Sleeping in Flame – Jonathan Caroll

photo(7)Book Description (Amazon): Ricocheting between the haunted chic of Vienna and the mystical crassness of Los Angeles, between the world of desire and the landscape of dreams, Sleeping In Flame is a hypnotic literary, novel with irresistible elements of fantasy and magic.

It is the story of Walker Easterling, who saves a woman’s life only to place her in infinitely greater danger by falling in love with her. It’s the story of Maris York, an androgynous beauty who arouses incinerating passions in the world around her. It is a novel populated by a shaman with a fondness for sandwiches, an autistic Adonis, and a tiny man as powerful and ravenously jealous as the God of the Old Testament.

Praised by writers ranging from Stanislaw Lam to Stephen King, Jonathan Carroll has made Sleeping In Flame a dizzying tour de force of tenderness and terror, realistic suspense and mythic imagination.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: enchanting

This book was given to me by my friend’s husband as a book that he thought that I would really like. While I’ve known her for many years, I’ve only met him a handful of times (we live in different cities) so I was a little leery about the whole thing. What if I hated it? What if it was completely nuts (and what does that mean he thinks about me)? Either way, I accepted the book which meant that I had to read it.

The book starts out with the story of Walker Easterling, a small time actor who is called to return to Vienna to work on a film with a longtime friend Nicholas Sylvian. We learn that Walker is recently divorced and that Nicholas would like him to meet a friend of his named Maris York (who I envisioned in my mind as a taller version of Louise Brooks). They meet her and find that she has been having major issues with her boyfriend Luc. (He’s crazy and abusive.) They decide that she should come with them to Vienna. In a way that does not seem  silly or unrealistic, Maris and Walker realize that they have a deep connection and begin a relationship. You start off thinking that this is a very normal story about two people falling in love.

And then one night, a crazy man with a long beard who is riding a bike covered in decorations comes maniacally whizzing by Walker on his way home and shouts “Rednaxela! Welcome!” Ok, that’s weird. But it must mean something.

Luc comes to Vienna to I guess try to win Maris back. Silly Luc. Nicholas plans a scheme to have his friend Goldstar (a European boxing champ) play that he is Maris’s new boyfriend and essentially belittle and scare Luc back to Munich. Although it was kind of an expected scene, it was satisfying.

The next day, Nicholas and his wife Eva (him having a wife was a bit of a surprise to me) head to the airport so that Nicholas can fly to Israel. The airport is attacked by terrorists and Nicholas is killed and his wife was injured. This was more of a shock than a sad point in the story. Nicholas was a bit of a 1D character (I suspect he was based on a 1D sort of person.) I also found it interesting that the author tied the story to a real event despite the fact that the story is in no way a biography. It makes it more realistic in a strange way. Nicholas is cremated and the title of the story emerges.

Maris calls from the cemetery to tell Walker that there is a man’s picture on a tombstone that looks exactly like him. The man’s name is Moritz Benedikt. Walker is adopted so any clue about his biological relatives obviously intrigues him more than usual. He asks a friend to look into it. As he’s walking home from checking out the tombstone first hand, some old women start harassing him and calling him Rednaxela. He finds out from a passerby that they were speaking in a “foreign” language–one that sounded like bird whistles. Ok, so this is definitely not some average story about two people falling in love.

Walker gets a call from an acquaintance who would like him to fly to LA for a few days to fill in on a film. He and Maris head to the airport. While on an escalator there, Walker has a vivid premonition of a woman falling down the escalator and having her scalp torn off. He gets there in advance and helps the woman before the event happens, but obviously he’s beginning to get a bit freaked out. They arrive in LA and meet Maris’s brother, Ingram. Ingram hears the unusual stories about Walker and suggests that he meet a shaman names Venasque who will teach him to “fly”. He speaks to Venasque and plans to meet him after he finishes filming.

As they are filming a scene on the beach, a sea monster appears from nowhere. A friend of the director’s (Strayhorn) comes the following evening to discuss the sea monster with the group and determines that it’s a being that had lived 150 million years ago. It turns out that Strayhorn has also been mentored by Venasque (he was taught how to swim) and encourages Walker to go see him.

He arrives at Venasque’s home and finds that Venasque is different than he expected. He has a dog and a pig who he feeds M&Ms (too far), and spends most all of his time watching television. They begin their training and Walker realizes that he can slip in and out of other lives. He learns about Venasque’s past by going into it as well as Maris’s. He then begins to realize that he is also going in and out of his own past lives. Every time, some same people are in his life. I’m not sure what my personal belief is on reincarnation, but I found this a fairly interesting and “realistic” idea of it.

In one life, he is a Russian who kills women. He finds that in his most recent past life, his father was a midget who kills him by pushing him out a window. This is when he was Moritz Benedict, a Nazi soldier. He was part of the command which killed Venasque’s sister. He had met Venasque in this previous life, witnessing Venasque save Jewish children in his school by teaching them how to fly to safety. Venasque tries another training with Walker, and when Walker awakes, Venasque is incoherent. (Walker suspects this is related to his vision of the man with the plague who his father exploded). He calls an ambulance and Venasque is taken to the hospital where he later dies.

Maris and Walker go to fly back to Vienna but they have to emergency land in Seattle because a coffin they are carrying has broken open in the cargo unleashing a sweet smell (similar to the vision that killed Venasque). Eventually they get to Vienna and Venasque appears to Walker as his pet pig. He tells Walker to find out about who he is. He also drops the tidbit that Maris is pregnant and that Walker must find his real father before the baby arrives. All of his fathers in his past lives are the same father who has magical powers. But so does Walker and even more so because he has Maris.

David Buck (who Walker hired to investigate Moritz Benedikt) calls to tell Walker that he has located Benedikt’s widow so Walker goes to see her. Elizabeth is a bit leery but tells him everything she knows. Walker meets his/Moritz’s son Lillis who has autism and whose favorite story happens to be Rumplestiltskin. Walker has a dream and in it, he is the child of the queen in the story of Rumplestiltskin, but in this version, the queen never guessed the imp’s name, and he took the child. He wakes from the dream to a phone call from his father asking his real name. He tells Walker that he is creating all the bad things to happen (Nicholas and Venasque dying, coffin opening, etc.) and that he gave Walker his magic. They hang up, and the phone rings. It’s Maris, and she is bleeding.

It becomes apparent that Walker’s father is trying to sabotage his life, especially with Maris (like he had done with Elizabeth) and that something needs to be done. His father gives him an ultimatum that he can either leave Maris forever or she will be killed. In the meantime, Walker asks David to research the story of Rumplestiltskin. He finds that the story originally came from some girls named Dortchen and Lisette Wilds.

He makes plans to say goodbye to Maris and go meet his father…or so you think. Once he arrives, he invites his father to dinner. As well as the Wilds sisters (who he magically raised from the dead). The Wilds sisters originally imagined the story of Rumplestiltskin, so Walker asks them to finish the story for his father (whose name turns out to be Breath). When the finish the story, Breath turns into glass and breaks. Walker loses his magic and is a normal human.

Ok I’m kind of going to brush over this ending because I don’t think it added anything, and as this book does not have a sequel, I find it kind of irrelevant. A girl (who I think we are led to believe looks like little red riding hood) appears at Maris and Walker’s door and tells Walker that she doesn’t like what he has done. and it ends with “Our son…” I don’t know what that is supposed to imply, and honestly I didn’t really care. Perhaps the author just wasn’t sure how to end.

Verdict: 4 Stars

This was a really unusual book that was totally unexpected. I loved the writing style very much, and the writing style made it so that I was able to overlook any discontinuities in the story (It’s a story about magic set in real life. There are bound to be discontinuities.) I also appreciated that the book didn’t feel dated. I only looked to see when the book was written at the point when Maris and Walker are shopping for a VCR. 🙂 As I mentioned above, I thought the last half of the last chapter was too weird and disconnected and essentially pointless. So that is one minor detraction. I actually enjoyed the love story, which is totally unlike me. I think I liked it because it was a story of two people who were meant to be with each other and made it against the odds, however, in no way was it ever cliche. I’m definitely taking this to my book club book exchange at the end of the year. Hopefully someone else will like it as much too.

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Filed under 4 stars, Book Review

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