Sunnyside, By Glen David Gold

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The Independent Culture

Sunnyside takes its title from a minor 1919 Chaplin film. If Glen David Gold's first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, took its structure and theme from 19th-century illusionists, this book looks to early Hollywood. It's set during the First World War and moves across a vast terrain, travelling between the Western Front, Russia and the burgeoning California film industry. Gold has researched every aspect of the era he has vividly recreated, including the making of Chaplin's films, the power struggles between studios and stars, the American war effort and the European battlefronts.

There's so much detail, so many facts, storylines and characters, that it becomes somewhat baffling: like watching three films at once. But Gold anticipates his reader's objections. About one priggish character at the theatre, he writes, "the lack of a single protagonist bothered him". Gold has seen all the angles and has incorporated them. He has control of the beast, but that doesn't make it easy to read. The novel is structured as an evening's entertainment at the movies but reading it certainly isn't the passive pleasure of watching a film.

The chapters featuring Chaplin are fascinating. Gold successfully brings one of the most mysterious stars to life. He takes on the gigantic challenge of conjuring in words a character whose genius was wholly physical, and who famously could not adjust to the era of the talkies. Gold also suggests that the shiny surface of the star and the psychology beneath are a kind of Moebius strip, moving into one another seamlessly. Behind the little tramp in baggy trousers is another little tramp in baggy trousers.

I found myself rushing through the chapters that follow other characters and storylines to get back to Chaplin's lonely and paranoid musings about his films, his fame, his fellow-stars and his mother. Gold creates comic portraits of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. This Hollywood is a place where people cultivate their shallowness until it runs deeply into them.

The style of the parts vary, like the rhythms of Chaplin's best films, deftly ranging through slapstick, satire, melodrama and tragedy. But the subject isn't really Chaplin or the First World War. The book explores the impact of the new medium of film. Gold describes the rapidly disappearing rural Hollywood landscape and comments that the image of the woodlands that would soon be bulldozed would become a memory, "but not the way memory had worked since the dawn of time". Now, film becomes a collective memory, as faulty as anyone's.

History has blurred with our cinematic retelling of the past. Sunnyside suggests that this process began during the Great War, and that Chaplin was instrumental in it.

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