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Review: Geppetto recalls how life pulled his strings

“The Swallowed Man” by Edward Carey  (Riverhead)
“The Swallowed Man” by Edward Carey (Riverhead)
By Eric Nguyen Special To </p><p>The Washington Post

There are striking differences between the story of Pinocchio that many of us know thanks to Walt Disney’s 1940 film and Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s novel. “The original Pinocchio was woodier than Disney’s version,” Umberto Eco once wrote while meditating on his discomfort watching the movie. “And though I admit that Disney’s Jiminy Cricket is an extraordinary invention, he has nothing to do with Collodi’s Talking Cricket, who was an actual insect: no top hat, no tailcoat (or was it a frock coat?), no umbrella.”

Edward Carey returns readers to Collodi’s “Pinocchio” in his latest, “The Swallowed Man.” But the twist: Carey tells his yarn from the perspective of the carpenter, Geppetto, known here as Joseph Lorenzini.

At the start of the novel, Joseph finds himself in the belly of a shark. Whether his survival inside a “watery purgatory” is good luck or a curse, he doesn’t know. The shark’s vast interior gives him room to explore the “black and black and ever more of black” until he finds a swallowed ship without survivors. Preserved provisions – tins of meat, hardtack, tallow candles, waxed matches – however, allow him to live a little longer, and a slightly used captain’s log gives him the opportunity to write down how he came to be “Emperor of Inner Sharkland.”

This version of Pinocchio’s narrative arc aligns more or less with Collodi’s: man buys wood, man begins carving marionette, marionette slowly comes to life under its creator’s hands, marionette runs away, man searches for him and ends up inside a fish. But Carey is more interested in what happens to the carpenter when he’s left alone with a book in which to write his thoughts.

The captain’s log becomes many things, among them a biography, where readers learn of Joseph’s childhood in a family known for its pottery paintings. Unable to reproduce the intricate flower pattern his father is known for, young Joseph is called a “doltish donkey” (a nod to Pinocchio’s own adventure). “Father, though he loved me, loved me a little less because of it,” Joseph writes. His failure as a painter eventually leads him to wood whittling, betraying the Lorenzini heritage, which declines after Joseph abandons his family’s craft.

The captain’s log also serves as a diary of Joseph’s time inside the “monster-beast” – from the daily debris that comes in when the shark opens its mouth to his fight against boredom and loneliness. He also writes of creating ceramic sculptures, dark portraits of past loves, and an attempt to make another wooden boy that goes awry.

Like Carey’s previous novels, “The Swallowed Man” includes Carey’s own art, and fans of his macabre yet oddly satisfying visual work will have much to enjoy here, from daguerreotype photographs of the ship captain’s family to a 3-D rendering of Joseph’s self-portrait bust made of shells, kelp and glass. The book also revisits themes that Carey has considered before, about the meaning and nature of art. “I think of him now, abroad in the world,” Joseph writes of Pinocchio. “Is that immortality, then – how the art is appreciated while the artist is gone?” Other times, Joseph interrogates the price one pays to be an artist. In one particularly poignant scene, Joseph decides to make a sculpture out of hardtack biscuits. “The more sculpture I made, the less food I had to eat,” he realizes. “I would rather starve, I told myself, if it meant I could craft one thing or another.”

Yet “The Swallowed Man” stands out among Carey’s other works. Whereas novels such as “Alva and Irva” and “Little” were life stories, “The Swallowed Man” is a portrait of the artist contemplating his own existence. “There is no neat plot to a man’s life. There are endless days, which are as like as twins,” Joseph observes, and Carey echoes this in his form – a novel that takes the shape of a constellation of memories recalled amid idle waiting.

“The Swallowed Man” has neither the verve of “Pinocchio” nor any insight into Collodi’s classic novel. Nevertheless, Carey is a playful writer whose charming sentences are works of careful craftsmanship. When Joseph recalls the day the undertaker’s son caught him getting cozy with the butcher’s daughter, he writes, “And he told: ran with the story to his father, the undertaker, and that undertaker undertook the story to my father, and also to Agnese’s father, the Collodi butcher, and what butchering there was then.”

This isn’t the “Pinocchio” of your childhood. Instead, Carey has written something more cerebral, an existential fairy tale for adults told by an old artist considering the tragedy of life. “As time stomps on we do lose things: hair one day, teeth the next,” Carey writes. “Nothing to be done. Natural enough, they say, but still it hurts.”

Nguyen is the author of the novel “Things We Lost to the Water,” forthcoming from Knopf.

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