E.L. DOCTOROW – Loon Lake
“You are thinking it is a dream. It is no dream. It is the account in helpless linear translation of the unending love of our simultaneous but disynchrous lives.”
There are so many things to think and talk about when discussing this book by E.L. Doctorow.
It is about obtaining love.
It is about wanting more from your life.
It is about the many forms of isolation.
It is life’s perversion at its
And it is a random bunch of episodes, warped and brutally honest moments that are individual and yet oddly parallel to one another, leading to the same universal goal, that somehow makes it an unexpected whole, a whole that makes sense, yet still leaves you scratching your head.
Questions abound in the reading of this novel. From the blurb, you know half of what to expect when you begin to turn the pages. Joe is on the run from authorities, and decides to follow a train’s route when he sees a flash of important people in the carriages pass him one night, including a young woman looking at her naked image in the mirror. Drawn to the obvious wealth present on the train, and hypnotised by the woman’s beauty, he follows the train to its resting point at a very wealthy man’s estate.
‘Very wealthy’ doesn’t begin to describe how wealthy this man actually is. The owner Bennett has his initials on everything, down to the cigarette boxes.
“He was very rich. He owned thirty thousand acres here and it was just one of his places. He owned the lake itself, the water in the lake, the land under the water and the fish that swam in it.”
”But not the dogs? (…)”
“Oh, no (…) Those are wild-running, those dogs.”
And here we have present a hint of humour, something also prevalent in Loon Lake. It is hard to focus on any one element in my review because they are intertwined and dancing with one another in sporadic points, but there is definitely some black humour popping up at various intervals.
With the humour often came some interesting life insight, such as this:
“I could tell that each of them felt badly used to be taking care of some tramp who had wandered onto the grounds. It was an affront to the natural order which made service to people bearable because they were higher than you, not lower.”
And this which I loved:
“And as for Mr Penfield I knew in my bones I didn’t have anything to fear from him. He had a way of canceling himself out if you let him talk long enough.”
So back to the story. What I thought would be the basis and location of the story, Bennett’s estate, ended up changing half-way through. I naively had believed this would be the scene of all the action, since that was all that was mentioned in the blurb. However, the story went further and deeper and darker than just wandering around some enormous estate, looking at lakes, and trying to catch the fancy of the prettiest girl there.
Not that those parts weren’t entertaining on their own. I guess the way the story stops and changes pace and moves in a different direction, often taking other character’s points of view, is something you would liken to real life: how sometimes we go here, we stop; we go there – but wait that didn’t work; we revisit this place, but only in our minds; and then we go back to where we started.
My first thoughts of the book were not much. There was swearing in the first page, which made me think perhaps I could do the same in my writings, however it’s something that I think is a bit borderline since my work is geared towards a young adult audience. Still, I was happy to read:
“Streetcars rang the bell on the whole fucking neighbourhood.”
This definitely was not the sole instance of swearing, and the crudeness continued not only in terms of language, but in behaviours (pissing was a recurring one), events, and really, really horrible circumstances that made you question humanity. The crudeness continued in the written word too, with Doctorow placing some really interesting ‘I’ references that jolted me out of my reader-state and ‘broke the wall,’ so to speak. Lots of jumping from one character’s point-of-view, to the narrator (author) back to the character in a matter of paragraphs. Without warning. Also the character never continuously spoke in the first person, with Doctorow often injecting a different narrative voice just to make you wonder what the hell was going on.
In one instance, the character Warren Penfield is speaking from his point-of-view, and then it changes to this:
“I acknowledge Warren’s lifelong commitment – cancel lifelong commitment – fatal attraction for any kind of communication whether from words, flags, pigeons or the touch of fingertips in hope of a common language, but we must remember how we are vulnerable to the repetition of our insights so that they tend to come to us not as confirmation of something we already know but as genuine discoveries each and every time.”
At first all of this was very jarring, but like the first time you read Shakespeare and needed to get used to the old-style language, or when you read Trainspotting and had no idea what was going on until half-way through the book when their lingo became second nature to you, so too did I eventually become very well-acquainted with his jumpy style of writing.
Aside from this jumpiness in many character point-of-views, changing from 1st to 3rd person, going back and forth in time between the two main men Joe and Warren, and a good smattering of poems, death notices (and one death notice where we are actually introduced to the character whose future death is foreshadowed before we meet him) there is the case of the run-on sentences. This is normal:
“The track went through some woods circled around a small mountain lake and then it started up a grade a long slow winding grade, I was not already in love with her but in her field of force, what I thought I felt like was some stray dog following the first human being it happened to see.”
This doesn’t show the full extent of the much-often absent comma, as the best example is at the end of the book, when Warren’s POV goes a full two pages without a single full stop. At an average of 11 words per 62 lines, that equates to approximately 682 words. That’s a lot of ideas in one sentence. Without googling, this must not be Doctorow’s first work. I’m sorry, but a first-time author would NEVER get away with that (and it kills me that so many things are out-of-bounds for us).
However, Doctorow does it all so well, and so absurdly, breaking the rules that it actually makes sense. He keeps us confused and guessing, up until a certain point before we are about to break with insanity, and then reveals the information we need so we don’t think we are going crazy with misinformation. He keeps us on our toes.
The above quote doesn’t just show how thoughts change abruptly, displaying the real nature of the human mind, but it shows a beautiful element of Joe’s character, and despite the questionable acts he has done in the past, and does continue to do, he has some tender moments. Take this:
“She was happy on the move, alert and at peace, all the inflamed spirit was lifted from her. She had various ways of arranging herself in the seat, legs tucked up or one under the other, or arms folded, head down, but in any position definitive, beautiful.”
And my favourite, this one:
“Her grey eyes shone, her mouth stretched in her tremulous overbitten smile. I danced her out of there out down the corridor doing a fast fox trot full of swirls while I hummed the tune I had heard the night I came ‘Exactly Like You,’ Libby laughing and worrying at the same time, telling me to hush, looking back over her shoulder, giggling, falling against me every other step, brushing my cheek with her lips. And the light lay like a track along the carpet and shone in golden stations of the open doors.”
The crudeness of the novel had rubbed off onto my notes as I was reading, with the following associated with the above: “This guy can fucking do beautiful poignancy!” As another nod to how his themes intertwine and repeat, there is reference here to the terms ‘track’ and ‘golden stations,’ homage to the train he followed to make it to Loon Lake.
Ahh, the elusive Loon. First mention of it comes from a poem by Warren Penfield, before we even meet Warren! This spiked my curiosity, as I didn’t know what an actual Loon was, or even if it was anything, maybe a particular name or place. It is in fact a bird that grabs fish from the lake of the esteemed estate that it’s named after it. This following poem captures the metaphor of the bird, and the story, and the dual nature of things often present in this book, perfectly:
“A doomed Indian would hear them at night in their diving
and hear their cry not as triumph or as rage
or the insane compatibility with the earth
attributed to birds of prey
but in protest against falling
of having to fall into that black water
and struggle up from it again and again
the water kissing and pawing and whispering
the most horrible promises…”
Beautiful imagery is present there. Doctorow makes stunning use of precise details, painting vivid pictures, like this:
“The chief is not cold. He sits at his desk in a short-sleeved shirt. Arms like trees. His wrist watch appears to be imbedded in the flesh. His badge, pinned to his shirt pocket, pulls the material to a point.”
And this, which tugged at my heartstrings with its sadness:
“Warren knew they were poor and lived lives the colour of sag.”
I’ve mentioned crudeness, but the other notable theme is that of poverty, something both of our protagonists share in. Going back to the beginning, we discover Joe has had a fairly pathetic upbringing, and learns to become street-smart in order to get by. He is an interesting protagonist, because he makes choices that would normally make him a very complicated bad guy, only slightly worthy of redemption, rather than the man we are rooting for. Despite the fact that he is on the run at the beginning of the novel due to theft, we come to like him because we see that he’s clever.
He tells the story of how in his early years he stole a cart full of groceries from the fat delivery boy, and instead of taking the groceries for himself, delivered them to all the intended customers, brought the trolley to the store man, and gave him all the money down to the very cent. He scored a job out of this, and it is this event that we start to see, hey, this isn’t some ratbag kid chasing short-term goals. He is in it for the long-term… until he steals the wrong person’s property that is.
He has many ‘save the cat’ moments. There is much I want to say, but I’ll refrain for spoiler’s sake. Let’s just say that he ends up at a carnival, and there are a lot of really sordid, sad scenes. One scene that comes later in the book during a kind of flashback, was really, really distressing to me. I remember finishing that section late one Sunday night and just feeling so low, so crap. Knowing that somewhere in the world, not perhaps that particular thing, but something of the sort, was happening, and had happened, and maybe even would happen again, just made me so sad. Joe is an explosive kind, and despite his own very, very dubious actions, redeems himself in key moments.
“I wanted to do to her what had been done to the Fat Lady, I wanted the force of a hundred men in unholy fellowship, I went at her like a murderous drunkard.”
The whole reason I had sought out this book in the first place is because I had heard of a quote by him that really grabbed my attention:
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
When later that week I was in a library, I went in search of some of his name and found Loon Lake. I hadn’t really looked into much of his work, or even been recommended any particular book, but seeing the mysterious tones mentioned in the blurb it seemed within my field of interest.
Despite my initial confusion with almost ALL elements of the novel, I still revelled in it, as I like going out of my comfort zone and exploring different forms of storytelling, be it in movies, music or books.
Confusion abounded in Loon Lake: Joe and Warren’s point-of-views were eerily similar, with similar heartbreaking backgrounds, had travelled similar paths to Loon Lake, and later, were in love with the same girl. Their personalities were so different, yet their journeys so symmetrical, that until they actually met each other, I was convinced they were the same person, just bipolar. However the events leading to their meeting, the events that unfold, and the things that happen after Loon Lake are truly fascinating.
The story felt goal-less when Joe was on the run at the beginning; I realise the enticing incident was the authorities chasing him, making him move on, but there were many pages and many continuous moments of crossing land where I just thought “what is pushing the story forward? What is Joe’s motivation?” I guess this story does mimic real life, as I mentioned earlier in Joe’s jumpy thoughts, where sometimes things just move along, move along, and then BANG! you’re given a reason to run.
Just like life, this story has everything: it has the ultimate goal, searching for love, searching for the one, and searching for the life that you believe you deserve. It does this in a perverse way. It has humour. It has sadness. It has desperation, and it has manic moments. It has frightening insights of bleak honesty, so harsh and eerie that it makes you shiver. There are scary moments – scary from humans, and scary because of life. Some things feel like a dream, things go back and forth, and you question many, many voices that are presented throughout. Like the Warren quote mentioned above where Doctorow ‘breaks the wall’ and begins with “I acknowledge Warren’s lifelong commitment…” this passage is also telling in the random thoughts and flashbacks of Warren’s, including one of his repetitions which is identical to another but refers to two separate incidences. When you read it, you’ll know what I mean. But it had me flipping wildly to the start of the book, muttering “I’ve read this before!”
Still, despite the frequent bleakness, and the fact that I probably won’t read another Doctorow book until I read a few really happy novels first, I did enjoy it, and it did have enough humour and insight that I appreciated. I would read another book of his. Just after a blindingly cheesy-happy one.
The ending is not really an ending: not to me anyway. It definitely isn’t one in the Hollywood movie-ending scheme of things, if we’re talking karma and what not. You don’t have very many answers as you go along, and it kind of just ends there, just kind of like life. Some things are tied up, and sometimes, some things are not.
All in all, this novel is a f*^ked up accomplishment of sorts. It has everything, as it had me feeling, and thinking, long after I finished reading. Well done Doctorow. To make a reader feel and think so hard, is testament to your form. Also, to read a book that has so many analogous yet confusing elements in it, yet still giving enough that allows the reader to make sense of it all, is an achievement. If you only like shiny happy things, you’ll walk away screwed up. You’ve been warned.
I’ll end on this page 76 quote that interestingly foreshadows the future of the story while also painting a terrific metaphor.
“…a loon was coming in like a roller coaster. He hit the water and skidded for thirty yards, sending up a great spray, and when the water settled he was gone. I couldn’t see him, I thought the fucker had drowned. But up he popped, shaking and mauling a fat fish. And when the fish was polished off, I heard a weird maniac cry coming off the water, and echoing off the hills.”
Please let me know your thoughts on Loon Lake in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you. 🙂