Sunnyside up


Ah me, too much happening – if only any of it was of any consequence. Anyway, apologies for the service from the Bioscope being a bit on the intermittent side of late, but there’s just time to note the publication this month of Glen David Gold’s novel, Sunnyside. Gold gained fame a few years back with his fantastical novel of warring magicians in the 1920s, Carter Beats the Devil, and he seems to have pulled off a similar trick with Sunnyside, this time by taking as his subject the cinema of roughly the same period.

Sunnyside is, of course, the title of a 1919 Charlie Chaplin film (a minor film where Chaplin experimented with rural comedy but lost his comic touch). The novel sounds like a rich feast, using Chaplin and the American movie industry as the means to illuminate a wildly variegated decade and the encroachment of modernity. Amid multiple storylines (there are three main plot lines, covering Chaplin in Hollywood, another character in the battlefields of France, and a third caught up in the little-known Allied invasion of Russia), real-life and imaginary characters intermingle – among the former, readers will find Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Adolph Zukor, film theorist Hugo Munsterberg, Rin Tin Tin, and of course Chaplin. There’s an enticing review of the book from the LA Times which describes Chaplin’s portrayal thus:

Scores of novels have tried and failed to depict movie stars and stardom or genius. Yet here Gold conjures a nuanced character who springs to life. Chaplin comes across as witty, charming, insecure. He dresses with a dandy’s care, suffers depressions and wears a perfume that smells like citrus with “base notes of money.” He woos women and conducts a book-length joust with Pickford, whose air of certainty and business smarts confuses and almost terrifies him. Chaplin’s doubts center on his sense of being not good enough, an uncertainty that he knows he must somehow allow to filter through his art.

“He had the easy capacity for seeing kinetic actions first, then creating character and emotion to fill them up, like ladling sand into a sack. This was too easy — everyone did it,” Gold writes. “Where was the small moment, the flirtatious smile not returned, the cuckold discovering a cuff link and saying nothing, the smile of a baby that somehow chills the bones? That was the hardest way to make things.”

Gold places the center of Chaplin’s ache in his longing for love — and his fear of the same — in his relationships with women. Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, was a music hall singer whose career was ruined and who went mad, leaving the young Chaplin destitute, and the whole Chaplin-arc of “Sunnyside” is aimed at the moment, dreaded and longed-for, when Hannah arrives in Los Angeles. “He could meet her eyes, but only as though they were tapping his fingers against a hot stove. They were still a deep hazel, cloudy and merry, for now,” Gold writes. “It’s okay if you don’t love your mother,” Hannah says, as “Sunnyside” speeds at last toward its conclusion with a sequence of scenes that amaze, startle and move.

As someone who found Carter Beats the Devil hugely disappointing, I shall reserve judgement until I read Sunnyside. But I will have to read it (all 559 pages of it), and the book is certain to do well, and to draw people anew to Chaplin and the richly metaphoric world of silent cinema.