A year after I first trailed it on Crooked Timber, we published a seminar on Sunnyside,
by Glen David Gold, who also wrote Carter Beats the Devil. Sunnyside is a vast, shiny, dark and funny novel about Charlie Chaplin, the birth of modern celebrity, America’s diffidence and then wild enthusiasm for World War I, two genius puppies and their fame-seeking GI owner, an apple-cheeked criminal prodigy, and a Detroit devotee of Ruskin’s attempt to rescue three Russian princesses from the Red Army.
I’m a little nervous of the pronouncement that this novel is about the themes it evokes and the questions it implies, not least because it might lessen the fun of reading it and hitting on these questions yourself. But I want to stake very firmly the claim that this book needs to be gobbled up, because picaresque is serious stuff.
Sunnyside made me laugh out loud in public and on my own, pepper Wikipedia with historical queries, plague family and friends with its insights and asides, and cry the embarrassing, heaving sobs of true loss, not the fictive kind. And, annoyingly, in the middle of a grand World War I narrative where faceless millions perish mostly off-screen, Sunnyside made me care very much if the dog makes it.
Three writer/critics from London and New York have very patiently born with me while we pulled this seminar together:
Stuart Evers, who reviews books for the Guardian, Independent, and others, and has just produced a collection of short stories: Ten Stories About Smoking, says that for all Sunnyside’s good humour, charm and intelligence, the book is darker than it first seems. Sunnyside mirrors the invention of celebrity culture that it documents; there is no such thing as truth, there are just stories, myths, and images, and the yarn-spinners are as much in the dark as everyone else.
Robert Hanks used to write about books and such for the Independent, and is now a solo gunslinger in the world of culture. He has fascinating views about zoos, and I wish he’d write a book about them. Robert’s take on Sunnyside is that it doesn’t really work as a novel, but absolutely nails Chaplin’s shaping of modern celebrity. Before the movies, famous people were something you heard or read about or looked at pictures of; “Chapin’s fame abolished distance: people in every corner of the world knew his face, the twitch of his moustache, how he walked”. Sunnyside also shows something far deeper, that people began to respond in a new way to movie stars, inserting themselves and their own imaginative lives right into the idea of Chaplin.
Adam McGovern, the New York comics man behind Pood, and a writer on the Comic Critique Blog, points out that you didn’t hear much about the poor old artist in the age of mechanical reproduction until Chaplin came on the scene. Nowadays, what with blogs, twitter, and online seminars on group blogs, you are never done with hearing from the artist. Adam did a fascinating Q&A that elicited this little story from Glen:
“I found that a critic was tweeting about the experience of reading the book. No matter how much I furrowed my brow and squinted at Twitter, I couldn’t figure out if what he was saying was positive or negative. It drove me crazy.
Then my wife said, “You took eight years to write a 260,000-word novel and you’re looking at a site with 140-character comments? Why exactly is that?”
Sunnyside is the anti-Twitter.”
I’ll be posting the essays over the next few days, and rounding it all off with Glen’s essay in response. Comments are encouraged!
If you’ve not yet read Sunnyside and the essays seem a bit of a deep-dive for starters, try my piece ‘Why You Should Read Sunnyside, Best Book of the Year‘, from Christmas 2009. At bottom, the reason this seminar is to encourage people to pick up and enjoy this marvelously fun and thoughtful book.
First published on Crooked Timber on 18 May, 2011.