Sunnyside begins in 1916. There is a kind of mass hysteria as Charlie Chaplin’s name is paged simultaneously in hundreds of hotels across the USA. At the same time he is seen by witnesses on a light house, sinking into the ocean off the west coast, and huge crowds wait for him at railway stations across the country. At one station there are riots when he does not turn up. This really happened, according to Gold.
The book finishes in 1919, in Russia, when a US expeditionary force is sent to combat the Bolsheviks. Now I knew nothing about this expedition, or about American history during WW1. But Gold fills this book with fascinating historical details like these, embellishing them with realistic and mythic significance.
We see Charlie Chaplin, lover, son and husband. He’s not that good at any of these things though, and is in the middle of a creative crisis. He’s jealous of the success of Mary Pickford, worried that he will be criticised for not volunteering to enlist, and reconciles himself to his conscience by becoming involved in raising loans to pay for the war.
We meet Leland, illegitimate son of Wild Bill Cody. We witness Cody’s last wild west show, performed in front of Kaiser Bill and his family. But Leland does not even know who his father is. He sets out to be a star, but it is not to be, and he ends up in the European theatre of war.
Finally there is Hugo, in Archangel, north of the Arctic circle, inhabiting a world of cold frosts and dark woods. Gold likens these to the mythical forests of European fairy tales, adding a dimension of mystery and intrigue to the whole endeavour.
These three stories are almost completely separate, as if they are novels in themselves. There are not many connections. Leland does want to be in films, and is present at a Liberty Loan Tour starring Chaplin and Pickford. There he is tricked by Rebecca and her father, who later apply their dishonest practices to being agents for Chaplin’s stars. Oh, and during the war Leland trains Rin Tin Tin!! Hugo happens to be present at one of the Chaplin riots in 1916. But these are the only connections. The characters never meet. They are like ships that pass in the night.
In a similar way Sunnyside is the name of a Charlie Chaplin film produced in 1919, and the name of the boat on which Rin Tin Tin arrived in the USA (Sonnenseit in the original German). It’s also the name of Washington Irving’s summer house, an idyllic and dreamlike spot which one Hollywood character visited.
But these facts are just coincidences. In each case the name is irrelevant to the plot, it’s a minor adjunct. It’s not central to the story or theme. The name of Chaplin’s film is glossed over in the text, and gets barely a nod. The name of the boat gets a sentence, in passing. The character spends one idyllic day at the summer house, and that incident is described in just a couple of pages.
When names are used in a significant way in books, it is usually much more explicit than that, and much more important. George Orwell chose Manor Farm as the name of a place, and Napoleon as the name of a character, because of the relevance of those names to the themes of Animal Farm. In a similar way, in Cold Comfort Farm Stella Gibbons chooses names that are significant to the theme – Ada Doom obviously.
So there is a disconnect. Gold gives the name importance by making it the title of the novel, but in plot terms it’s an aside. You would not even notice it at all, if it were not the title.
This approach epitomises the whole book. Gold just throws everything at the reader and lets them worry about how it all connects and what it all means – if anything. And that’s the fun of it.
I guess the point is to show the seismic cultural change that took place in the early C20 due to the industrialisation of film production in Hollywood. The distributors exploit the war in Europe to become the dominant international force in moving pictures. This changes the world, of course.
Chaplin and Pickford form United Artists to defy the consortium of distributors. Rin Tin Tin arrives with a future in film. And capitalist America sets out to defeat the workers’ revolution in Russia.
It’s the story of Hollywood, it’s a myth about money and about America. It’s about fame and celebrity.
I loved Sunnyside as a series of cameos and incidents. Gold is amusing, and full of wise insights into people. He takes you to places that you could never visit, and brings them to more than life, imbuing them with fantasy and significance.
And it means – well whatever you want – or nothing. Brilliant! Though Sunnyside – it’s definitely ironical.