold's dexterous voice can swing from the exuberant melodrama of silent film to the terror of doomed soldiers to the quiet despair of the world's most beloved man. Arranged like an old-time afternoon at the movies, "Sunnyside" begins with a "Newsreel" about a strange mania that gripped the nation on Nov. 12, 1916: All over the United States, for no apparent reason, people either believe they see Charlie Chaplin or are about to. In rowboats adrift at sea, in hotel lobbies, on baseball fields, at church picnics, in trains pulling into stations, everywhere people fall victim to this contagious delusion, dubbed "Chaplin-itis" by the Kansas City Star. It's a wide-angle, deeply amusing opening that sets the theme for Gold's exploration of the power and mystery of mass media.
At this early point, the novel branches into three separate story lines. The effect is not so much like watching a triple feature as it is like darting in and out of every theater at the multiplex. In one, a priggish teenager named Hugo Black finds himself fighting in the Allies' disastrous (and largely forgotten) battle against the Bolsheviks in the frozen forests of northwest Russia. Another focuses on Leland Wheeler, a drop-dead-handsome young man who dreams of becoming a movie star but ends up servicing warplanes in France and returns home with the world's first canine celebrity. And the third story, the main one, follows Chaplin's tumultuous life during the war years when he moved through several women, became the highest-paid entertainer in the United States, canvassed the country to raise money for the War Department and helped found United Artists.
There are so many dazzling episodes -- in such a wide variety of settings in so many different styles and tones -- that I began to think there was nothing Gold couldn't do. He creates a hilarious Wild West show a la Buffalo Bill that travels through prewar Berlin: covered wagons, drunken stunts, mock shootouts between cowboys and Indians. His portrayal of the Liberty Loan rally in San Francisco calls up a cast of thousands, choreographed in a celebration that borders on a riot. There's a battle scene in Russia involving a runaway train that's as comic as it is electrifying. Hollywood's rapidly developing climate of extravagance, insecurity and scandal is here, too, of course. And he's just as successful with intimate, poignant scenes, like the beach party put on by Samuel Goldwyn during which Chaplin sweats like a nervous teenager or the dinner prepared by abandoned Russian princesses in a forest overrun by communists.
Most important, Gold has figured out how to make Chaplin strut and feint and dance in print. His depiction of him as a director -- ordering up sets and costumes and actors one minute, canceling them the next -- rings with all the music of the genius at work. In scenes of rich psychological acuity, Gold captures Chaplin's crippling depression, his sense of being constrained by his audience, his financiers and his own impossible standards, despite living at the center of "a tulipomania of appreciation." He is, as Gold says, "the physic of laughter who could never heal himself."
But -- uncle! -- there's so much here, a great thundering jangle of characters, plots, subplots, detours and anecdotes. E.L. Doctorow has trained us to read these composite stories that weave together history and fiction, but Gold stretches this form to the ripping point. The connective tissue between all these wonderful scenes is usually missing or obscure, which pushes an inordinate amount of work onto the reader.
And yet even as my patience wore out, Gold would suggest some startling correlation that reassured my faith in his ability to manage this operatic cast. Everything eventually turns on his exploration of cinema's intoxicating influence on human consciousness. Seeing the Kaiser on the toilet reading Photoplay while his empire collapses, or watching Bolshevik peasants project Mary Pickford's face on a sheet in their dark church -- in such strange moments the cascading pieces of this novel suddenly lock into place in the most evocative ways. Gold manages to convey how the reproduction and distribution of moving images enflames our imaginations and alters our nature like nothing else since the dawn of religion. For all its heavy demands, "Sunnyside" offers a wealth of wit and pathos and insight, and who better to guide us through this transformational moment in history than the Little Tramp?
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