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Onyx reviews: Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/30/2014

Bathing the Lion starts with a mundane domestic situation. Dean and Vanessa have reached a breaking point in their marriage where one is willing to say out loud that they don't seem to like each other very much any more and the other is forced to agree. All of a sudden, after years of stasis, this couple is rocketing toward separation and divorce. Shock from this unexpected (but inevitable) turn of events sends them into the world in search of friends and companions. 

Ultimately, the incident proves unimportant except in the grander scheme of things, because the overpowering force of disarray and destruction known as Chaos is threatening to rip apart more than a marriage. Unbeknownst to them, both Dean and Vanessa, in a former existence, were "mechanics," entities with the power to combat Chaos. Mechanics have specific skills and aptitudes. They show up in (or are sent to) places where the master plan is going off the rails to fix things. Humans—or, indeed, higher creatures of any kind, on any planet—are never supposed to be aware of their work. They are fixers toiling on the down-low, righting subtle wrongs and, occasionally, battling the more powerful schemes of Chaos.

After they retired, their memories were expunged and they were set up in this new life. Such is the lot of most mechanics. They can be anyone, anywhere but they know nothing of mechanics or Chaos. They become, for all intents and purposes, normal humans (or aliens). 

Dean's business partner (who also happens to be Vanessa's lover) is an exception to the rule. When he retired, he was allowed to maintain his memories of his life as a mechanic. This can be frustrating at times, because he has none of a mechanic's powers. Still, he is unprepared for the appearance of a mysterious and all-knowing little girl who instructs him to find William Edmonds, a man he doesn't know. "You don't have any time to waste. Everything happens today," she advises. 

Whatever is about to happen requires these former mechanics, a group that also includes Jane, Vanessa's boss at the nightclub where she plays piano. Increasingly strange things happen to them, including a shared dream (that features a talking chair from Jane's favorite book) in which they all perceive something different on the map inscribed on the side of a giant red elephant.

Their lives become increasingly bizarre when they are subjected to a time slip that sends them into a Groundhog Day-like experience crossed with Slaughterhouse Five. They are continually yanked back and forth through time (individually or in groups) to days from their human past. Their contemporary selves will have no recollection of this repeated occurrence, but it is important for the five time travelers to either glean new information or leave behind evidence of their visits. This is a permanent condition: they will never return to sequential existences, and their lives will never progress beyond the day this Chaotic somersault happened to them.

The five aren't alone, though. Another mechanic named Crebold wanders in and out of the frame. Is he an agent of good or of Chaos? It's not clear, but he seems compelled to provide assistance from time to time. The longer the mechanics spend together, the more they remember of their past lives, which allows them to put the tools placed before them to use. Because these particular mechanics have spent some of their existences as humans, they have a greater appreciation of reality, which gives them power against Chaos.

The characters are interesting enough—and they're not all particularly likable—but their human existences are not as important as their missions. One character is allowed to be written out of reality altogether and his absence is barely noticed. This isn't an action-packed novel. There's a lot of talk about metaphysical concepts and the nature of reality. The mechanics have to explain a lot of things to each other, which can be heavy slogging for a reader. They essentially talk themselves into a solution to the universe's predicament or, rather, into an understanding of the universe's solution to its quandary. They don't have to do much—just sit back and let the universe have its way with them.

It's been six years since Carroll's previous book, The Ghost in Love, but he is still interested in exploring his fascinating view of reality. In previous books, he has talked about a mosaic, a grand design that the universe is gradually assembling only to have Chaos disrupt the pattern from time to time. Carroll is also very interested in the lives of dogs. He has yet to write a book without one talking on a prominent, often speaking, role. In this book, Carroll reveals that dogs are happy because they know what happens after they die, and it is quite pleasant.

Bathing the Lion probably isn't the optimal introduction to Carroll, but for readers who have been taking this crazy, surreal ride with the author, it is an interesting addition to his mythos. Hopefully it won't take nearly as long for the next installment to appear.

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