Mark Gordon’s The Snail’s Castle begins with two young lovers, an awkward friend, and an unfair — and possibly anti-Semitic — professor. It ends with a road trip into another country. In between, there are ping-pong tournaments, dream analyses, personal revelations, and a lesson in playing euchre. And, naturally, there is The Snail’s Castle: the mysterious meta-novel protagonist Jake Milson is on a mission to understand.
However, The Snail’s Castle is too disjointed for any part of its narrative to have an impact. Threads are picked up halfway into the novel and dropped in silence. Conversations feel forced and overly-scripted, and characters’ reactions to events feel like performances from April Wheeler’s community theater. Jung’s shadow concept features prominently for a few chapters, but is later forgotten. Likewise, a relatively minor character becomes a focal point for the book’s back third, introducing a handful of new names and personalities that, while entertaining, are never seen again when the narrative shifts back to Jake.
The novel’s most interesting thread is, unfortunately, its shortest. When one of Jake’s fraternity brothers comes out, The Snail’s Castle pits the protagonist’s apathy against 1960s expectations of conformity. The young man’s lover makes only two appearances, but their eventual public confirmation of their sexuality is a “Fuck you” to society that will make you want to cheer. Things don’t turn out well, but the character’s story arc is too short to allow any emotional response in the wake of tragedy, despite Gordon’s intentions to the contrary.
The Snail’s Castle makes a few interesting choices with its characterization of Rebecca Sloan, Jake’s girlfriend. At first, she’s your stereotypical Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s free-spirited and open with her body. She’s Cool Girl. But when, somewhere along the line, Rebecca decides she’s done with being Jake’s muse, and withdraws herself from his vision of their future, Jake can’t bring himself to tolerate her decision. She is nothing more than a box to check off on his list of life goals. Though Rebecca’s autonomy may seem to turn the whole idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl on its ear, Jake’s refusal to acknowledge her identity as separate from his own only reinforces the stereotype. She leaves him alone, as all such tropes must, but — unlike the protagonists readers are used to seeing paired with such women — he never grows from the experience.
Jake is too self-absorbed for readers to make any meaningful connection with him. He’s an older Holden Caulfield, a younger Benjamin Mandelbaum: all whine and delusions of deserved absolution. When his compulsive ass-kissing causes the main ingredients of his planned future — Rebecca and an Oxford scholarship — to fall away from him, Jake is unable to make any headway in forming a new plan. Instead, he resorts to petty intrigue and blackmail in a futile attempt to regain control of his life. But Jake isn’t humbled by his losses, and he hasn’t actually learned anything about himself or anyone else by the end of the novel.
Ultimately, Jake is why The Snail’s Castle fails. The book’s fragmented narrative and attempted avant-garde might be tolerable if its protagonist wasn’t insufferably dense and dully self-important. Without any strongly compelling elements, however, Gordon’s novel cannot climb out of mediocrity.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
I received this book from Legit Lit Book Tours in exchange for this review.