The most interesting thing about The Carbon Copy may well be that, although it looks like one, it's not a novel at all. (I say it looks like one on the grounds that we've come to expect that any book-length fiction will fulfill the demands we've become accustomed to making of the novel.) There may well be no widely-accepted name for the genre it does belong to; certainly there haven't been very many examples produced lately. But it's a form that doesn't, like the novel, spring from Richardson and Fielding and the Russians, but rather has its headwaters in Swift, Rabelais, Bunyan; in the medieval and renaissance romance; in Spenser.
The disadvantage of turning toward the prose satire, the allegory, the purposeful and memorable fancy, is that it can represent escapism. Are our moral and political problems inconceivably complex? Come away to Middle Earth where evil is instantly recognizable and can be defeated in satisfying ways, without compromise and in public. Or sign over human history to a Tralfamadorean distress signal, bounced off Earth from an explorer marooned on Titan. That writers like Camus and Kafka, Swift and Bunvan have avoided this, have managed to take a slice of the universe that still has the tang of experience about it, and to use that to make significant statements, demonstrates that it can be done. I would argue that it must be done if prose fiction is to be as central to our concerns as the novel was to those of the late nineteenth century. I would argue, too, that The Carbon Copy is one proof that it can be done in the last third of the twentieth century.
The Carbon Copy takes place in a world which is quite effectively rendered real and palpable, but which is also pretty clearly not this one; rather it is the sort of world which gets itself assembled in our dreams -- or nightmares. It's a world where deserts border oceans, where tropical rainforests and cornfields exist almost side by side, where pastry shops appear along the road in isolated semitropical villages. It's a world where the names of places and people Karrak, Makoli, Voytek, Andrax -- sound "foreign" but don't allow themselves to be placed. Yet details are scrupulously vivid. The iguanas caught by a hunter, the ancient temple at the top of a pyramid, the isolated academy in the mountains, may all be symbolic; but they are first of all real, presented with a kind of hallucinatory vividness strongly reminiscent of Conrad.
The book's narrator awakens in this world, apparently the victim of total amnesia, and wanders through a nightmare society torn by revolution and civil war, terrorism and atrocity. His wanderings seem aimless to him, though it is clear to the reader that "though this be madness, yet there's method in't." One way of describing his odyssey would be to call it a "search for his identity," but there's an oversimplification inherent in the cliche. The main character does in some sense discover something fundamental about identity, but it's not about his own identity; it has to do with the perception (and it's the reader's more than the character's perception) that identity resides in action rather than in memories or conscious motivations or subconscious patterns. Identity, for this book, is not the sort of personal thing we're used to characters in novels discovering.
A better way of describing this odyssey would be to compare it with others: with Lemuel Gulliver's journey to the Castle Perilous of madness, with the pilgrimage of Christian through the wilderness of this world. As with those books, neither plot summary nor description of character is adequate to convey the character of the work. Much of the work's personality is bound up with what it "means"; yet a discussion of what The Carbon Copy means -- what it has to say about morality, politics, schizophrenia and madness and dreams, human courage and independence -- would become almost immediately a tedious philosophical polemic.
Much more important to the feel of The Carbon Copy is the growing perception of the main character as trapped inside an endless chinese box, in which he (for instance) is found pretending to have amnesia while helping other characters who think he is Harry Carbon, the terrorist leader of the revolution, try to create mythical "Harry Carbon" exploits to bolster the spirits of the revolutionaries -- all the while wondering whether in fact he really is Harry Carbon. And all of this takes place in a world which exhibits at least some of the earmarks of being his own dream. Often the kinds of perceptions the main character reports have a very strong tang of schizophrenia about them -- yet the author never allows the reader to dismiss the book as a schizophrenic's fantasy. This is accomplished partly by the basic satiric technique of making the world of the book correspond in important ways to the world we all accept as "real." Details are convincing, and satiric targets are hit square on. Even though this world is one in which clocks occasionally run backwards and the narrator's room follows him -like moments of half-waking in a dream -- through his adventures, we recognize those targets (like the academy where the scholars never study their own time or country) as legitimate targets, representative of our "real" world.
Another technique the author uses to keep the reader from dismissing the book as a diary of a schizophrenic is the precision of style and organization which permeates the book: and which continually reminds the reader that the book is a deliberate and significant contrivance, that an author stands behind the narrator as obviously and as confidently as Swift stood behind Gulliver. At times, indeed, this device seems overdone; the diction of the novel, especially in the early stages before the narrative drive gets underway, seems noticeably contrived and laboured. The narrator, for instance, tries to "get grappling hooks into details," to "occlude (a) succubus." The effect of such phrases, however, is calculated: it is to draw your attention to the surface of the narrative, to the contrivance of the author, and to other, less obvious, patterns in the book. There is a wealth of such patterning. It ranges from the pun involved in the central figure's name -- Harry Carbon: everyman, "hairy carbon" -- to the repeated motifs of circularity, the repetition in small events of the motion of the book as a whole.
But perhaps the most important device which keeps us from dismissing the narrator as a looney is the orchestration of the book's ending. Forced to attend closely by devices like those I've mentioned, the reader can hardly help but see that the ending is an extremely complicated play on the usual ending of such "memorable fancies." No "so I awoke, and behold it was a dream" here; this book has much in common with the elaborate dance of the end of Gulliver's Travels.
At the end, the narrator, having been in on the triumph of the revolution, "discovers" that Harry Carbon is a myth, created by a man who conceived of him while incarcerated with the narrator in a government "clinic." The character of Harry Carbon, the man tells the narrator, was first suggested to him by the narrator's ravings during that time of imprisonment. "You were," he says, an amnesiac suffering from a feeling of intense persecution. You had arrived at the asylum, you told me, after a nightmare experience. You had awakened one morning to discover that you had completely lost your memory.
He goes on to summarize ail of the narrator's experiences in the novel. Desperate to find some fixed point in this terrifying circle, the narrator sets out for the "clinic," only to have the revolutionary soldiers he thinks are guarding him turn him over to the institution, which reinstates him in the same room in which the novel began.
As a way of establishing that his experiences are all fantasy, the doctor in the clinic has the narrator -- now known as "Joe" -- write down a detailed record of the odyssey, so that it will be available to show him after the next cycle of the story. Joe does so; the doctor takes away the original, leaving the narrator locked in his room. "I have the carbon copy here in my room and that will never be seen unless I am saved, or unless, after I am dead, someone else is confined to this room and finds it."
It would be tempting to think that this means that, really, it all boils down to "behold it was a dream." But the author doesn't allow that. Like R.D. Laing, he won't let us merely substitute the "normal" fantasy for the "schizophrenic" one. This is made clear in the doctor's speech telling the narrator the world of his odyssey doesn't exist. "The society outside these walls is peaceful, democratic, stable," he says, like many another propagandist for western progress:
There is no tyranny and oppression, no poverty and injustice. We are living in a modern, advanced society. You have nothing to fear. Firing squads, rebellion, torture and massacres -- you have conjured all these up in your own imagination. If only you would accept that we could cure you and let you go back to the world outside. We are a prosperous country, Joe. There are so many things to enjoy out there.Is this world the dream, or is it the world in which people are killed and betrayed, in which bodies rot in piles in ditches, a world we in a "prosperous country" watch on television, that is the dream? The Carbon Copy is a book with a lot to say about the cyclical nature of human history -- our being doomed to repeat our past because we don't know it -- about how heroism may only be possible because we fantasize about ourselves and create mythical roles to play then are forced to play them, and about how morality and identity reside in our actions, not our subconsciouses.
But perhaps nothing it says is as devastating as the suggestion that we are all locked in Harry Carbon's room, reading the carbon copy, under the delusion that reality is a nightmare.