Constraints in writing have a way of helpfully containing possibilities. Speaking to the role of constraints in poetry, Anne Sexton once said, “You could let some extraordinary animals out if you had the right cage.” Take the sonnet, a strict poetic form that consists of 14 lines of iambic pentameter that has endured for more than seven centuries. Take Pale Fire, which presents itself as an explication of a single poem, yet digressively explicates an entire life. Or, take Green Eggs and Ham, which Dr. Seuss wrote after his editor challenged him to create a book using no more than 50 different words.
One of the major constraints of Matías Celedón’s The Subsidiary is a technical one. He wrote this book with a now discontinued stamp set called a Trodat 4253 that he found at an office supply sale. The device allows one to arrange characters on a stamp any way he likes, but limits the output to the size of the stamp. The result feels as much like an art exhibit, as it does a novel. Most of the 200 pages in the book are constrained to less than five lines of text, and fewer than 90 characters. This is a book that can be read as fast as the reader can turn the page, and that momentum elevates the unsettling effect of the nightmare.
The Subsidiary tells the story of a worker trapped in the offices of a Latin American corporation, who uses the materials at his desk to give testimony of his experience. The book begins with a loudspeaker announcement that the power supply will be interrupted between 8:30 and 20:00. The exits are closed off. The phone lines go down. There’s shouting outside.
The jailers treat the office captives — THE SUBSIDIARY, LAME MAN, ONE-EYED MAN, and ONE-ARMED MAN; THE MUTE GIRL, BLIND GIRL, and DEAF GIRL — with an attitude that alternates between indifferent and threatening. Sometimes they let them work. Sometimes they chase them with bloodthirsty dogs.
The Subsidiary is Bartleby the Scrivener meets Cujo as imagined by David Lynch (in Chile). The book contains banal reports, like “MY SKILLS ARE MANUAL,” and “I STAMP THE ORDERS, THE INSTRUCTIONS, THE MANDATES-.” Yet it also transports the reader to frightening places. Many pages have a snapshot-in-the-dark quality to them, and what we see during those flashes is scary. “IT’S THE HOWLING OF A PACK OF HOUNDS BEFORE THE VIOLENCE BEGINS,” Celedón stamps. “THE BLIND GIRL KEEPS STILL WHILE THE DOGS SNIFF AT HER,” and, “SHE’S IN HEAT.”
In the spirit of Franz Kafka, Matías Celedón evokes a bureaucratic nightmare that is terrifying in its banality and in its menace. The power remains off for 12 days, and nobody resists the instructions to remain at their stations. Despite its near pointlessness, the narrator maintains an unwavering commitment to his job.
Celedón’s dedication to his farcically technical method stabilizes this harrowing story. He wrote The Subsidiary by taking it on like a clerk — by showing up every day, and selecting and placing individual letters with tweezers. From its technical construction to its tormenting delivery, The Subsidiary enacts the tension between reason and futility in doing work.
You shouldn’t just read The Subsidiary for its eccentric context or its chilling story. You shouldn’t just read this book because of its painstaking commitment to forming words. All of these pieces — each spectacular on their own terms — fix together to create a remarkable reading experience. The Subsidiary releases an extraordinary beast.
Add this to the list of incredible things you didn’t know you needed until now. At Quartz, Jenni Avins reads through a selection of hand-typed book reviews, found in the NYPL’s archives, in which librarians tear apart children’s books they find objectionable. Sample quote, from a review of Green Eggs and Ham: “There must be better ways of teaching a child to read than this.”
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.
I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817
For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).
The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.
There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.
Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.
That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.
In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.
I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.
As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.
I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.
When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.
For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.
Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?
Longtime Millions reader Laurie sends in an account of her visit to the first annual Decatur Book Festival (with photos!) Sounds like a great event. The first annual Decatur Book Festival, held over Labor Day weekend, exceeded its organizers expectations. I know, because by Saturday afternoon they and the volunteers were grinning a lot and commenting to anyone who would listen how surprised they were. Bill Starr, director of the Georgia Center for the Book which hosted a bunch of speakers, never seemed to lose his smile. I was excited, because this was the first really large, general-interest book festival Atlanta has ever had. Crowds increased throughout each day and people continuously entered ongoing author talks (unless they were too packed), adding to the feeling that you were at an event of public interest as important as a town meeting or a political rally (except everyone was in a better mood). You had to squeeze through clumps of strollers winding past the dealer tents. Ron Rash (The World Made Straight) started with about 45 listeners at about 10:30 a.m. in the 200-something seat auditorium in the Decatur Library, and ended with over 60. At about 4 p.m., the Atlanta Journal Constitution panel filled the same auditorium. At the local Holiday Inn, there were long lines for signings by both pop-lit writers like Diana Gabaldon (Outlander) and Pulitzer-winners like Robert Olen Butler (pictured above) (A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain).The city of Decatur (pronounced De-KAY-tur) is basically part of Atlanta. As of the year 2000 the city-within-a-city’s population density was 4,343 people per square mile, 65% white, 31% black, with a median household income of $47k. It has a great little downtown area with a public library and courthouse and a Holiday Inn conference center a few blocks from each other. That and the restaurants and funky shops make for nice strolling, but going back and forth to get from one author event to another at these places turned into a real workout. From about 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day I ran, literally, to get to author appearances.The kickoff event, advertised as a “parade” led by the Cat in the Hat, consisted of a few costumed volunteers followed by a horde of kids down a city street to a small park. There, the mayor of Decatur and another volunteer read/enacted Green Eggs and Ham in an open-air tent too small to hold the overflow crowd. (pictured at right) No one complained, though — either because it was free or because the reading was pretty lively.The biggest problem (besides distance between venues) seemed to be too small spaces for the most popular authors. Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer) gave a talk in a courtroom that held less than 150 people, I think, nowhere near the number who were turned away (though they gave patient fans who couldn’t get in the first chance to get books signed when he finished talking). Pulitzer winner Edward P. Jones (The Known World) was put in an auditorium in the Holiday Inn conference center that held at most 110 seats (I counted). Fans filled the aisles and every open space for his talk. They sat quietly enthralled as he read a couple of stories from his latest collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. Unlike some authors, he adopts the voices of his characters with an actor’s ability, and he had the audience laughing at words which on the page seemed more serious. He and other writers deserved a larger audience; maybe next year the organizers will get nearby Agnes Scott College to provide some larger auditoriums.The Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers held their annual fair in conjunction with the festival. One dealer had a first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee on sale for $12,000, another had a first edition of Live & Let Die by Ian Fleming for $750. There were a lot of cheaper works, but even if you weren’t into first editions, it was fun to walk through and marvel at the beautiful bindings and old children’s books (I saw a bunch I wish I still had).Maybe the festival owes its success to the lack of big book festivals around here, or the higher level of education of the Decatur population (over 60% have college degrees); maybe the summer’s high gas prices made folks more frugal and disinclined to travel (the festival was free); maybe no one wanted to deal with traffic and so stayed close to home. The audiences skewed mostly to families and retired folks — I saw very few late teens/20-somethings, despite the nearby liberal arts college. Does the lack of MTV/GenX/Y readers bode ill for the future of books? Should publishers only aim at the very young or the very anchored?Whatever, I’m just glad that Atlanta finally has a big general interest book festival in a friendly location. It’s near a MARTA station, the city’s bus/rail transit system. There’s a lot of parking if you drive yourself. You can picnic under trees by the courthouse and listen to musicians perform at a gazebo (rocking blues, even!), and Sunday night they had fireworks. There’s restaurants and cafes nearby, and Eddie’s Attic, a longtime acoustic music club where Wesley Stace (Misfortune) and others performed. One of the cafes, the Red Brick Pub, has over 200 kinds of beer including local brews like Athens’ own Terrapin Rye Pale Ale (which we here in Athens are fond and proud of). Plus Jake’s Ice Cream was serving their seasonal honey-fig ice cream. I’ll go again next year.