le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

the formless white void

Because I kept missing important news about things related to China Miéville, I set up a google alert on his name. A few days ago - just after I myself finished reading it - I got an alert for a review of Railsea. Normally, I don't seek out blog reviews of things, unless I have a very specific reason for it, but in this case I had just finished the book and was curious about another's take on it. So I clicked through and read quite an excellent poststructuralist "review"/analysis of the novel, one which organized and tidied up a lot of my as-yet-abstract senses about the book, and presented them in a far more intelligent fashion than I could. It was a relief, in some ways, to read that kind of write-up so soon after reading the novel itself; I don't feel, any more, the need to go back and tear through Railsea again to try to figure out what it's doing. Of course I have my own opinions and ideas about the novel, but the "literary salvage" idea that tomcat elaborates satisfies my need for critical analysis right now.

The Railsea review is, of course, wonderfully well-written and insightful, but as I scrolled through (looking for other books he discussed that I'd actually read), I came to one about The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  It's ingenious. It made me laugh - partly because I so rarely think about picture books in a deeply critical-analytical way - partly because of the tone of the criticism, and partly because of the defamiliarization that it forced. As tomcat notes in comments, it's not a "joke" review (although it is hilarious at the same time it's brilliant, a literary-critical feat that not many can match, though James Kincaid does a nice job) - you really can read The Very Hungry Caterpillar precisely as he does. [regardless of your critical orientation, it's a very odd book. I feel like I have a vague memory of once either hearing, or seeing on a conference program, a talk about TVHC and food/disordered eating books for younger readers...]. In the main, I'm used to thinking of TVHC as one of the mainstream classics, a book that I probably sold dozens of times when I worked at the bookstore - that, and Goodnight Moon, and The Runaway Bunny are really go-to baby gift books.
I am not used to thinking of The Very Hungry Caterpillar as 
"a phantasmagoric bodyshock horror story that focuses on the tenets of extreme gluttony and one creature’s psycho-compulsive desire to consume the world around him.  Taking cues from Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s conception of horror isn’t a hyperbolic focus on blood and viscera, nor is it concerned with gothic notions of ghosts or death: rather, the anathema is an internalised grotesque; it is the body itself that is to be feared, treacherous from the inside and predisposed to intense bloating, mutation and the eventual emergence of the literal monster from within."

I love the idea of this book as horror, or even a kind of quasi-gothic horror (I suppose one could make a decent case for the gothic, particularly around the issue of the cocoon), as heir to Lovecraft and Poe. I love thinking about "the protagonist’s hidden and difficult past."  I especially love the discussion of the formless white void (with accompanying illustration embedded in the blogpost; for some reason, that strikes me as the final touch, a bit of extravagant flair that both sends up and performs a certain kind of textual analysis.

It's a great analysis of the book (which, as I noted earlier, is rather weird), and highly, highly recommended. For people outside of "the academy," or people who didn't major in english or philosophy, it will probably read as humor. Partially, unfortunately, I think that reaction speaks to our cultural inability to take children's texts seriously enough to warrant serious literary analysis. It's part of why I find it amusing; I myself, invested as I am in the serious, scholarly study of children's literature and culture, have never thought of the Caterpillar as anything but "just a caterpillar," "just a picture book." In fact, there is no such thing as a book that is "just" anything; all texts are complex and polyvalent, and can give rise to any number of readings (some more convincing than others).
I am not sure I wholeheartedly endorse tomcat's reading of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but I am very certainly glad that I read it.
I suggest you go do the same.

No comments: