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Sunnyside By Glen David Gold
Charlie Chaplin returns to life in this dazzling novel
Sunday 21 June 2009
In his bestselling first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, Gold fictionalised the real life of Charles Carter, a lovelorn 1920s magician. A striking, funny and inventive book, it placed its author at the forefront of American letters, a position further enhanced by his marriage to Alice Sebold. It has taken Gold eight years to produce his follow up, Sunnyside, which again spins a kaleidoscopic tale of romance and intrigue around the life of a well-known showman from the early 20th century.
For this performance, the curtain goes up on perhaps the most famous entertainer of all time, Charlie Chaplin. Sunnyside begins with a wondrous ripple-effect of mass illusion as Chaplin is spotted in 800 places simultaneously on an eventful winter's day in 1916. One of these sightings is by movie-mad lighthouse-man Leland Wheeler, of Chaplin on the bow of a sinking skiff. That Chaplin is safe quickly becomes clear, as does Leland's place in the narrative: enter the romantic hero. The other significant recurring character, Hugo Black, is a young, pretentious, persistently unlucky engineer from Detroit. The various interwoven misadventures of Leland, Hugo and Chaplin form the tapestry covering a bed of global drama that incorporates the Great War, the Russian Revolution and the birth of a nation to rival DW Griffith's.
Gold has the ability to create unwavering sympathy for complicated characters. Chaplin emerges as an insecure, witty, likeable autocrat while Leland is conflicted by his celluloid dreams and familial duties. "Acting is acting like you're doing something important," states his disapproving mother. A warm, humanist sense of humour unifies the various stories with theatrical aplomb. I particularly enjoyed how the career of Leland's father, the world's worst Wild West impresario, implodes during a performance for Kaiser Wilhelm II. This is a book to remind you of the pleasures of chuckling aloud in public.
There's no doubt that the editing could have been tighter; it's a novel as expansive as the period it chronicles. Yet there is still plenty to enjoy, even when Gold is distracted down a historical cul de sac. In particular, the foundations of Tinseltown are captured with glee. Opportunity is ever-present, from the sublime ("There was no use sleeping when someone as delightful as Douglas Fairbanks was around") to the ridiculous: "If Los Angeles were a village," realises Chaplin, "then by definition, he was the village idiot."
The silent-film era is undergoing a well-deserved critical reappraisal and, like the finest curator, Gold inspires intense curiosity in the barmy peculiarities of the industry and its mugging, wide-eyed players. Timeless is an overused adjective but this undervalued cinematic form deserves it, and Gold has captured its rare quality using many of its trademark hooks. The cliff-hangers and epic set-pieces, damsels in distress and plucky underdogs, are all present and correct.
As the studio boss Samuel Goldwyn claimed, the public wants "three-and-a-half reels of sorrow, resolved by five minutes of happiness". Glen David Gold delivers. After a dazzling debut, he has managed to pull off a consummate, ambitious encore. Sunnyside is a cane-twirling, bowler-doffing triumph.
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