It was the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin who first coined the title of Neil Jordan’s new novel, Carnivalesque, a term he used to define a kind of literature that subverts the dominant styles and hierarchies of its time by means of chaos and humour. In recent years, some artists have chosen to literalise this metaphor: American Horror Story’s “Freak Show” and HBO’s Carnivàle come to mind. Jordan attempts to do similarly here, setting a good half of his novel in a supernatural carnival, though his work has rather more chaos than humour, and in general fails to make much of an impression when it lingers in this all-too-familiar milieu.
It lingers in it because its protagonist gets stuck in it. After wandering into a hall of mirrors, Andy gets stuck inside one of the mirrors in question, and watches helplessly as his reflection takes on bodily form and waltzes out to assume his life. The real Andy is eventually rescued by a trapeze artist named Mona, who, along with everyone else who works for the carnival, turns out to be a supernatural being. They’re the Tuatha Dé Danann of Irish folklore, a godlike people who – in Jordan’s account – saw their followers wiped out during the Great Famine of the 1840s and retreated into the world of the carnival where their powers could be concealed in the modern world as circus acts.
Far more interesting, however, is what’s going on at home. Andy’s changeling replacement gives his mother the creeps, though she tells herself that his formal mode of address and unwillingness to show her much affection are simply indications that his teenage years have arrived. The book is at its most heartfelt here on the home front.
It’s at its most disappointing in its prose. When Jordan’s sentences are not vague, muddled or repetitious, they’re marked by a grating and even patronising tone. It’s there from the first sentence, but really hits its stride with latter examples such as this: “Meanwhile, and it’s a word one should never use, meanwhile, since there is no meanwhile, there is only time, doing its mysterious thing in its infinitude of ways.”
There’s nothing mysterious about the infinitude of ways in which sentences like that will make you want to close the book. Nor is there anything agreeably carnivalesque about this particular type of chaos. MD
Bloomsbury, 320pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 22, 2017 as "Neil Jordan, Carnivalesque". Subscribe here.