Ballymena author Jan Carson’s debut novel, Malcolm Orange Disappears is a quirky tale of a young boy whose family are slowly abandoning him.
First off, I should flag that Malcolm Orange Disappears is an incredibly creative and unusual novel. Call it magic-realist, call it quirky (to use the author’s word), or call it off-beat, it’s a very original book!
I’ll call it an episodic novel, because most chapters tell the story of a new character. Thus, we meet Malcolm and the inhabitants of a Baptist Retirement Village in Portland, Oregon, in which he finds himself marooned along with his baby brother and his silent mother, after his father abandons the family. It appears to be the first time Malcolm’s found himself stationary in his young life (he’s 11), as his restless parents have hurried the family along the highways of America for as long as Malcolm can remember.
Jan Carson is a similarly restless writer, painting minor characters with so much detail and verve that it’s easy to forget about the central plot — Malcolm’s strange titular malady: he is vanishing, piece by piece, new holes appearing in his body every day — in the face of each new chapter and its quirky characters and their gothic mis-adventures. Of course, that appears to be the point: Malcolm is disappearing, his body full of strange absences, and into these holes Carson pours stories, rich and vibrant.
In some ways, one can be forgiven for approaching Malcolm Orange Disappears as a collection of linked short stories rather than a novel, as Carson loves a good digression. Some of my favorite stories/chapters were the story of Cunningham Holt, a blind man with a mania for collecting and a phobia about sinking into the ground, as well as the story of Malcolm’s mother, who comes from a village where everybody suffers from severe wanderlust because they’re descended from fallen angels and the parents clip each new generation’s nascent wings while young, depriving them of the ability to fly, but not the instinct to be on the move.
The central mystery — Why is Malcolm disappearing? — is wrapped up in a madcap, absurdist, melodrama towards the end of the book. Let’s just say it involves medical experimentation, a mad scientist, and a shotgun that’s been locked in a wardrobe since 1985. It’s an abrupt and slightly cartoonish ending, which is likely to rub some people the wrong way — but it worked for me.
When searching for comparisons, I have to either go to the extreme of the obscure (Shelley Jackson, with her deliciously odd but vibrant short stories — Read The Melancholy of Anatomy!) or the infamous (Salman Rushdie) with his personal maladies as both metaphor and plot, and a fondness for magical shenanigans. Although, perhaps a comparison with Thomas Pynchon’s madcap work from V to Vineland, restlessly exploring both America and history, would be most fitting. Of course, there’s also Irish roots to consider, most obviously among writers of larger-than-life, outlandish fictions like Flann O’Brien or J. P. Dunleavy, but I gravitate to towards Pynchon simply because most of his novels inhabit the same fabulous (as in mythic) underside of American life that Carson uses as her playground. Whichever way you look at it, Jan Carson is keeping company with some of the most ambitious and creative storytellers, and Malcolm Orange Disappears is a vibrant, sprawling novel with huge ambitions that resonates on many levels and is open to multiple interpretations.
I’m always interested when an Irish writer sets their novel elsewhere. It’s not that Irish writers should be required to write about Ireland, but, as Niall Williams writes in his recent novel History of the Rain, “We are our stories,“ we are always writing about ourselves, and fundamentally every novel is about its own moment, the world in which its own author lives and breaths. In this context, it’s not difficult to see that by setting her story in the US, Carson had much more freedom for her boundless and somewhat lurid imagination (and I mean that in a good way) than she would have found in Irish setting.
Many of the things she puts into her novel would have held very different meanings and associations in Ireland, north or south. The Baptist retirement home might not have suggested a place were lovable eccentrics pass their time worrying about remembering song lyrics, as religiously segregated communities have different connotations in Northern Ireland. In the same vein, Malcolm’s family name, Orange, would have pulled politics and religion to the fore.
Then there’s Malcolm’s family’s relentless wanderlust. In someplace like America, you can physically go much farther than you can in Ireland, and the kind of anonymity that such wandering requires is basically impossible in a culture so fixated on knowing your family lineage, your community ties, and placing you within certain boxes as soon as they look at you. (Williams again: “you must be traced into the landscape, your people and your place found.”) This sense of a fresh start, of anonymity, is one of the things Irish emigrants and students love when they first move abroad — as Carson did, living in Oregon for several years before returning to Northern Ireland. If the book is essentially a coming-of-age tale, wherein young Malcolm comes to find a community and a place in the world after being constantly on-the-move his whole life, the title itself also speaks to a wish to transcend the category into which one has been placed.
I want to discuss the ending of the book, but that would hard to do while avoiding spoilers. So, let me sum up by saying that Malcolm and his mother must fight the same fight in their own different ways: will they continue her family’s tradition of flight, avoidance, and mistrust, or will they choose to stay, pull the family together and start over? It’s a question many Northern families faced during the Troubles, and it’s also the perennial question faced by young men and women coming of age all over Ireland: to emigrate or not to emigrate?
In fairness, I should note that there are times were the author loses control of her story, where we forget all about Malcolm because a minor character’s backstory goes into so much detail, but these minor flaws only enhance the whole. Nothing’s perfect, certainly not a first novel.
I feel I’m short-changing Malcolm Orange Disappears even though this is a longer review than I normally write (and probably more than most people want to read). I should quote some of the many quotable passage or share some of the author’s vivid imagery, but frankly it will be more fun for you to read them yourself. Let me just say you’ll probably read this book straight through in an all-night, caffeine-fueled binge, and if you’re a writer, you’ll then read it again with a pencil or highlighter in hand, savoring and underlining the choice passages as you go.
Jan Carson is a terrifically creative writer, with a memorable turn of phrase and a boundless imagination; I can’t wait to see what she writes next!
Buy Malcolm Orange Disappears in the US…
Buy Malcolm Orange Disappears in IRL/UK…
Follow Jan Carson on her blog…