Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #151: The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

The point about James Morrow is that everything in his novels is the most. There are no minor conflicts or personal spats: everything is the pure Platonic version of itself. A war will be the war, as in This Is the Way The World Ends. A young woman from Atlantic City is Jesus's younger sister, in Only Begotten Daughter. God will be not just dead, but floating, immensely and shockingly, in the North Atlantic in Towing Jehovah.

And so, when I tell you his 2017 novella The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is about a painting, you will immediately understand that it is not just a painting -- it is a uniquely potent painting, one that can, and will, change the course of history.

(Actually, there are two paintings, because Morrow tends to be Manichean that way-- ultimate power is not a monad, but is shaped either for good or for evil.)

This is Morrow's fourth short novel, following 1990's City of Truth, 2009's Shambling Towards Hiroshima, and 2014's The Madonna and the Starship, I wrote about Morrow's obsessions when writing about those books as well; it's hard to avoid it when thinking about Morrow. He is his obsessions: the meaning of life and history, the possibility of personal or societal salvation, the teleology of the world.

His Dr. Caligari runs an asylum, in a tiny Ruritanian principality tucked away in Europe on the eve of The Great War. Our narrator, Francis Wyndham, is an American wanna-be painter, in Paris to soak up the atmosphere and to become what he desperately wants to be. (All indications are that he's solid, but not inspired.) As the War begins, Francis gets a job at that asylum -- a sanitarium for the wealthy and well-off, with what seems to be just a few inmates with strange obsessions of their own who live there, mostly peacefully, as long as their money allows.

Francis is to be the new art therapist of the asylum -- helping the lunatics to become sane again through making art. The book is not about how he makes them sane. It is not even about how the world is insane, in the throes of a massive destructive and pointless way, and so madness is a noble and reasonable response.

No, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is about the mysterious painting Dr. Caligari is just finishing: one which will compel war-fervor and blind jingoism in the fighting men who view it, a painting embodying working sorcery to make it the perfect piece of propaganda and the maker of ideal soldiers. Francis, his new lover (the only female inmate of the asylum we see), and a tiny handful of others know this is uniquely horrible and must be stopped. And, in Morrow's world, the only thing that can stop a sorcerous evil is an equal and opposing sorcerous good: they must paint their own painting, and somehow trick the bulging troop-trains of soldiers from all warring armies to view the good painting instead.

Morrow, here as always, has the courage of his convictions and the fervency of his belief to brush aside any concerns about plausibility or reasonableness. Yes, all of the armies of The Great War are funneling through this one small country, detouring on their way to fight each other. Yes, the paintings have mystical power, changing the men who view them forever, for good or ill. Yes, this is the only way to save the world. Yes, the paintings are more than just paint on canvas -- they are real worlds of Platonic ideas, with the painting itself just a gateway.

Saying that any of that is too much to swallow is a possible reaction to a Morrow book, of course. But all of his books are entirely too much in the same way, and are too much from their very foundations -- it's like complaining that a novel has named characters who do things in a time sequence. This is a Morrow book, and he's not about to change now -- if you can come along on that journey with him, you will have an fascinating and unique ride.

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