Friday, June 23, 2017

Review of The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

Many films and tv series have featured Hitler’s Third Reich.  And while the clipped ‘stache and heavily-greased forelock are the Fuhrer’s trademarks for personal style, it’s inevitable that a sharply-edged color-scheme of red, white, and black banners and bunting play an equal part in defining the Nazi backdrop.  Hitler not a stupid man, he was aware of the power of art toward helping define an ideology’s image—a visual commonality to abstract concepts.  Going back to the previous world war, James Morrow’s The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (2017, Tachyon) takes a metaphorically satirical look at said power.

It’s 1913 and Francis Wyndham, in a flurry of youthful exuberance, abandons his life in Pennsylvania as a would-be artist and heads to gay Paris, hoping to become apprentice to the great one himself, Picasso. Kicked out the door before he even has a chance to collect his portfolio, Wyndham must switch to plan B.  Given an intriguing offer by another artist, Wyndham heads to Luxembourg through a cloud of impending war in Europe, and the asylum run by the strange Dr. Caligari.  Outbreak imminient, Wyndham settles into his role as the asylum’s master artisan, but not without bits of mystery, including patients who may be more sane than they appear, as well as the twinkle-eyed Dr. Caligari’s own late-night painting projects.  And then the crescendo of war breaks…

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is laugh out loud funny, even as it tosses about ideas surrounding perhaps our most serious and vile aspects of existence: war and indoctrination to war. The narrative darts and twists, perpetually keeping its tongue in cheek while eviscerating the usage of art to bolster belief in mass conflict.  Thus, from a style perspective, Morrow remains a pure pleasure to read.  The lexical precision, one perfectly placed word after another, can be enjoyed unto itself, even as it dissects the absurdity of war. 

In the end, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is something of a return for James Morrow.  Like his earlier novel This Is the Way the World Ends, it looks at the futility of war from a satirical perspective.  But rather than tackling the Cold War, Morrow turns back the clock to WWI, and the different but no less absurd circumstances that surrounded the breakout of combat in Europe.   Featuring a classic Morrow main character swept up in scenes beyond their control, and a razor sharp wit, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari may not be Morrow’s best ever, but it does solidify his oeuvre and confirm his status as one of the tip-top best satirists ever.


  1. I didn't find The Asylum ... as laugh out loud funny as The Madonna and the Spaceship, but James Morrow is one of my all-time favorite authors and I can only agree with your observation that he is "a pure pleasure to read". Vonnegut's legitimate heir, so to speak. I also felt the connection between Asylum and This is the way the World Ends.


    1. Glad to have my opinion seconded!! Morrow is one of few writers I will read sight unseen.