Magical Realism: The House on the Cerulian Sea by TJ Klune

I just finished this novel and am of two minds. On the one hand, if read in blissful isolation, the novel is a charming, uplifting, feel good story that features the anti-christ among other magical children who are only looking for a loving home and a government employee who, like the Grinch, comes to grow a heart three times its size. On the other hand, if one has been breathing and conscious for the last 20 years, then Klune’s story reads like a Marvel spin-off in the X-Men universe—as though it were based on the usual derivative trope of magical beings victimized by a powerful and hostile non-magical (and boring) majority. The book teeters from one genre cliché after another from beginning to end.

So, at the risk of engaging in some pop-psychology, my suspicion is that there’s a reason (think Big Bang Theory) “nerds” are associated with comic books (read superheroes). There’s a certain class of children who were, are, and will be perpetual victims (fictional and real) in grade school and high school, and these are the children who stand out in unpopular ways. Maybe they’re too skinny or fat, maybe they’re smart but socially inept, maybe they’re introverts, autistic, artistic instead of athletic, gay, lesbian or just look and dress funny. Among them, I suspect, are the kids who become comic book writers, writers who essentially project themselves into super-powered beings who right all the injustices ever inflicted on them. But society (read the class and school administration) fights back. Society labels and isolates these children and tries to “fix” them with therapy, medication, social intervention, etc… And so that feeling of further victimization is projected into the superhero universe by the next generation of comic book writers when superheros are forced to “register” (Marvel Universe) and give up their secret identity, to alter who they are and give up their superpowers so they’ll fit in (The Incredibles), or find themselves in a war, hunted and gunned down, by secret and opaque (read the school administration) government institutions (the X-Men). In the DC Universe, the Joker is really nothing more than the popular class clown who victimizes the über-smart class nerd, Batman.

In that regard, Klune’s novel leaves no trope unturned.

There is the secretive Government Institute (DICOMY); there is the hostile non-magical populace with protestors—thinly veiled right-wing MAGA racists and anti-immigrant bigots; there are the brilliant, engaging, accepting magical children who only want to be loved for who they are; there is the city (presumably under the complete control of the authorities/government) where it is always grey and raining, and there is “the house by the cerulean sea”, where the magical children live and where it is pretty as a Caribbean postcard. The juxtapositions are so cartoonish that one almost thinks the author is angling for a Pixar movie deal.

If one is willing to set all this aside (though it becomes harder as the novel progresses) then it’s possible to enjoy The House on the Cerulian Sea as a sort of novel length comic book where the putative villain has a change of heart and the good guys, in their way, triumph. Leave it at that and the book makes great summer reading. Expect more than that, and you will start to notice that none of the characters feel “real”. They’re rather two-dimensional. Reading Klune’s novel is a bit like reading a comic book in novel form. The main character’s “love interest”, the longingly named Arthur Parnassus, is never more than that—a character with a soaring name but who remains enigmatically flat. The various children are fun but never go much beyond cartoonish expectations. They behave in the expected ways (according to who and what they are) but we never learn anything about their pasts. We never get to know them. The main character, Linus, spends a great deal of time sweating. Klune is the second author I’ve read (Ruth Hogan The Keeper of Lost Things being the other) who seems particularly fixated with sweat. Linus sweats a lot. He is also prone to fear, dread and fainting spells.

In the end, I found the novel somewhat marred by the same temptation to moralize that got Patrick Ness, The Monster Calls, into trouble. Various characters get on their soapboxes and monologue as the novel draws to a close. The final monologue, the piece of resistance, is when Linus summons the courage to soliloquize before DICOMY’s “extreme upper management” [a name that still makes me laugh]—a monologue which allows the author, TJ Klune, to neatly sum up the moral of the story in case it wasn’t already obvious. That said, Klune does a better job of it than Ness (even while Klune’s soapboxing still seems contrived). I have yet, in real life, to see anyone get on their soapbox and soliloquize their mea culpa. In real life people just let their resentments fester and eventually end up on the bottle or in therapy.

But, after all that, it’s worth adding that Klune’s story-telling is good-humored and he actually got me to laugh here and there. By what I can tell, he knows that he’s primarily writing to entertain and is not out to produce a literary masterpiece. He’s a fine story teller whose novel is the best I’ve read so far (in the YA/Fantasy genre). He’s no poet. You won’t find any heart-stopping prose to give your breath a pause, but his descriptions are effective and provide the reader a sufficient sense of place. He’ a skilled storyteller whose book is deservedly successful.

Finally, is this Magical Realism? I would say not. Klune creates an alternate reality and that, in my view, makes this book more akin to Fantasy than Magical Realism.

up in Vermont | September 12th 2022