On first reading, Sunnyside seems to be a picaresque with a sting in the tail. In the best spirit of Chaplin’s films, this rambling story of World War I and the movies uses slapstick and pathos to wring out tears of laughter and sadness. Many readers set it down, bemused, scratching their heads, wondering what, if anything, it was all about. Some reviewers said it was an ambitious failure. Sunnyside is a book you need to live with for a while as it unwraps itself. Or not. Like the best comedy, it’s a response, though not an answer, to the despair of the human condition. And it’s very, very funny.
What does it mean to ‘get’ a book, or at least to think you have? It’s something that happens in a reader’s mind when the characters, story, feelings and ideas of a novel unite into something greater than their sum, becoming a complete world of their own, a world that teaches true things about the world we live in. A good book that sits uncomfortably in its own era resists understanding just as it teaches you how to read it. Sunnyside is the sort of book you think about for a long time after reading, and will probably come back to again.
The first time I read Sunnyside, I zeroed in on its theme of whether life has any meaning. In a romp about war and movies, fame and money, cartels and kaisers, fairytale princesses and schoolgirl brides, performing dogs and Parisian whores, the questions are asked again and again; in this crazy, violent and speedy world, does life have a meaning? Can stories give it any? Does history repeat itself? And if it does, so what?
Early on, a boy’s redoubtable single mother explains why we are alive: “See that wave in the distance? We’re here to see how lovely it is. God wants us to see beauty and to make the lives of others better. And there’s a pleasure in responsibility.” It’s not enough for Lee, who does everything he can to parlay his good looks for fame and a ticket out of the army. Charlie Chaplin himself, at the apex of everything Lee wants, struggles for conviction in the absence of meaning.
The flip side of these questions of fate bubbles up everywhere: since life is so random, painful and uncontrollable, surely it must be easier to avoid deep attachments to living creatures who can only fail us or be cruelly taken away? Lee, a reluctant American soldier in World War I France, and Chaplin each strenuously resist love because it can only end in pain. When Lee tries to rescue puppies from a burning building, he pauses, thinking “If you want anything badly enough, it’s dangerous.” Chaplin is too frightened to pursue the one woman smarter than he, but is still shattered when fate takes away his purest, most selfless love.
Sunnyside’s characters work vigorously to shape their lives with their will, not so much up against but finding their way through enormous forces like war and capitalism. The three main characters are all men in their twenties and old beyond their years. They’re performers, looking for an audience. Their mothers have been dominant in their lives, and they don’t have the gift of easy friendship. They’re different and apart, and they mostly don’t mind. They yearn for fame or understanding, to be appreciated and understood. Fame seems just a more extreme version of the solipsism a doughboy needs to survive. None of them yearns for a soulmate in a book that won’t allow romantic love as a solution to life’s ills.
I vividly remember reading Sunnyside in a wooden cabana in central America where I’d gone to rest and reflect after I’d lost my job in late 2009. It rained every day and smelt of damp, and I was fed up of yoga, beans and rice. In between gloomy siestas one day, I read a passage that made me laugh out loud and literally gasp at its artistry and wisdom. I put the book aside for a moment, thinking ‘I will never write like this’, and didn’t honestly feel too bad about it. It made me think again of how many different things it takes to make a great novelist.
Sunnyside has marvelous characters, great yarns, a masterful control of tone and voice, the magpie eye for historical research and a philosophical motherlode that keeps on giving. One novelist’s tool that we don’t much talk about, however, is wisdom. Sunnyside is littered with rye and timely observations on life. When General Ironside tries to derive the Allies’ objective in Archangel from his Westminster briefings, he likens the reasons for going to war to an opera’s plot; “the plot could be as complex as a spiderweb, but if you could not explain the point in a heartbeat, you were lost”. Elsewhere, Private Lee is surprised that the Hun call their war dogs simply Kriegshund. It was rare in wartime that a word meant just what it sounded like: “Generally, things were named ironically, as if to annoy you and harden you to misfortunes.”
Sunnyside’s characters remain with me. His minor characters are anything but thin. With my soft spot for Jane Austen and British military men, I fell immediately in love with Ironside whose infinitely sad blue eyes and apologetic, worldly-wise tone belie his utter lack of hesitation in getting down to brass tacks, dispatching orders and traitors each as easily as the next. Rebecca Golod is a harmless-looking little girl whose intuitive grasp of criminality and total lack of compassion for her hapless marks reminded me that goblins and changelings don’t come from nowhere. And still, I worried for her.
People left puzzled rather than exhilarated by Sunnyside’s many plot lines and detours didn’t much like the ending. It sounds too glib to say ‘the point is, there is no point’, because this is a novel with a heart of gold. Having a movie-maker for a main character means the book can think out loud about what makes a good story, and, especially, how to finish one. As Chaplin says; “No story ends happily. The happy ending is only about knowing where to end on a smile, at the very moment where fortune is still on the ascent. The open road. The wedding.” Running through the options to finish a story, Chaplin counts out “Puppies. The lovers reunited. Or it’s all been a dream.” It’s a great set up for the ending of Sunnyside.
What’s this all about? See the introduction to the Sunnyside book event here.
First published on Crooked Timber on 24 May, 2011