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The Snail’s Castle by Mark Gordon is contemporary literary fiction at its finest. It introduces Jungian theories about psychological individuation, gives voice to the bourgeois aspirations of immigrant Jews, and makes ping pong matches seem as riveting as NCAA March Madness college basketball games. There is a refreshing intimacy about the characters, which draws the reader inexorably into the mix. At 296 pages The Snail’s Castle is a pleasure to read. This is a no-brainer: five stars.
Meet Jake Milson, a Jewish 4th year English major at McGill University in Montreal, Canada in the 1960’s. In the opening pages of the book he is in bed with his girlfriend, Rebecca. It’s Christmas break and his frat brothers have gone, save for his buddy Bernie, who is mucking about the yard watching blue jays. During the pillow talk, he looks over her bare shoulder and gazes at the photograph of Oxford University on his wall. The Hollingshead scholarship for excellence in English Lit is his ticket to Oxford. Hollingshead, Oxford and Rebecca are a package deal: his “guiding trinity.” He is a straight A student, so winning the scholarship should be a slam dunk.
When Jake trudges over to campus with Rebecca and Bernie to check the results of their first term grades, he is horrified to see the C minus grade next to his name for the Creative Criticism class taught by the “boy-in-the-Eaton-catalogue” goyish professor Gregory Percival. Initially, he chalks the grade up to Percival’s anti-Semitism. That’s not the real reason. But what is? In very short order Percival deals Jake another humiliation. By Chapter 5 the reader gets pulled into Jake’s rapacious campaign to get the A.
There is a Faust/Mephistophelean quality to the rivalry between Jake and Percival. Enter the eerie book written by French author Louis Palandreau entitled The Snail’s Castle. The story is Kafkaesque. It haunts. It makes you think. It makes you want to bury it in your sock drawer. Or, maybe, you store it inside your fine mahogany desk, awaiting the right moment to pull it out and share it with a kindred soul. It debuts in chapter 3 when Percival offers it to Rebecca. In chapter 8 Jake receives a copy. Palandreau’s book is a game changer.
While the narrator is primarily focused on Jake’s journey toward self-actualization, he checks in from time to time with the council of elders, i.e., the Jewish parents. They remind the reader that the college experience of Jake and his friends are groundbreaking, which ties into the cultural paradigm shifts of the 1960’s. “Where are those dreamy books going to get you?” says Bernie’s father in response to Bernie’s news about receiving top grades in mathematics and philosophy. “Into a lot of trouble, that’s what. Be a mensch. Go out and earn a living like everyone else.” In another scene Jake calls Rebecca’s house from the telephone booth. Her father answers and Jake introduces himself.
“Oh, the university boy. The one who keeps my daughter out all night. The one who tells her to be a rebel, not to marry, forget about kids. Is this the one I’m talking to?”
“Yes, sir, but …”
You either love Jake or hate him. But you have to love the narrator. He reveals much without being irritatingly intrusive. From him we learn that Jake is president of his hardscrabble Jewish fraternity MUK (Mu Upsilon Kappa). He is “Poppa Milson.” Without skipping a beat the narrator shows us how Jake borrows fraternity funds, cuz ya know, he’ll pay it back from his gambling earnings. He counts cards so everything is fine. Right-o! The narrator explains how Jake puts in sixteen hours of study time daily, and how much of that time is devoted to studying the background history and psychological profile of the professor. And then there is the narrator’s blunt sense of humor. It is the kind of humor that makes you both cry “ew!” and laugh nervously. Take for example a scene in which Rebecca’s mother orders Jake to remove his boots. He demurs because his socks are wet. She dismisses his protests, and hands him a clean pair of her husband’s socks.
Jake felt squeamish as he sat in Mrs. Sloan’s kitchen and pulled on a pair of Shlomo Sloan’s argyles. They were much too big for him. But that was not the problem. He kept picturing Shlomo’s big toe and what it might look like. Perhaps it was calloused yellow from running around the furniture store. Perhaps the skin had flaked off it. Perhaps microscopic bits of the skin clung to the fibres of the sock, despite a thorough washing by his wife.
Jake had lost his appetite for taiglach.
Oy veh! The narrator takes us “there” because that’s where Jake goes. But what the narrator also demonstrates is how uncomfortable Jake is about delving into the shadows of his soul. Jake cleaves to the Oxford-Hollingshead-Rebecca mantra. But what is that ephemera that guides his soul? Is that why Palandreau’s Snail‘s Castle gives him nightmares?
Jake is not the only one who struggles mightily. The college years by definition are a period of great personal transformations that may or may not go so smoothly. All sorts of issues get an airing in this book including homosexuality, feminism, classism, racism, tribalism and the elusive search for self-expression and acceptance. This book is rich and full of life. Settle into the nooks and crannies of The Snail’s Castle. Look past the meshugaas and enjoy the wonderful spiritual adventure.
Jack Messenger’s Review: https://t.co/fiQ6mCIvPY Feed the Monkey Blog
Carl Jung’s concept of the Shadow is one of many intertwined and mutually reinforcing themes in Mark Gordon’s complex and absorbing novel. The Shadow comprises the negative, primitive and morally reprehensible emotions and impulses inaccessible to the conscious mind: among them, lust, greed, envy, rage and the pursuit of power. It is at its most dangerous when habitually repressed and rejected, eventually manifesting itself in mental disturbances such as neurosis, psychosis or irrational hostility.
The majority of the characters in The Snail’s Castle are haunted by the Shadow in one way or another, particularly Jake Milson, a US student of English Literature at McGill University in Montreal in the early 1960s. Jake has set his mind on winning a scholarship to study at Oxford, but his enviable academic record of straight A’s is suddenly tarnished by a C-minus for an essay in Creative Criticism, taught by poet Gregory Percival. Jake’s scholarly success is in part due to his careful homework on the predilections and obsessions of his teachers, enabling him to slant his own work to reflect their pet theories. Percival, however, is unimpressed. Jake’s efforts to change the professor’s mind – by hook or by crook – become increasingly personal and obsessive, and neither of them is prepared to give an inch in a battle of psyches that rapidly overwhelms Percival’s wife Margaret (whom he has betrayed sexually time and again), Jake’s girlfriend Rebecca (who falls for Percival’s charm) and even the unwitting members of Jake’s student fraternity.
Jake and Percival prowl the same moral morass, but their paths rarely cross, as Percival – appropriately – is a shadowy figure, difficult to meet and impossible to intimidate. The novel expands with the proliferating connotations and ramifications of their relationship, which becomes a kind of twinship that holds up a mirror for Jake to see himself as he really is – if only he had the self-insight to look. At one point, late on in the novel, he feels a burning sensation in his chest, which accompanies the thought that ‘it felt good to say something without any ulterior motive, to say something sincerely.’ Here, Jake confirms our suspicion that he has hitherto been an unreliable guide to his own motives, and is at last beginning to wise-up.
Jake and Percival are competing males, with women as their accomplices and their victims. They are also two poles of an unstable binary opposition between critical analysis and artistic creativity, which are reconciled at novel’s end. If that sounds dry and academic, it isn’t, and there is a great deal more at stake than male pride.
Jake and his fraternity brothers are Jewish, as are many of their girlfriends, including Rebecca. Issues of group- and self-identification infuse the narrative with the bitter aftertaste of Holocaust and pogrom, along with a prickly sensitivity to the latent and not-so-latent anti-Semitism of Montreal’s elites. Class and privilege, wealth and power, intersect with personal aspirations and romantic relationships, and the very geography of the city is a grid of social distinctions that can be traversed but never ignored. There are some places where access confers little more than ridicule and shame. They also provoke in Jake a vision: ‘he saw naked bodies marching to Auschwitz. He saw goose-stepping troops. He remembered that the gypsies, the queers, and the socialists were herded, along with the Jews, to the showers that washed away all sins.’ Great evils are born of everyday incivilities.
This awful weight of personal and cultural history is emphasized by recurring allusions to classical myth, biblical imagery and, of course, works of literature. Shakespeare’s King Lear – especially Lear’s rantings on the storm-ridden heath – is particularly apropos, but the major chord is struck by a rare and peculiar book loaned by Percival to Rebecca and Jake, called – The Snail’s Castle. Jake attempts to unlock the mysteries of its bizarre narrative, only to find himself sinking into the moral quagmire of its main character. This brilliant self-reflexive trope highlights the power and the danger of the Word (of words written on the page and in the heart) and the problematic interconnections of literature and life. Books, however well written, are not life, but a parallel form of human experience, and the two should not be confused.
Mud – its depth and consistency, its suitability as a burial site for unwanted memories – is a ubiquitous symbol, both in the book-within-the-book and in the lives of Jake and Margaret, who remembers plunging her hands in the earth of her beloved grandmother’s garden. Margaret experiences a mental storm of memories that competes with the snowstorms that form Montreal’s winter landscape (Nature’s version of a whited sepulchre), evoked effortlessly by the author’s poetically precise prose. It is Margaret, too, who unknowingly echoes a theme of the book-within-the-book: ‘We’ve all got these little empty spaces, Jake. And we run around trying to fill them up. Sometimes with nostalgia.’
To which character(s) does The Snail’s Castle belong? The opening sections provoke uncertainty in this regard, rather as the camera in a film by Michelangelo Antonioni permits its dispassionate gaze to rest first on this character, then on that, before making up its mind to follow someone else entirely. Jake’s is the disputed but dominant voice, but even he is shouldered aside for a couple of chapters by Margaret’s claims on ownership. Personally, I found this a jolt, and at a point where I think the novel begins to lose its way, or at least its focus, for some little while. I also began to question the amplitude of memories available at a moment’s notice for several characters at various stages, especially Margaret. The sheer quantity and detail of her memories deflect attention from their immediate cause, so that her present experience is covered over by a welter of images and ideas in which she and the reader lose their way. But perhaps that is the point and I am wrong.
In any case, these are minor quibbles. For all its seriousness, The Snail’s Castle has a light, assured tone that makes for compulsive reading. At turns amusing and disturbing, it is among the most literary of literary works, with a deep intelligence that expects its readers also to be intelligent. That is a rare compliment that should be savoured. I thoroughly recommend this stimulating novel, so beautifully written by a gifted writer, to whom I offer my hearty congratulations.
Review of The Snail’s Castle from All Things Character, It Is Blog tinyurl.com/q33yd8f
Posted by Cori Dyson on Oct 2, 2015 in Jung, Author, Literary Fiction
Generally a review starts out with plot or characters, but I’m not going to discuss those things here. This novel utilizes plot and characters as tools, like a keyboard or a word processor to convey deeper meanings. I believe the deeper meanings are what this author wanted to convey to the reader, not the names of the characters or the plot. There are terrific characters that I’m sure other reviewers will discuss at length, and an entire review could be written about each main character. It is certainly not for the lack of material or quality of material that I am purposefully avoiding these topics, it is because the author skillfully used these as tools for a larger purpose and I want to honor that larger purpose.
Mark Gordon is the author of The Snail’s Castle. He is an independent author and this is his third novel. You can learn more about Mark on his website.
Literary Fiction or Genre Fiction. This is literary fiction to me. Others may disagree, but I will stand firm on the arguable position that this is, indeed, literary fiction. This novel needs to be read more than once to fully soak int all its meaning and subtleties. I must admit that I have only read it once, though I intend to read it again to gain more insight into its more subtle meanings.
Let the Subtleties Begin
I found a couple of themes in the novel. The first of which is choices. The Snail’s Castle brilliantly looks at choices from a fresh angle. We all have choices in life and the author reveals in the novel what happens when we fail to choose or to make a choice. People are often cautioned about making the “wrong” choice, but the author is making an argument that not making a choice at all can be far worse.
He makes this argument through one of the supporting characters. The author does this without sharing one inner thought of this character. Yes, all through showing. The author skillfully leads the reader along the journey showing through action, interaction, and observation the supporting character’s struggle with making a single choice. We see the results of indecision as clearly as the sun on a cloudless day, all without the author writing from this character’s point of view at all. Impressive and brilliantly executed.
The next theme I noted was dreams as in goals. The author certainly covers his share of dreams in the novel which may add to the confusion a bit here, but I believe the theme is a person’s aspirations or goals in life and if these dreams or aspirations are really what we need. How many of the aspirations and dreams that we had when we were younger actually came to fruition? How many of the dreams that did not come true are you now glad did not come true? The author again shows us that not everything that we want out of life is something that we need or that is best for us. He shows us through the main character that holding on too tightly to a dream or aspiration just because that is all you’ve ever wanted is foolish and can be dangerous. The author also shows the reader that holding on to anything to the point of strangulation is also equally dangerous and often doesn’t work out, but perhaps for the best. And here Mark Gordon leaves us with an impossible question, to which he alludes to in his book, which is better (or worse)–not making a choice through constant indecision or holding on to a choice that had previously been made for far too long. That is the dilemma or the impossible question the reader is left with. I cannot answer this question and Mark Gordon leaves this answer up to the reader to answer for him or herself.
Book Within a Book
I cannot write a book review without mentioning the book within the book. The most surreal part of reading this book was that it was about a book called The Snail’s Castle. The book in the book was a wonderful stream of consciousness or subconscious dream outlining one of the character’s inner conflicts. A brilliant idea flawless in execution. To discuss this book anymore in this review would most certainly be spoilers! So I will take head from River Song and shout “Spoilers” before running away.
As You Read The Snail’s Castle
Along your journey into the lives of these characters, and in some cases into their subconscious, the writing is a beautiful prose reminiscent of poetry. He has a unique voice that is both easy to read and follow and his descriptions of characters and the world they live in is vivid and encompassing. His descriptions are so vivid that I feel as if I am present in the story smelling history, tasting the air, feeling the cold deep in my bones, and seeing the character’s faces in exquisite detail.
I Highly Recommend this Novel for Anyone who…
Loves discovering the underlying themes in novels such as Withering Heights or To Kill a Mockingbird.
Loves reading well written novels with beautiful prose and descriptions which are poetic
Wants to read how an author implemented Jungian philosophy well into a novel
Enjoys literary fiction.
I See this Book Becoming a Classic One Day
So read it now while you can so you can say that you read it when it first came out. You can say that you own a first edition. He has a contest on his website to give away a free signed paperback copy of his novel. I would recommend you signing up for it, I know I am.