(FOR THOSE IN THE KNOW: Before you get on my case — yes, I know that this book is four years old…and I am still coming across people who have never even heard of it. IMHO, this book deserves all the coverage and kudos it can get.)
The story concerns Cooper Thiery, a life-long Chaplin buff who has lucked into a possible Hollywood job. A Los Angeles producer, Kevin McDaniels, wants to create a TV series of muckraking documentaries that bring down the heroes of yesteryear. He wants to start with Chaplin, and he wants to hire Cooper for the job based on a glowing letter of recommendation for Cooper that an Oxford professor sent to Kevin.
The problems start when the niceties end and McDaniels shows his true colors to Cooper. He wants all the dirt on Chaplin, and he wants it yesterday. Cooper is thrown for a loop at having to denigrate one of his childhood heroes in order to make a career for himself.
Luckily for Cooper, he is rewarded a muse — in the form of none other than Charlie Chaplin himself. And this is where Mandel scores his biggest points. He brings Chaplin back to life as an otherworldly conscience for Cooper, and he assists Cooper in meeting some of Chaplin’s contemporaries as well. This is pretty much the ground on which the novel is built, and if the conceit had been presented in a mawkish or cutesy way, the story would have collapsed.
Happily, by the time Chaplin himself is brought into the story, we’ve come to identify with Cooper so much that we feel his shock at meeting the “reincarnated” Chaplin, which goes a long way toward making the fantasy plausible. And after all, the story does take place in Hollywood, where Cooper keeps running into one miracle after another, anyway — why not meet his long-lost idol as well?
Shadow and Substance is rich in detail and characterization, for both the famous (I’d love to meet this book’s version of Chaplin’s beefy co-star Mack Swain!) and newfound (the many underlings who swirl in McDaniels’ orbit). And the reader comes away with a new respect for Chaplin and for celebrity in general. You end up feeling, as Chaplin does here, that maybe it’s time to let sleeping idols lie and to quit callously digging up dirt on them unnecessarily.
My only concern about the book is how it will “play” with non-Chaplin buffs, who might not share in Cooper’s reverence for his subject and instead be eager for the story to move on a little. Conversely, those knowledgeable in Chaplin trivia might be slightly bothered when Mandel slows down the story every so often to explain an “inside” anecdote for those not in the know. (The method reminds me of a condescending moment in Chaplin’s movie drama A Woman of Paris, where the characters were eating champagne truffles and Chaplin felt compelled to include a subtitle explaining the food’s origin.)
But this slight fault should not deter anyone, Chaplin buff or otherwise, from savoring this rich novel. Shadow and Substance brings Charlie Chaplin to life just one more time and makes it seem worth the effort.