Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (Penguin Classics)

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Of Mondegreens and Eggcorns: Language Keeps Talking About Itself

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When the writer Sylvia Wright was a child, her mother would read to her from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, including this stanza:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
Writing in 1954 for Harper’s Magazine, the grown-up Wright recalled tears coming to her eyes over the tragic image of the Earl Amurray and Lady Mondegreen clasping hands as they perished together. Though the poem described the Earl at great length, it didn’t mention Lady Mondegreen before or after that moment. But that fact didn’t strike Wright as odd at the time. She knew all she needed to know about Lady Mondegreen’s fatal loyalty to the dashing Earl from one simple line.

It was only later in life that Wright learned what was already clear to anyone who had read the poem in print rather than heard it recited aloud: There is no Lady Mondegreen. The line that begat both her existence and her demise actually reads “And laid him on the green.” In honor of her misinterpretation, Wright coined the term mondegreen for instances of mishearing a word or phrase in a way that gives it a new, unintended meaning.

Language is laced with such legends about itself. If someone falls victim to a mondegreen, is corrected, but stubbornly insists on continuing with the error, we call that a mumpsimus. The term stems from a Catholic priest who flubbed the Latin term sumpsimus during mass and then continued saying mumpsimus thereafter. This story was first relayed by the theologian Erasmus in a letter dated 1516. And here we are 500 years later, with mumpsimus appearing on a Huffington Post listicle of “10 Useful Words for Work.” (The blended word listicle is a portmanteau, a term coined by none other than Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass.) The name of the recalcitrant priest is long since forgotten, but the relic of language he inspired lives on.

If you search for information about mondegreens, you may fall down a linguistic rabbit hole, following mondegreento homophonyto heteronym. The churning sea of language raises its watery head to look around and then dives back into itself, splashing out words like litotes, genericide, and yes, metaphor. I collect these terms like Easter eggs, thrilled to have names for the ways we outfit our messages with color, rhythm, and nuance.

There are those of us who worship language and what it can do, arriving at the altar at a young age. As we learn, we stack up vocabulary into semantic pyramids — to forget is an infinitive is a verb; forgotten is a past participle is an adjective (sometimes) is a modifier (usually). We are the ones who read ahead in our English textbooks and who sign up for high school Spanish and French classes to see if other people in other corners of the world wield language differently from our own clumsy grips. We become readers to consume language and writers to spread it and editors to protect it.

Those early dissections, slicing language into sentences and paragraphs and extracting subjects and predicates, are our first lessons in the vocabulary of language’s favorite subject: itself. Lewis Thomas writes in Et Cetera, Et Cetera, his collection of meandering etymological essays, “The language keeps talking about itself, cannot seem to have enough of itself. At a guess, I’d say there are more roots for the various ways of using language than for all other human activities together, some of them hidden away inside longer words that seem to be designed for other purposes, most of them standing baldly out in full view.” ­

Mondegreens are particularly prevalent in song lyrics. (Consider all the people who thought Taylor Swift was singing about lonely Starbucks lovers.) When a mondegreen involves song lyrics from another language, it’s called soramimi. When a mondegreen results in a nonsensical phrase, it’s called a malapropism. But if the ersatz word or phrase makes some sort of twisted sense, such as “old-timer’s disease” in place of “Alzheimer’s disease,” it’s an eggcorn (itself an eggcorn for acorn).

Language cares about these subtle distinctions. It digests the complicated things we try to do with it and feeds us back distilled linguistic pearls, from anacoluthon to zeugma. It looks in the mirror and describes its patterns (hypallage, paligogy); it opens its mouth and listens to how it sounds (fricative, glottal). It teases apart its letters only to coax them back together more closely (blend words) or in a different order (metathesis), lop some letters off (haplology), or add new ones (paragoge). It tracks the movement of its words across questions and responses (pied-piping, wh-movement).

For every linguistic guideline, there’s a word coined to denote how to skirt that guideline for rhetorical effect. “I came, saw, and conquered” just doesn’t have the same decisive intonement without the phrase-beginning repetition of anaphora, nor would we still be singing Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” had he not employed the phrase-ending repetition of epistrophe.

Language flexes and adapts. It knows it will be both mangled and elevated, depending on who wields it — quite often by the same person. The damage of careless or misleading words can be immensely far-reaching, as history has borne again and again. At its worse, language can be used to confuse facts and cloud intention, sowing fear, hostility, and oppression. But at its best, it’s the ultimate form of synecdoche, when a term for part of something refers to the thing in its entirety. Language lets us use things as small as phonemes to represent our entire world.

Image Credit: Flickr/Thomas Quine.

The Case for Genre Fiction: A Guide to Literary Science Fiction and Fantasy

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Is there such a thing as literary science fiction? It’s not a sub-genre that you’d find in a bookshop. In 2015, Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro debated the nature of genre and fiction in the New Statesman. They talk about literary fiction as just another genre. Meanwhile, Joyce Saricks posits that rather than a genre, literary fiction is a set of conventions.

I’ve not read a whole lot of whatever might be defined as literary fiction. I find non-genre fiction a little on the dull side. People — real people — interacting in the real world or some such plot. What’s the point of that? I want to read something that in no way can ever happen to me or anyone I know. I want to explore the imagination of terrific authors. I’ve heard that literary fiction is meant to be demanding. I don’t mind demanding, but I want, as a rule, a stimulating plot and relatable or, at the very least, interesting characters. I suspect My Idea of Fun by Will Self (1993) is the closest I’ve come to enjoying a piece of literary fiction, but I was far from entertained. And so I read genre fiction — mostly science fiction, but anything that falls under the umbrella of speculative fiction.

It turns out that some of what I’ve read and enjoyed and would recommend might be called literary science fiction. This is sometimes science fiction as written by authors who wouldn’t normally write within the genre, but more often than not regular science fiction that has been picked up by a non-genre audience. Literary fantasy is not so common as literary science fiction, but there is a lot of fantasy, both classical and modern that non-fantasy fans will be familiar with (many are put off by the label “fantasy,” and maybe an awful lot of terrible 1980s fantasy movies). Of course there are J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and the Chronicles of Narnia and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. These books are only the briefest glimpses into both the imagination of some terrific authors and the scope of fantasy fiction. It isn’t all about hobbits and lions and wizards. There’s much more to explore.

You’ve likely read most of these examples; if they’ve piqued your interest and want to explore more genre fiction, here are some suggestions for next steps.

You read:

Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart is a grim warning of the world of social media. There’s not a whole lot of plot, but Shteyngart’s story is set in a slightly dystopic near future New York. There are ideas about post-humanism, as technology is replacing emotional judgement — people don’t need to make choices; ratings, data, and algorithms do that for you. As an epistolary and satirical novel Super Sad True Love Story engages well. The science fiction elements are kept to the background as the characters’ relationships come to the fore.

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Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline. In Cline’s near future, like Shteyngart’s, there is economic dystopic overtones. Most folk interact via virtual worlds. In the real world, most people are judged harshly. Wade spends all his time in a virtual utopia that is a new kind of puzzle game. Solving clues and eventually winning it will allow him to confront his real-world relationships. Friendships are key to the enjoyment of this novel, as well as how technology alters our perception of them. Are we the masters or servants of technology?

Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson is a complex and knowing satire. The world is full of drugs, crime, nightclubs, and computer hacking; “Snow Crash” is a drug that allows the user access to the Metaverse. Stephenson examined virtual reality, capitalism, and, importantly, information culture and its effects on us as people — way before most other authors. Like Cline and Shtenyngart, technology — in this case the avatars — in Snow Crash is as much a part of the human experience as the physical person.

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Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the best and most surprising novels in the science fiction genre. It is the story of childhood friends at a special boarding school, narrated by Kathy. Slowly the world is revealed as a science fiction dystopia wherein where the privileged literally rely on these lower class of people to prolong their lives. The science fiction-ness of the story — how the genetics work for example — is not really the purpose of the story. Ishiguro writes brilliantly about what it means to be a person and how liberty and relationships intertwine.

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Spares (1996) by Michael Marshall Smith tells pretty much the same story, but with a different narrative and a more brutal full-on science fiction realization. Jack Randall is the typical Smith anti-hero — all bad mouth and bad luck. He works in a Spares farm. Spares are human clones of the privileged who use them for health insurance. Lose an arm in an accident; get your replacement from your clone. Spares is dark yet witty, and again, muses on the nature of humanity, as Jack sobers up and sees the future for what it really is. He believes the Spares are people too, and that it’s time he takes a stand for the moral high ground, while confronting his past.

The Book of Phoenix (2015) by Nnedi Okorafor is another tale about what it means to be a human in a created body. A woman called Phoenix is an “accelerated human” who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression: Americans and their corporations taking the lives of people of color as if they meant nothing. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments.

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Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut is perhaps his most famous work, and maybe his best. It is the tale of Billy Pilgrim, an anti-war chaplain’s assistant in the United States Army, who was captured in 1944 and witnessed the Dresden bombings by the allies. This narrative is interweaved with Billy’s experiences of being held in an alien zoo on a planet far from Earth called Tralfamadore. These aliens can see in such a way that they experience all of spacetime concurrently. This leads to a uniquely fatalistic viewpoint when death becomes meaningless. Utterly brilliant. Definitely science fiction. So it goes.

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A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K. Dick. Like Vonnegut, Dick often mixes his personal reality with fiction and throws in an unreliable narrator. In A Scanner Darkly, Bob Arctor is a drug user (as was Dick) in the near future. However, he’s also an undercover agent investigating drug users. Throughout the story, we’re never sure who the real Bob is, and what his motives are. It’s a proper science fiction world where Bob wears a “scramble suit” to hide his identity. Dick’s characters get into your head and make you ponder the nature of who you might be long after the book is over.

Little Brother (2008) by Cory Doctorow takes a look at the world of surveillance. Unlike Dick’s novel, this is not an internal examination but an external, as four teenagers are under attack from a near future Department of Homeland Security. Paranoia is present and correct as 17-year-old Marcus and his friends go on the run after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Doctorow’s usual themes include fighting the system and allowing information to be free.

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The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. After a religiously motivated terrorist attack and the suspension of the U.S. Constitution, the newly formed Republic of Gilead takes away some women’s rights — even the liberty to read. There is very little science in The Handmaid’s Tale — indeed, Atwood herself calls it speculative rather than science fiction. The point, however, is not aliens or spaceships, but how people deal with the present, by transporting us to a potential, and in this case frightening, totalitarian future.

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Bête (2014) by Adam Roberts is also a biting satire about rights. Animals, in Roberts’ bleak future, have been augmented with artificial intelligence. But where does the beast end and the technology take over? The protagonist in this story is Graham, who is gradually stripped of his own rights and humanity. He is one of the most engaging protagonists in recent years: an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, the author forces us to consider the nature of the soul and self-awareness.

Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores the ideas of a feminist utopia from the perspective of three American male archetypes. More of a treatise than a novel, it is science fiction only in the sense of alternative history and human reproduction via parthenogenesis. Gilman suggests that gender is socially constructed and ultimately that rights are not something that can be given or taken from any arbitrary group.

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The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin is regarded as the novel that made her name in science fiction. Humans did not originate on Earth, but on a planet called Hain. The Hainish seeded many worlds millions of years ago. In The Left Hand of Darkness, set many centuries in the future, Genly Ai from Earth is sent to Gethen — another seeded world — in order to invite the natives to join an interplanetary coalition. As we live in a world of bigotry, racism and intolerance, Le Guin brilliantly holds up a mirror.

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Ammonite (1992) by Nicola Griffith also addresses gender in the far future. On a planet that has seen all men killed by an endemic disease, anthropologist Marghe journeys around the planet looking for answers to the mysterious illness, while living with various matricidal cultures and challenging her own preconceptions and her identity. Griffith’s attention to detail and the episodic nature of Marghe’s life result in a fascinating and engaging story — which is what the women of this planet value above all else. Accepting different cultural ideologies is an important factor in science fiction and both Le Guin and Griffith have produced highlights here.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) by Becky Chambers. There’s a ship called the Wayfayer, crewed by aliens, who are, by most definitions, the good guys. A new recruit named Rosemary joins the ship as it embarks on a mission to provide a new wormhole route to the titular planet. Chambers writes one of most fun books in the genre, featuring aliens in love, fluid genders, issues of class, the solidarity of family, and being the outsider.

You Read:

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke. In this folk-tale fantasy, Clarke writes a morality tale set in 19th-century England concerning magic and its use during the Napoleonic Wars. Somewhat gothic, and featuring dark fairies and other supernatural creatures, this is written in the style of Charles Dickens and others. Magic is power. Who controls it? Who uses it? Should it even be used?


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Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) by Zen Cho is set in a similar universe to Clarke’s novel: Regency England with added fantasy. Women don’t have the same rights as men, and foreign policy is built on bigotry. The son of an African slave has been raised by England’s Sorcerer Royal. As in Clarke’s story, magic is fading and there are strained relationships with the fairies. This is where the novels diverge. Prunella Gentleman is a gifted magician and fights her oppressive masters. Cho writes with charm and the characters have ambiguity and depth. This is more than just fairies and magic, it is a study of human monsters, women’s rights, and bigotry.

Alif the Unseen (2012) by G. Willow Wilson. Take the idea of power, politics and traditional magic and move it to the Middle East. We’re in a Middle-Eastern tyrannical state sometime in the near future. Alif is Arabian-Indian, and he’s a hacker and security expert. While having a science fiction core, this sadly under-read book has fantasy at its heart. When Alif’s love leaves him, he discovers the secret book of the jinn; he also discovers a new and unseen world of magic and information. As with those above, this is a story of power. Who has it, and who controls it. The elite think they do, but the old ways, the old magic is stronger.

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll. Everyone’s favorite surrealist fantasy begins with a bored little girl looking for an adventure. And what an adventure! Dispensing with logic and creating some of the most memorable and culturally significant characters in literary history, Carroll’s iconic story is a fundamental moment not just in fantasy fiction but in all fiction.


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A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) by Haruki Murakami sees the (unreliable?) narrator involved with a photo that was sent to him in a confessional letter by his long-lost friend, The Rat. Another character, The Boss’s secretary, reveals that a strange sheep with a star shaped birthmark, pictured in an advertisement, is in some way the secret source of The Boss’s power. The narrator quests to find both the sheep and his friend. Doesn’t sound much like Alice for sure, but this is a modern take on the surreal journey populated by strange and somewhat impossible characters, with a destination that might not be quite like it seems. You might have read Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — both terrific novels — but you really should read Murakami’s brilliantly engaging exploration into magical oddness.

A Man Lies Dreaming (2014) by Lavie Tidhar. Was Alice’s story nothing more than a dream? Or something more solid? Shomer, Tidhar’s protagonist, lies dreaming in Auschwitz.  Having previously been a pulp novelist, his dreams are highly stylized. In Shomer’s dream, Adolf Hitler is now disgraced and known only as Wolf. His existence is a miserable one. He lives as a grungy private dick working London’s back streets. Like much of Tidhar’s work, this novel is pitched as a modern noir. It is however, as with Carroll’s seminal work, an investigation into the power of imagination. Less surreal and magical than Alice, it explores the fantastical in an original and refreshing manner.

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The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White. A classical fantasy tale of English folklore, despite being set in “Gramarye.” White re-tells the story of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Queen Guinevere. This is an allegoric re-writing of the tale, with the time-travelling Merlyn bestowing his wisdom on the young Arthur.


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Redemption in Indigo (2010) by Karen Lord takes us on a journey into a Senegalese folk tale. Lord’s protagonist is Paama’s husband. Not at all bright, and somewhat gluttonous, he follows Paama to her parent’s village. There he kills the livestock and steals corn. He is tricked by spirit creatures (djombi). Paama has no choice to leave him. She meets the djombi, who gives her a gift of a Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world.

A Tale for the Time Being (2013) by Ruth Ozeki. Diarist Nao is spiritually lost. Feeling neither American or Japanese (born in the former, but living in the latter), she visits her grandmother in Sendai. This is a complex, deep, and beautifully told story about finding solace in spirituality. Meanwhile, Ruth, a novelist living on a small island off the coast of British Columbia, finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach — possibly from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Ruth has a strong connection to Nao, but is it magic, or is it the power of narrative?

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American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman. No one is more in tune with modern fantasy than Neil Gaiman. This is an epic take on the American road trip but with added gods. A convict called Shadow is caught up in a battle between the old gods that the immigrants brought to America, and the new ones people are worshiping. Gaiman treats his subject with utmost seriousness while telling a ripping good yarn.


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The Shining Girls (2013) by Lauren Beukes causes some debate. Is it science fiction or is it fantasy? Sure it is a time-travel tale, but the mechanism of travel has no basis in science. Gaiman, an Englishman, and Beukes, a South African, provide an alternative perspective on cultural America. A drifter murders the titular girls with magical potential, which somehow allow him to travel through time via a door in a house. Kirby, a potential victim from 1989, recalls encounters with a strange visitor throughout her life. Connecting the clues, she concludes that several murders throughout the century are the work of this same man. She determines to hunt and stop him. As several time periods occur in Beukes beautifully written and carefully crafted novel, it allows comment on the changes in American society.

The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara. Whereas Gaiman and Beukes use fantasy to comment on culture from a removed stance, Yanagihara looks at cultural impact head on, with the added and very difficult subject of abuse. Fantasy isn’t all about spells and magic rings. In a complex plot, Western scientists visit the mysterious island of U’ivu to research a lost tribe who claim to have eternal life. Yanagihara’s prose has an appropriate dream-like quality as it explores our perceptions through the idea that magic is a part of nature to some cultures.

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The Harry Potter series (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling. The story of a magician and his friends who grow up learning how to use magic in the world and to fight a series of evil enemies. As with other teen fantasies (such as TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer), these books are more about growing up and understanding the world than they are about magic and monsters.

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The Magicians (2009) by Lev Grossman is, from one perspective, Narnia remixed starring Harry Potter at university with swearing and sex. Which sounds great to me! From another, it is about addiction and control. Quentin (Harry) loves the fantasy books Fillory and Further (Chronicles of Narnia). Thinking he is applying to Princeton, he ends up at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy (Hogwarts). He learns about magic while making new friends and falling in love, while is former best friend, Julia, who failed to get to Brakebills, learns about magic from the outside world. There are beasts and fights and double crossing and the discovery that Fillory is real. Rollicking good fun with plenty of magic and monsters, but Grossman adds an unexpected depth to the story.

Signal to Noise (2015) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a perfect fantasy novel for anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s. I’d imagine it is pretty enjoyable for everyone else too. This time, there is no formal education in magic. Set in Mexico, Signal to Noise charts the growing pains of Meche and her friends Sebastian and Daniela. The make magic from music. Literally. Magic corrupts Meche and her character changes. Moreno-Garcia nails how selfish you can be as a teenager once you get a whiff of power or dominance. In the end, everything falls apart.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

Born Out of Rapt Distraction: On Silvina Ocampo’s ‘Thus Were Their Faces’

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This essay is the introduction to the new NYRB Classics edition of Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo, translated by Daniel Balderston.

What we have in Silvina Ocampo is a writer of the Big Bad Wolf school. In 1979 her 42-year body of work was denied Argentina’s National Prize for Literature. “Demasiado crueles” (far too cruel) was the verdict of that year’s panel of judges.[1] It wasn’t Ocampo’s poetry the judges were talking about — she’d won notable poetry prizes in previous years. Perhaps her alternately burning and freezing dislocations of perspective are slightly more orthodox in the realm of poetry, where to some extent we half expect to lose our footing and find something startling in the gap between verses. In Ocampo’s poem “A Tiger Speaks,” having briefly surveyed episodes of interaction between humankind and other species in the first stanza, the tiger begins her second stanza with the remark: “We never managed to agree / about man’s true nature.”[2] The tiger’s tone awakens ominous awareness of a class of gaze that passes over the deeds of human beings and finds little humanity in them. It could be that poetry is more readily accepted as a natural vessel for long-distance dispatches of this kind, no matter how precise or orderly the poem’s technical form. Short stories tend to be received quite differently: certain structural assurances are demanded, some guarantee that if and when an event or an idea throws us off-balance, by the end that balance will be restored, or at the very least the tools for its restoration will be within reach. And so “far too cruel” was the verdict on Ocampo’s short fiction, some of the best of which is collected in this book. It’s true that aside from their narrative technique of tripping you up and leaving you on the floor, Ocampo’s stories narrate the inner lives of heartless children, half-mad lovers, and assorted others who lean out of the pages to speak to us with all their anomie showing. Here’s the narrator of “Friends,” for example, sardonically noting the external resemblance between a surfeit of grief and a light smattering of gaiety: “Nearly the whole town was in mourning; the cemetery looked like a flower show, and the streets sounded like a bell-ringing contest.”

As readers of Ocampo we follow the first Red Riding Hood, bypassing that initial pretense of going among the leaves of a book or a forest in search of kindly, tidy wisdom from the type of grandmother nobody ever really had. No, there are voices we follow knowing full well that we’ll be led astray. I’m tempted to call Ocampo’s readers Red Reading Hoods, but I can well imagine your scorn. In her stories characters negotiate the entrapments of time, which rewards relentless determination, or at least doesn’t punish it. In “Icera,” a small girl from a poor family decides not to grow any bigger than the biggest doll in the doll department of a toy store near her house; her efforts to keep her material wants small face a setback after Icera’s four-inch growth spurt, but that addition of four inches to her height is the full extent of her physical growth between preadolescence and middle age, and we leave her being packaged up happily in a blue cardboard box intended for the transportation of an expensive doll. The narrator doesn’t invite us to wonder at or worry about this turn of events; there’s a level on which Ocampo’s stories are matter-of-fact reports of the everyday traffic (outgoing) between the mind and the world.

Ocampo airily collaborated with her immediate contemporaries, co-editing anthologies and writing a short, charmingly off-kilter murder mystery called Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (1946) with her husband, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Bioy Casares is the author of one of the 20th century’s most ingenious and affecting works of fabulism, The Invention of Morel (1940), and part of the fun of reading a book co-authored by this superlatively well-read couple lies in trying to guess which parts were written by Bioy Casares, which parts were written by Ocampo, and which parts were written by one impersonating the other. Her novella The Topless Tower (1968) is an adventure diligently narrated by Leandro, a boy who finds himself trapped in a painting. Being trapped in the painting isn’t his only problem; his intellect frequently gets ahead of him and even as he describes his surroundings and encounters he underlines certain words that he uses but doesn’t yet understand (“lugubrious,” “macabre,” “cynical”); these notations serve as reminders to look up the meanings later. Here Ocampo’s fondness and flair for nonsense literature in the vein of Lewis Carroll is palpable. (Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There is, after all, a book-long chess game.) There are few other writers who can apply such abstract mischief to narrative without stripping it of its human flesh. If Ocampo’s solo fiction continues to elude canonization within Argentine literature, it will be because the tradition that Ocampo seems to work within is that of the visionary whose sensibility crosses plural borders.

Like Emily Brontë, Ocampo was a younger sister whose literary vision takes its own unruly path away from that of her elder (in Ocampo’s case this elder sister, the revered writer and critic Victoria, was her first publisher). Love is as fearsome in an Ocampo story as it is in Wuthering Heights; emotion has a way of sealing us into a charmed circle that makes us incomprehensible to everyone who stands outside it. This kind of circle shrinks and shrinks until even the beloved is impossible to read clearly, and then finally we’re unable to even pretend to understand our own thoughts. At times Ocampo’s characters speak to us as if under the influence of a truth drug that won’t permit them to simplify the expression of their motivations. In “Autobiography of Irene,” a malicious act is motivated by panic — how else can a teenage girl govern a tempestuous inner life that turns her regard for a beloved teacher into something that feels life threatening, an emotion one could drown in? “[One] day, crying because I already knew how mistaken and how unfair I could be, I made up a slander against that young lady, who had only wanted to praise me.” We also see a similar blurring of psychic attack and defense in “The House Made of Sugar,” in which, having ignored his wife’s superstitions, a man watches the logically impossible repercussions of his actions drain the stability from his marriage with a petulant malevolence that may remind you of a small tyrant who punishes her parent’s disobedience by holding her breath until she loses consciousness. At the end of that story we can only agree with the narrator’s summation: “I don’t know who was the victim of whom in that house made of sugar, which now stands empty.” From time to time a form of comic relief is derived from Ocampo’s invitation to view love, romantic or otherwise, from a position of amused disgust — in “Lovers,” a heavy date for two of Ocampo’s characters consists of the joyless, mechanical overconsumption of cake accompanied by “shy conversation on the theme of picnics: people who had died after drinking wine or eating watermelon; a poisonous spider in a picnic basket one Sunday that had killed a girl whose in-laws all hated her; canned goods that had gone bad, but looked delicious.” In “The Guests,” a gift box is found to contain “two crude magnetic dolls that couldn’t resist kissing on the lips, their necks stretched out, as soon as they were within a certain distance of each other.”

Like William Blake, Ocampo’s first voice was that of a visual artist; in her writing she retains the will to unveil the immaterial so that we might at least look at it if not touch it: “there are voices that you can see, that keep on revealing the expression of a face even after its beauty is gone,” the protagonist of “Autobiography of Irene” tells us. Blake began with drawing, but just as she tells us in her own words, Ocampo was a painter, an increasingly frustrated student of the cubist Fernand Léger (“nothing interested Léger except the design of his paintings”) and then the proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (“I fought with Giorgio de Chirico and told him he sacrificed everything for the sake of color”), until she turned to writing as her own particular means of transforming reality. I consider this when the imagery in Ocampo’s stories slides between the concrete and the abstract, recalling Blake’s spectral embodiments, the ones that rise and float and walk alongside solidly hewn stars and beasts with the look of living stone. When I read “Visions,” a short story of Ocampo’s in which a bedridden woman awaits death (or recovery), I see Blake’s brutal light, rays that blast through all other colors to center and re-center his paintings and illustrations. “Beauty has no end or edges. I wait for it,” Ocampo’s narrator says. Either this presence called beauty has an innate power to change us as it approaches and recedes, or it is our own functional creation, an ever-shifting evocation of those moments beyond language when we get closer to and beat an abashed retreat from whatever it is that drives consciousness. Always within reach, yet always mysterious, is this essential self, leading Ocampo to end her own preface to this book with the question: “Will we always be students of ourselves?”

In his preface to this book, Borges writes that Ocampo “sees us as if we were made of glass, sees and forgives us. It is useless to try to fool her.” I agree that Ocampo sees, but the all-consuming grudges held by her characters create an initial difficulty in discovering just where her mercy intersects with her clear sight — in “The Fury,” a girl who receives a fish and a monkey as conciliatory gifts from her tormentor simply allows the poor creatures to starve to death. Here gentleness is merely a prologue to some truly dark deed or other. In “The Clock House,” the role at a party of a hunchbacked man named Estanislao goes from guest of honor to victim — it’s impossible to conclusively decide whether or not the child narrator is feigning incomprehension of Estanislao’s fate or is genuinely innocent. Either way we readers are brutalized by the educated guesses the narrative leads us to make. The party guests propose that Estanislao’s suit be ironed with its owner still in it; this occurs, and the commotion of this event is described in the vaguest and most chilling of terms: “Nobody was laughing except for Estanislao.” After that our young narrator N.N. steps back and will not share in the resultant vision. Elsewhere Ocampo demonstrates that she understands, alongside Emily Dickinson, that “The heart asks pleasure first / and then excuse from pain,” but this doesn’t prevent her sharp commentary on the eager adoption of strategies to excuse ourselves from pain. The narrator of “The Prayer,” a story of deadly weakness, notes the prevailing mood at the funeral of an eight-year-old killed by another eight-year-old: “Only one old lady, Miss Carmen, was sobbing, because she didn’t understand what had happened. Oh my God, how miserable, how lacking in ceremony the funeral was!”

I think what Ocampo understands is that so many of our cruelties and treacheries are born out of a sort of rapt distraction; our memories don’t work very well and we try to kick-start them with reenactions, or new and wholly unnecessary treacheries that present themselves to us as reenactions. In “The Mortal Sin,” a household servant named Chango bids his employers’ young daughter to look through a keyhole into the next room, where he’ll show her “something very beautiful.” The girl does as she’s told, and what she sees is made ghastly by the insistent voice of a man in the next room, speaking with “a commanding and sweet obscenity: ‘Doll, look! Look!’” In this way the girl is made fully conscious of her gaze being manipulated for the pleasure of another, a pleasure that’s utterly indifferent to her own dissent. “I feel such sorrow when I think how horror imitates beauty,” the narrator tells us. “Through that door, Pyramus and Thisbe, like you and Chango, spoke their love through a wall.”

These stories seem to agree with Lewis Carroll’s White Queen that it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward, after all. And the further back we look, the less time we have left to see. Even worse, no matter how long or faithfully we look along that line, it doesn’t go back far enough, there’s still something, something big that we’ve all forgotten — we can’t remember what exactly we’re all supposed to be to each other, what we have been, what we can be, and that makes us rough playmates. The living appall us; how can we be at peace with them when they insist on standing so insistently between us and our ghosts? As Armando Heredia explains in the story “The Impostor,” it would be better if we were less careless with the influence we exert upon each others’ experience of the boundaries between life and death: “our lives depend on a certain number of people who see us as living beings. If those people imagine that we are dead, we die.” If Armando is right, then on a moment-to-moment basis the terms of the continued existence of any individual are far more fragile than we dare to feel. And like those of Ocampo’s characters who make it to the end of the story without having been murdered by a thing as simple as a velvet dress, or strangled by a grip as powerful as the eddies of an infernal whirlpool, there’s something to be said for counting yourself lucky to be a survivor of yesterday, today, and maybe even tomorrow.

[1] In an interview with Patricia Klingenberg in March 1980, Ocampo reported that she was denied the National Prize in 1979 by judges who felt her stories were ‘demasiado crueles.’” Quote from Cynthia Duncan, “Double or Nothing in Silvina Ocampo’s ‘La casa de azúcar,’” Chasqui: revista de literatura latinoamericana 20, No. 2 (November 1991).

[2] Silvina Ocampo: Selected Poems, selected and translated by Jason Weiss (New York: NYRB/poets, 2015).

A Year in Reading: Kathryn Davis

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I was going to write about Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his journey on foot through the very real Cévennes Mountains of France; instead I found myself in a dark and fabulous Danish forest. Stevenson is one of the writers I thought I’d left behind forever, choosing to overlook the fact that as a girl I’d been madly in love with Alan Breck, hero of Kidnapped. But because the route Stevenson traveled crisscrosses Le Chemin — the French part of the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle that I walked on last summer with my friends Steve and Sabrina — they sent me a copy of Travels with a Donkey for my birthday (which also used to be the same as Stevenson’s until he “gave it away” to a little girl whose birthday, to her chagrin, fell on February 29.)

Too circuitous, you say?  But that’s my point.

Stevenson’s book is a pure pleasure to read — a surprise to me though I shouldn’t have been surprised — the light touch of his prose, so vivid, conjuring my own very recent memories of the landscape.  It was only while rereading the book, though, coming upon his description of the landscape of the Velay, that I knew where I’d been headed all along. 

Although there were still a few strands of gold far off to the east on the hills and the black fir-woods, all was cold and gray about our onward path.  An infinity of little country by-roads led hither and thither among the fields.  It was the most pointless labyrinth.  I could see my destination overhead, or rather the peak that dominates it; but choose as I pleased, the roads always ended by turning away from it, and sneaking back towards the valley, or northward along the margin of the hills…

“The roads always ended by turning away from it” — a perfect description of the Alice in Wonderland-like experience of hiking a trail when you don’t know where it’s going to take you.  We’d even been warned that a man or woman would appear as we were about to begin our ascent of a punishingly steep hill, and, in the guise of suggesting a shortcut, give us misdirections — this was part of the culture of Le Chemin, simultaneously perverse and mystical, two qualities I associate with another writer, one whose work I know I’d never dream of leaving behind forever.

When you first enter “The Monkey,” that most delectable of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, you are given information that appears as reliable as what you’d expect to find on a trail map.  “In a few of the Lutheran countries of northern Europe there are still in existence places which make use of the name convent, and are governed by a prioress or chanoiness, although they are of no religious nature.”  So, perversely, begins a tale that immediately sprouts “an infinity of by-roads:” the disappearance of the prioress’s monkey into the forests surrounding the convent; the almost simultaneous appearance in her salon of her handsome young nephew; the prioress’s plan to marry him to the neighbor’s strapping daughter, Athena Hopballehus, in order to save him from his “Greek” tendencies; the inescapable presence of the forest, its trees with “their roots deep in the earth, their crowns moving in the dark;” the nephew’s memory of a lighted candle in a looking glass on Walpurgis Night revealing the naked bodies of two comely maidens; the Prioress’s “gentle melancholy” as she nibbles the cloves in her pudding that have come — like her monkey — all the way from Zanzibar.

So Isak Dinesen sends you on your way to wherever you are going to end up, though who knows where that might be.  Better yet, once you finally arrive where you’ve been headed all along, you can’t exactly say how you got there.  And when (not if, for there is never any if about the desire to re-enter one of Dinesen’s shrewd and soulful tales) you decide to follow the path one more time, you will find that you are tracking an entirely new course through the story, as if it contains, indeed, so many possible roads through it they are truly beyond measure.

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The Pleasures and Perils of Rereading

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In his often anthologized essay “On Reading Old Books,” William Hazlitt wrote, “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire to ever read at all.” This is a rather extreme position on rereading, but he is not alone. Larry McMurtry made a similar point: “If I once read for adventure, I now read for security. How nice to be able to return to what won’t change. When I sit down at dinner with a given book, I want to know what I’m going to find.” In her recent study On Rereading Patricia Meyers Spacks uses McMurtry as an example of someone who rereads to stubbornly avoid novelty, and unapologetically so. His refusal, like Hazlitt’s, to read anything new makes rereading a conservative if comfortable experience, vehemently opposed to the possible shock of the new.

Spacks herself feels slightly differently. She writes, “No reader can fail to agree that the number of books she needs to read far exceeds her capacities, but when the passion for rereading kicks in, the faint guilt that therefore attends the indulgence only serves to intensify its sweetness.” In Spacks’s scenario rereading is a forbidden pleasure, tantalizing and, contra Hazlitt and McMurtry, with an element of time wasted — an extravagance. The choice Hazlitt and McMurtry easily make weighs more heavily on Spacks, who knows she forgoes a new book every time she picks up an old one.

Yet there are far more positive spins put on rereading in Spacks’s book and elsewhere. Pleasure, after all, needn’t be a negative. Elsewhere in his essay, Hazlitt brings up a point which is raised often by rereaders: “In reading a book which is an old favorite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links on the chains of personal identity. They are landmarks and guides in our journey through life.” This double perspective is often mentioned as one of the pleasures of rereading, especially of reading books from childhood. Hazlitt writes rhapsodically of opening Tom Jones and feeling like a child again, and Spacks, too, makes a tour of her childhood reading to see what holds up to adult scrutiny. She finds Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland still enchants, but the Narnia series feels flat and lifeless. Ferdinand the Bull delights, as does The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the adventure of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped enthralls her. Thus rereading is a way back into the past, to a time when one was more innocent or more susceptible to the powers of imagination or just younger, and different. It inspires introspection and self-reflection through the workings of memory: How am I the same person as the last time I read this book? How am I different?

Rereading is also a form of pedagogy. To know a book you have to reread it, as Harold Bloom writes in his How to Read and Why (though he is apt to plea, as he does here, for careful reading rather than repetition; it is taken for granted that only through multiple readings will knowledge will seep in). “We read deeply for varied reasons, most of them familiar: that we cannot know enough people profoundly enough; that we need to know ourselves better; that we require knowledge, not just of self and others, but of the way things are. Yet the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading is the search for a difficult pleasure.” Though rereading we get to know a book beyond its surface elements, we read more deeply and are rewarded not with an easy experience but with a richer one. We learn to take a book apart, pick out crucial scenes, ponder characters’ motives, see its flaws, tease out its themes. In part, through rereading we become skilled critics. Spacks too explores the professional aspect of her rereading: as a teacher and literary critic, she has read certain books over and over as part of her job and been surprised when they surprise her, or when students find aspects of a book she has passed over in her multiple readings. Even the pros sometimes miss a detail in Moby-Dick, or the book Bloom confesses to reading twice a year, Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers.

To really love a book we must spend time with it, and that means rereading — for love, too, falls under the heading of Bloom’s “difficult pleasure.” Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays culled from the “Rereadings” column she edited in The American Scholar explores the strong feelings that arise between rereader and book. In her introduction to the collection, Fadiman claims that “each [column] was a miniature memoir at whose heart lay that most galvanic of topics, the evolving nature of love.” Some of the most memorable essays in Rereadings involve letting go of love, or becoming disillusioned by rereading. For example, Luc Sante’s essay on Enid Starkie’s biography of Arthur Rimbaud describes a vehement case of hero-worship in which the idolatrous fever eventually breaks. You see, Sante confides, “At some point before adolescence, I had decided to be a child prodigy,” and he chose writing as his field. At 13 he encountered Rimbaud in a poetry anthology, and soon after he found the aforementioned biography “with a picture of a big-haired, pensive, beautiful adolescent” on the cover. He read it everywhere he went, and realized he had chosen a remarkable idol: “He was hipper than anyone alive.” Sante was smitten.

Yet there were attendant issues with such a role model: “He wasn’t even divisible into parts, you couldn’t be half a Rimbaud. The alternative to being Rimbaud was to be nothing.” Inevitably, Sante grew out of his passion. “I can reread the Starkie biography today…and no longer feel as though I will have to set the book down at some point and go put on music or think about something else, because the race is over now.” Rimbaud has won; he won by never having a Rimbaud to worship. But then, he also never had the adulthood Sante has, or the knowledge that has come with it. Rimbaud lost too by never growing up, by his truncated biography, by always coming to a tragic early end.

Vivian Gornick’s essay in Fadiman’s collection also deals with lost love. “When I was in my twenties, my friends and I read Colette as others read the Bible.” Colette is the only writer who can describe their condition, the way they had to live. “The condition, of course, was that we were women, and that Love (as we had long known) was the territory upon which our battle with Life was to be pitched.” Like Sante worshipping Rimbaud, Gornick and her friends’ fixation on Colette had its problems. They were intellectual girls (young women, really), readers, of course, who lived out their fantasies in books. Gornick writes of their identification with the great literary heroines, Henry James’s Isabel Archer and George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, “passionate young women destined for tragedy at the hands of famously unworthy men.” Yet they were also new women, championing Mary McCarthy and relishing their sexual independence. Colette combined these two forces, or so it seemed. “She seemed to know everything that actually went on inside a woman ‘in the grip.’ Her wisdom riveted your eyes to the page, gathered up your scattered, racing inattention. It made A Woman in Love as serious a concern for the novelist as God or War.” Gornick’s descriptions of communing with Colette’s books, particularly The Vagabond and The Shackle, are hungry and spiritual. How would they stand up to rereading?

Not well, is the short answer. After 30 years they seem melodramatic, contrived, alienating. Though she says Colette’s “writing is incomparable,” Gornick exclaims of the lovers, “But what appalling strangers these people are to one another! Not a speck of reality between them. How preoccupied [Colette] is with aging. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? And the aimlessness of them all, women and men alike — especially in The Shackle. No one has anything to do but lie around brooding about love.” Note that love has lost its capital letter for Gornick. These novels about passion felt dispassionate. Where in her 20s Gornick had believed love was the territory she would stake her claim on, life has intervened and shown her their lives are much larger. Gornick is struck by how much smaller Colette’s world seems, and though the comparison is with her first reading, it is also with her own world. Gornick’s final thought is a melancholy one: “I want the reading of Colette to be the same as it once was, but it is not. Yet I am wrenched by the beauty of that which no longer feels large, and can never feel large again.” Rereading has taken something away from Gornick that she valued, an illusion about love, and life, that cannot be retrieved.

Rereading does not have to lead to loss, however. Plenty of people reread because they find it soothing, fortifying even. And a disproportionate number of those rereaders seem to pick up a novel by Jane Austen. When Patricia Spacks started researching rereading as a topic, it was Jane Austen who was most often the answer to the question of who people reread (especially women, it seems, men, according to nothing more than anecdotal evidence, keep a volume of Tolkien nearby). She asked a young woman in China why Austen was her favorite author, and then a group of Holocaust survivors who met to read Austen aloud to one another. From their answers, Spacks concluded that Austen meant civilization. “We may plausibly surmise that a considerable proportion of Austen’s many rereaders, from adoring members of the Jane Austen Society to casual pleasure-seekers, find comfort in civilized discourse: carefully formed plots that end predictably in satisfactory marriages, style that reflects the author’s dominion over her material, characters rewarded and punished according to their deserts.” The fact that her world is one that values words — think of the verbal sparring between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice — also gives the rereader an extra jolt. Spacks writes, “It’s not just that Austen teaches us about life — life teaches us about Austen.”

Allegra Goodman’s essay in Anne Fadiman’s collection, “Pemberly Previsited,” traces the motions of one Austen rereader, from a girl too young to understand much of Austen’s subtlety to a young mother whose own mother has just died and is looking for solace in Austen’s world. It is her third reading of Pride and Prejudice, a tribute to her mother who loved Austen, that really makes the novel click into place for her. “What I found irresistible this time was the way Austen combines astute social satire with fairy tale. The combination didn’t seem awkward to me, but inspired. The satire is exquisite, while the fairy tale is viscerally satisfying.” While after her second reading Goodman had found the book lacking compared with more complex or darker classic novels, this time it seems just right. As Goodman wryly notes, “A dark imagination is, perhaps, more appealing before you know anything about darkness.” In a time of darkness, Austen has provided a fairy tale, but one with enough grounding in reality to viscerally satisfy her. It is hard to ask more of a book.

Goodman keeps rereading Pride, finding more and more to admire in it, and coming to this conclusion about the process: “I think unfolding is what rereading is about. Like pleated fabric, the text reveals different parts of its pattern at different times. And yet every time the text unfolds, in the library, or in bed, or upon the grass, the reader adds new wrinkles. Memory and experience press themselves into each reading so that each encounter informs the next.” This image echoes one Spacks uses, that of the palimpsest (an ancient scroll where a text is scraped off and another written over it), where each reading is layered upon the last. “Although one never altogether recovers previous layers,” Spacks writes, “they add texture and meaning to the ultimate version.”

As long as we keep rereading, however, we never have the ultimate version of a book. Whether we go back again and again to a classic (and the ability to hold up to rereading is how a book becomes a classic) or pick up an old favorite to see how it has fared or dig deep into the treasures of our youth, rereading is an experiment that is bound to change us, and to change our impressions of the books we read. Rereading can certainly surprise, it can instruct, and it can make us feel safe. Maybe it is not indulgent to reread a book, but a way to learn; and what is any sort of reading but a way to learn, whether it is something new about the world or just something new about ourselves?

Image: Flickr/Cote.

Tiny and Strange: Reinterpreting Alice

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Several years ago a friend of a friend of mine received free tickets to a new production of The Taming of The Shrew in Washington D.C. and made the unfortunate decision of bringing me along. I grew dismayed as the play progressed, believing that it was perhaps impossible to try to reinterpret a play so rife with misogyny. I’ve listened to the many reasons people have provided for why this play is actually a critique of patriarchy, how the final scene is so obviously repellent that it is impossible for anyone, least of all Shakespeare, to be condoning these values. In researching others opinions, I found a review of Conall Morrison’s 2008 version of this play for The Royal Shakespeare Company by Peter Lathan, who stated “In our modern political correctness we tend to think that Shrew was a play about keeping women in their place, just as we relate Merchant (the companion piece to Shrew in the RSC Theatre Royal season) to anti-Semitism, but that, perhaps, says more about contemporary preoccupations than it does about Shakespeare, for certainly Conall Morrison’s Shrew is more about status than misogyny.”

In my mind, the fact that some people today do still find women and minority rights to be mere “contemporary preoccupations” rather than actual human rights issues, makes the issue of lauding or critiquing a new interpretation of an old play especially slippery. Generally speaking, new versions of older literary works strive to do one of two things: exalt the original author’s story, or else try to save it from the weight of its own history. I have always been particularly confused by some feminists’ desire to reignite old stories with female characters or else reinvent female characters from days yore. We have so few new stories that delve into current female experience, that taking the time to further empower these older works seems to actually reinforce the notion that literature is a man’s world, and that the most women can do is amend these staple stories, rather than writing new works of their own.

Tim Burton’s new version of Alice in Wonderland is in some ways a feminist dream. It contains a screenplay written by a woman, Linda Woolverton, who strives to provide her audience with a self-actualized Alice, an Alice who is a warrior, rather than a princess. In this new chapter, Alice is 19 years old and at the mercy of a decidedly anti-feminist Victorian age, in which her main option in life is marrying an unimaginative bore of a Duke who, his mother warns Alice, has “digestive issues.” Rather than heed the sage advice of her mother, Alice does not don a corset, but rather begins chasing a real life rabbit she seems to remember from her dreams. She falls deep down the rabbit hole where she ends up in “Underland”, welcomed by several talking animals, all of whom want her to be the champion who fights the terrifying Jabberwocky and, in doing so, defeat the evil Red Queen.

Perhaps on its own this would actually be a fantastically good story. The problem is, it bares little or no relation to the actual text of Alice in Wonderland, which is not a fantasy or action-adventure novel, but a small and clever little book, filled with imaginative puzzles, rhymes, word games and mathematical problems, much more akin to a female version of The Phantom Tollbooth or Harold and The Purple Crayon than Star Wars or Lord of The Rings. The original Alice was neither a princess nor a warrior; she was a little girl. The book is actually refreshingly free of gender stereotypes. Alice is portrayed as smart and imaginative, filled with wonder at the world around her, but the focus is never so much on Alice per say, as it is on the world itself. In some ways, the wonderful thing about Alice in Wonderland is that it provided girls with a story which centered around their perspective of a fantasy world, but could ultimately be relatable to a little boy as well. By drawing more attention to the gender norms of Victorian England, Woolverton actually creates issues of sexism which never existed in the original edition.

This decision by Woolverton and Burton is a shame for a variety of reasons. First, because there is nothing interesting or controversial about showing that Victorian women were dealt a tough hand, and as such, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to force this particular trope onto this particular story. Second, it is reductionist. Why is it we have to see a woman play the role of a classic warrior in order to view her story as important enough to necessitate a big blockbuster movie? Lastly, it simply obscures the small joys that come from reading the original work. Many of Tim Burton’s films effectively capture the bizarre and otherworldly language of childhood; Alice in contrast seems like a composite of typical CGI images, chase scenes and the requisite action sequences that pop out of the screen, but fail to leave any sense of haunting after the credits roll on.

In the end, I find myself yearning for visions of female agency which are neither critiques of a patriarchal past, nor visions of an equally patriarchal future, wherein women are only valued if they are seen as tough and warrior like as their male predecessors. Perhaps Carroll’s original story worked because it wasn’t about what it meant to be a woman at all. Instead, it was about a particular girl and her particularly curious adventures into a world of nonsense so unique there still hasn’t been a film version which has really done it justice.

A First Look Through the Looking Glass: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

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Tim Burton and Disney have released the first images of Burton’s forthcoming (March 2010) take on Lewis Carroll’s 19th century children’s classic Alice in Wonderland – and they’re spectacular. Johnny Depp will play the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter (also Burton’s wife) will play the Red Queen, Anne Hathaway will play the White Queen, and the lovely Mia Wasikowska (Gabriel Byrne’s young gymnast patient in HBO’s In Treatment) will play Alice.Other casting choices to look forward to: Stephen Fry will play the Cheshire Cat, Timothy Spall (Wormtail in the Harry Potter franchise) will play a bloodhound, the eternally strange Crispin Glover will play The Knave of Hearts, and Alan Rickman (best-known as Snape from the Harry Potter franchise) will play the Caterpillar. The above image is from where there are more photos of sets and characters. There are also images from the film in this month’s Vanity Fair.

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