Sunnyside by David Glen Gold is the best book I’ve read this year. Gold’s first novel was the magical Carter Beats the Devil, a lean and muscular piece of plotting. Sunnyside is a fat, thumping tome set again in 1920s California and bursting out with living characters, zany but true events and a wry and humane take on the meaning, if any, of the examined life. It had me gasping out loud, talking back to the characters, marveling at the sheer craft but never awakening from the spell.
It begins with a thrilling set piece; a real-life episode of mass hysteria that caused hundreds of simultaneous sightings of Charlie Chaplin across America. This sequence is a first cousin to DeLillo’s Underworld opening baseball game of Giants v Dodgers in
Dodger Stadium the Polo Field, and Pynchon’s Against the Day visit to the Chicago World’s Fair. Each of the trio evokes a perfect moment of twentieth century Americana, and announces straight off a big book that will not be about small things. (And just as J. Edgar Hoover is the G-man Greek chorus of Underworld’s themes, Gold’s Treasury Secretary McAdoo stands in for the reader, trying to make sense of Chaplin’s Hollywood and what movies mean for the world.)
Sunnyside follows the fortunes of three men through America’s belated involvement in World War I: Charlie Chaplin’s struggle to do work ‘as good as he is’, find or at least recognize true love and avoid dealing with his mummy issues; Leland Wheeler, a handsome movie star in the making whose mother insists otherwise; and Hugo Black, a mummy’s boy misanthrope who enlists in Detroit’s 339th after a drunken evening of Whitman. Woven through is the story of a young girl from an immigrant Jewish crime family who is growing up to be a criminal mastermind. The stories sometimes overlap as each of the characters each lose his innocence in some way and as the America of 1916 grows up and into the century of mass culture, celebrity and total war.
Gold has a magpie’s eye for shiny titbits of historical research that make you whoop in amazement and run to the index and wikipedia. There are White Russians seeking work as movie extras, too good to be true footage of Trotsky at a New York anarchist rally, and a Wild West show detained in Germany by Wilhelm II. One plotline features America’s invasion of Russia in 1918, a half-hearted attempt to open up a front on Bolshevism that Gold describes with the glee of a boy’s own adventure. In Archangel, Hugo Black and his platoon go Bolo-hunting in the Siberian forest. They undergo several reversals of fortune involving a burning bridge, a train that won’t go backwards, a Bolshevik ambush of 200 men and heavy artillery and a ‘nonstrategic retreat’ worthy of Monty Python.
Later, an extraordinary and historic character enters the Russian theatre; the English General Ironside, a polyglot prodigy sent to lead the Allied Forces in Archangel. He adores his wife and describes himself in his letters as looking like a large and unscrupulous baby. Puzzling over what his mission actually is, Ironside asks himself “Was it for defense? Were we really going to graft democracy onto another country?”
But Gold won’t allow simplistic parallels with the present. Dealing with a mutiny of Russian soldiers, Ironside muses about the phrase that history repeats itself;
“The problem with that nostrum was, you never knew what piece of history you were in. There were a limited number of outcomes, and yet there never seemed to be a way to learn a lesson. You were never at the beginning or end of anything. You were always in the middle, in a mist, and it was always up to someone else to announce later what your time on earth had meant. There was a thin line, for instance, between tenacity and stupidity. A mutiny was a stroke of genius or it wasn’t. How sad to make the effort.”
Using the authority of his voice alone, Ironside shames the mutiny’s leaders into stepping forward. He tells them they are men of dignity whose acceptance of responsibility is admirable. Then he has them shot where they stand.
The smaller characters swell the scenes beautifully. Mary Pickford is a pert and shrewd businesswoman who bottles and sells ‘ingenue’ to the masses and ably out-thinks and out-manouevres a producers’ cartel. She terrifies Chaplin almost as much as his mother does, and their mutual dislike, vulnerability and unique ability to wound each other illustrates perfectly how lifelong rivalries are fuelled. Gold’s description of Chaplin unkindly mimicking Pickford is so vivid I can still see it. Hugo Munsterburg is an early film theorist who makes a short career rationalizing his carnal desire for a film actress, lending intellectual heft to the new enterprise of celebrity and being literally consumed by the new mass phenomenon he tries to explain. But above all, Sunnyside is about Charlie Chaplin, what America thinks of him and what he thinks of that. He munches the scenery as a wannabe intellectual who carries vocabulary cards to beach parties and does a perfect imitation of the campaigning Trotsky, stopping short when he remembers that as a studio head, Chaplin himself owns the means of production and doesn’t want to relinquish it.
What does it all mean? Sunnyside is a colourful explosion of historical trinkets and big ideas, not a plot-driven book. Some readers felt oppressed by its length because Sunnyside doesn’t seem to drive towards anything much. The different characters and their stories are linked mostly by coincidence as they share the enormous collective experience of movies and war. The stories don’t conclude so much as come to an agreeable resting point. In a heartbreaking sequence towards the end, the young reverend overseeing a piteous funeral says terrible things happen for no reason;
“… when something awful happens, we must put aside needing to understand or to fit it into a system where the world’s cruelties make sense. Perhaps, after life is over, it will all be explained. Or not.”
But perhaps life does have meaning. Or at least some novels do. Three days later, Chaplin begins his first film as good as he was.
Sunnyside was published six months ago and is only available in hardback in the US but can be bought in paperback in Waterstones in Ireland and possibly the UK. It was widely but a little equivocally reviewed during the summer, which may explain why it’s not in every bookshop window nor on every end of year list. Some reviewers loved moments, but thought the book as a whole – in so far as they conceded it was a whole – baggy and lacking focus. I found Sunnyside’s digressions and shaggy dog stories entertaining and often brimming with pathos. Rather than prosecute an argument, Gold winkles out correlations and coincidence and sets them out beautifully for the reader to enjoy.
Several reviews had a regretful tone, implying that Gold has set out to do something very ambitious with his second novel and that his failure is noble and beautiful. It’s easy to argue that a book that’s not as loved by others is simply misunderstood, but I do think many reviewers missed the point. After pointing out that the novel makes the reader work to hard to figure out what it’s all about, the WaPo reviewer notes that in Sunnyside’s “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.”
Michael Dirda spoke recently in Locus about Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, a book he didn’t really get but couldn’t completely dismiss. Perhaps Sunnyside is one of these:
“The books we can’t make sense of, that knock us off-kilter, that we don’t accept readily, will often be the books that matter most to the next generation. In fact, that’s the sign of a really important book: it doesn’t fit into our received expectations, it bothers us, it ‘doesn’t work’. Sometimes an ambitious failure is more worth having than a successful little book that is perfectly done.”
(Michael Dirda, International Man of Mystery and Sophisticated Boulevardier)
I don’t accept that Sunnyside is an ambitious failure, however regretful the tone of its reviews. Nor am I the best advocate the book can have, since I enjoyed it far too much to do very much of the intellectual heavy lifting needed to derive its deeper motives. But I’ll leave you with this.
Novels are supposed to be big! I’m bored with novels about disintegrating marriages and quiet, kitchen table regrets. Sunnyside is a big book about big themes in a big country. It’s about the movies when they were new, the collective loss of innocence, fame transmogrified from monarchs through starlets, and what, if any, meaning work lends to life, especially if you’re a genius and haven’t yet produced something as good as you are. So much of life is in this book. I think you should read it.