James Morrow

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari

Tachyon Publications 2017

New Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in FantasyNew Books in LiteratureNew Books Network August 13, 2017 Gabrielle Mathieu

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (Tachyon Publications, 2017) is a deft little novel, is a perfect fit for people who are not just interested...

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (Tachyon Publications, 2017) is a deft little novel, is a perfect fit for people who are not just interested in fantasy, but also history, art, geography and linguistics. If you are a man, and appreciate an elegant woman wearing lace and jewelry more than a bronze bikini-clad babe with a vacuous stare, you might also appreciate the work of James Morrow.

Like T. Coraghessan Boyle, but with more palatable characters, and less heft, James Morrow draws on actual historical figures in his novel. While there was no country of Weizenstaat, which would mean ‘Wheat State,’ there was certainly a Blue period for Pablo Picasso, and a painting by Duchamp called ‘Nude Descending a Staircase.’ As a German speaker, and someone who grew up in an apartment filled with my father’s art books, I got a lot of knowing chuckles out of terms such as Farbenmensch which refers to a man who comes to life out of a painting, or the description of Picasso throwing the narrator, an aspiring artist, down the stairs.

I would say this is less a fantasy novel, in the usual modern sense, than an allegory about war and the patriotic frenzy that inspires men to lay down their life. Set at the outbreak of World War I, the novel contrasts those who see the true horror of war, including the narrator, a lunatic, and a gay couple, with those who wish to profit from it. Its clear that Morrow, an elderly gentleman, has strong pacifist leanings which were probably exercised as far back as the Vietnam war. The famous poet Wilfred Owen implied ironically in his anti-war poem ‘Dulce e Decorum est,’ that it was sweet to die for ones country in the trenches, choking on chlorine gas. That Morrow seems to agree is indicated in passages such as this rant ascribed to Caligari, the villain: at long last the architects of the Great War can look back on their many accomplishments: a devastated France, a demoralized Britain, a ransacked Germany, a receiving line of corpses stretching from Armentires to Zanzibar. The construction of the sentences is often intricate, like the example above. Many phrases are a delight, and I was amused, edified, and illumined. Be aware the pleasures in this book are more to be found in the musings on art, history, and philosophy. The plot is an elegant scaffolding on which to hang these gems of observation.


Gabrielle Mathieu is the author of the historical fantasy Falcon series (The Falcon Flies Alone, and the upcoming The Falcon Strikes.) She blogs about travel and her books at http://gabriellemathieu.com/. You can also follow her on Twitter to get updates about new podcasts and more: @GabrielleAuthor.

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