Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Christmas Coda, by William Todd (2016)

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know of the central place Christmas holds in my life, and the paramount importance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in my personal philosophy and worldview.  To Your Correspondent, Ebenezer Scrooge is not just a fictional character, but a friend, an example, and a terrible lesson all-in-one.  The book is my secular liturgy, my heart-laid-bare, the best reflection of my best self.  People who wish to reimagine or write a sequel do so at their peril.

There have been many continuations of A Christmas Carol since 1843, many of them created in Dickens’s own lifetime.  Most of them have been dire.  We have seen Scrooge and Sherlock Holmes, Scrooge and Cratchit taking on corrupt businessmen, a grown Tiny Tim involved in international conspiracies, Scrooge and zombies...  Sigh.  There have also been several serious literary visitations to Scrooge: for example, Robertson Davies (1913-1995), one of the great voices of 20th Century letters (if not the great voice), wrote a continuation of A Christmas Carol which is utterly indigestible.  It is almost as if the Christmas Cosmos created by Dickens is too big, too intimidating, too … honest for other writers to approach on an equal level.

So, it was with some little trepidation that I approached A Christmas Coda, just e-published by author William Todd.  Trepidation entirely unjustified, as Todd has written a wise, moving and wonderful book, fully in keeping with both Dickens and the Carol, and a worthy literary achievement in its own right.

In Todd’s novel, it is exactly one year since the events of A Christmas Carol.  Scrooge is as good as his word, and has become as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as he possibly can.  But … the thing that most occupies him is repaying his debt to Jacob Marley.

Readers versed in the Carol will remember that the visitation of the mighty Christmas Ghosts and Scrooge’s redemption were all at Marley’s intervention.  While Scrooge has his reclamation, poor Marley is doomed to walk forever fettered in chains, witnessing what he cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.  Scrooge is determined to alleviate the otherworldly suffering of his late friend.

To do this, he creates The Jacob Marley Foundation to help those who need it most.  He also practices personal philanthropies, such as sponsoring the surgeon who cures Tiny Tim, creating an annual Fezziwig Ball, and helping dozens of the needy on London streets.

The linchpin of the novel is Scrooge’s association with a young businessman, Midas Stump.  Stump – rapacious, consumed with gain, unthinking of the human toll his ambitions would take – is much like the younger Scrooge.  Scrooge hopes to reform him while helping the Jacob Marley Foundation; this task becomes more urgent when he learns that Stump is engaged to the daughter of the woman he loved in his youth, Belle.  To achieve his ends, Scrooge must assume the tasks of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come to save a young soul, and relieve another in torment, but without supernatural aid.

It is nearly impossible to say enough good things about this book.  Todd assumes a sustained Dickensian diction and prose line that is surprisingly successful.  The new characters – Stump and his assistant, Pockle, for instance – come wonderfully to life.  (Todd also has a knack for Dickensian names.)  But best of all, Todd understands Scrooge and the others from the original novel with a humane, novelist’s empathy.  Here is Scrooge talking to Tim, “You see, Tim, sometimes we get used to things that aren’t good for us.  It becomes hard to imagine living any other way.  But we can be shown, by those who care, how to walk a better path. To change.”

One of the most interesting things in Dickens’ original novel is the sense of … ritual.  Scrooge, before his reclamation, does many things by route and habit.  In Todd’s novel, that remains; he has, to some extent, fetishized his experience with the Ghosts into his own secular ritual.  He wants Tim to walk specifically on Christmas Eve, as explained here:  Scrooge made straightaway to Tim, still in his father’s arms.  “You see Tim,” he began, in earnest chord, “that’s why I arranged the doctor’s visit today.  Christmas Eve is very special to me.  I wanted it to be just as special for you.  For us all.  Every one.”

This is great stuff; true characterization without shtick or caricature and, mercifully and blessedly free of irony.  Better still is the climactic scene with Scrooge and Stump at the gravesite of Jacob Marley on Christmas Eve – Scrooge, avenging angel, merciful father and very human man all at the same time. 

Todd gets Scrooge – which is wonderful, as so many do not.  The popular reading of A Christmas Carol is that it’s a parable against greed – but that is a complete misreading of the text.  Scrooge is not damned because he’s a miser, or even because he is a business shark – he’s damned because he has cut himself off from his own humanity and the humanity of others.  His soul was barren – he filled it up with business and gain, but it could’ve been alcohol or sex or anything else, and the effect would have been just the same.  He lost the fact that all of our actions affect those around us, and to be uncaring of other people and their fates has profound consequences. 

That is the Scrooge that Todd gives us, not the bah, humbug cartoon so often served up. 

Readers who love Christmas tales – and you know who you are – will also find little Easter eggs strewn throughout the book.  Scrooge’s nephew Fred, who has no last name in Dickens, is christened Gailey by Todd – the name of the lawyer in Miracle on 34th Street.  There are also a few lines that reference that other great holiday icon, the Grinch.  But these references never become jokey or dumb; they are merely there for the eagle-eyed to spot.

I cannot recommend this book enough.  It is only available – inexplicably – in e-copies.  (Why was this book not published by a mainstream house?)  You can find it on Amazon here:

Buy this book.  Buy this book now.  Buy this book now and read it today – and God bless us, every one.

1 comment:

Todd Trumpet said...

Though it seems insufficient to the task, I had to chime in (a Dickens Christmas reference there!) and say "thank you", James, for what is not only one of the most thoughtful reviews I have received, but in all likelihood will EVER receive, and not just for "A Christmas Coda". And though Christmas Day itself is still weeks away, you have indeed already filled me--

With Tidings of Comfort and Joy,

William Todd