The Fictional Charlie Chaplin

It is hard to argue with author Randall Jarrell's wry definition of a novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." Novels can tackle events great or small, take place in the past, the future or the present—there are no rules, no definitions for which we can't find exceptions. And yes, even the great ones come with flaws, although those flaws are usually as varied and unexpected as the virtues. The most interesting novels, in fact, are the ones where the flaws and virtues can't be pulled apart. In that regard, Glen David Gold's new novel, "Sunnyside," is a most interesting book.

"Sunnyside" flaunts a dizzying ambition. You have all you can do in the first 100 pages just to keep track of the characters and locales introduced. Thematically it's no less modest. Gold concentrates on the two subjects—the movies and World War I—that arguably set the course for the 20th century, then ups the ante by exploring how those cataclysmic forces intersected. Standing at the center of all this audaciousness is none other than Charlie Chaplin. And that's where the trouble starts.

In Gold's chronology, Chaplin is at a turning point. He has made several dozen two-reelers, each more successful than the last. He is one of the most famous people in America, although his fame has lately taken on some tarnish as people ask why the little English expatriate does not enlist to help his country in the war. Chaplin worries about the cowardice issue, even as he is reassured that he can best help by doing what he does best: making people laugh. The trouble is, he's weary of merely making people laugh. He knows he's an artist. He's just not sure what kind.

This is all material to be found in any Chaplin biography. But early in the novel, Gold brings the issue of Chaplin's creativity to a boil with a seduction scene involving Chaplin and Frances Marion, the screenwriter on the greatest hits of Mary Pickford, Chaplin's chief rival for the public's affection. It's a wonderful scene, full of sex and banter. The seduction goes awry when she finally sees that Chaplin doesn't know who she is—she's furious because she thought they were sparring as equally aware enemies from warring camps. But it doesn't end before she delivers her Delphic judgment: "You haven't made a film as good as you are, Chaplin."

The only thing wrong is that it probably never happened. It could have. Chaplin and Marion were contemporaries in the small community of early Hollywood. But we can only conclude, from the intimacy of the scene and the copious dialogue, that this is all Gold's imagining. That's all right, surely. This is a novel, with characters called Charlie Chaplin and Frances Marion, and Gold calling the shots. The problem—and it's a problem whether your name is Doctorow, Mailer or DeLillo—is that once a novelist invites reality into his story, he can't tell it when to leave. On every page, he has to tacitly ask the reader to suspend not disbelief but belief, belief in what we know about the world.

None of this would matter if "Sunnyside" weren't so unflaggingly entertaining. You could call it flawed and be done with it. But Gold ("Carter Beats the Devil") is a prodigally gifted storyteller. In an author's note at the end, he claims to have read some 400 books and articles in researching his novel. It shows. He captures events and places with indelible care, whether he's describing a war-bond rally, a jewelry-store heist or what it's like to endure a Russian winter. And any novelist who can write touchingly about puppies rescued on a battlefield without making you throw up deserves some kind of medal. But at every turn, reality comes knocking on the back door of our awareness, raising the question of what is real and what is made up.

Tolstoy was arguably our greatest historical novelist, not least because he knew just how much real history he could get away with. In "War and Peace" he trots Napoleon onstage just long enough to get a laugh out of him—Napoleon has a cold. Gold is not so wise. Or maybe he's playing for more complicated stakes. In that afterword, he also says, "I got some things wrong on purpose." What's that about? When he inaccurately identifies Arthur Sullivan as the lyricist half of Gilbert and Sullivan, is he messing with us or simply wrong? The Chaplin in the novel sends his lunatic mother back to England. The real Chaplin did not. Is there a point here? It's hard to say. Gold is so clever and assured that he makes his readers think twice before accusing him of mere bungling. Instead, we second-guess ourselves for quibbling. If "Sunnyside" is a guilty pleasure, the accent almost always falls on pleasure.