I don’t think there is anyone writing today like James Morrow. I’ve seen him compared to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and to Harlan Ellison, but Ellison is too pedestrian compared to Morrow, and Vonnegut not quite risky enough.
In The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, Morrow mixes art, war, and madness – which, when you think about it, is a pretty natural combination.
American artist Francis Wyndham, perhaps searching for his own raison d’être, is hired to provide art therapy at an asylum run by the renowned Alessandro Caligari. There, Wyndham meets Ilona – a beautiful inmate at the asylum whose talent with art is rivaled only by her intense sexual drive. She might be the perfect woman if she didn’t also believe she was the Queen of all spiders.
But is Caligari a genius (who belittles Freud and other therapists of the day) or a madman? Is there a difference? Caligari has created his own painting, titled “Ecstatic Wisdom”, which he keeps veiled most of the time. From around Europe regiments of soldiers are marched past the painting and the soldiers are imbued with a strong sense of duty and a renewed vigor to fight. Wyndham finds this despicable and with Ilona and others from the madhouse he schemes to stop the on-coming war with a new painting, rather than encouraging and profiting from it as Caligari does. But this will be no easy feat as Caligari’s painting possesses a magical property that has it protecting itself from being destroyed.
Morrow provides his unique take on the cult classic horror film from the 1920’s as only Morrow can – with wry humor and a wicked twist. And of course sex.
Morrow’s prose is literate and smooth and it’s like eating a delicious piece of chocolate candy slowly so that you can savor it. You just want to chew on his language and keep moving forward into each new sentence in order to find the next piece of nougat-y goodness. And as if slick writing weren’t enough, Morrow paints characters that have great appeal. Even Caligari is someone you want to know more about and like, in his own way.
And of course a heady story with a deep philosophical undertone runs through this Morrow book, just as it does with everything I’ve read of his. This sort of fiction really appeals to me – something that you can read and enjoy just for the surface story but that has deeper implications if you look for it.
I was just a little disappointed in the very ending – though I couldn’t tell you what I was hoping for – which is why it doesn’t get a full five stars from me.
Looking for a good book? The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is another tour de force from James Morrow and is a delicious read.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Asylum of Dr. Caligari
author: James Morrow
publisher: Tachyon Publications
paperback, 192 pages