03 May 2007

Alice Doesn't Live There Anymore

In The King in the Window, Adam Gopnik appropriates Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass. I don't mean he alludes to the earlier book, or brings in some details in homage the way Cornelia Funke's Inkheart makes use of Tinkerbell, or even creates a sequel like the several about Peter Pan.

Rather, this fantasy purports to tell us the truth behind Carroll's Alice stories. That seem superfluous, but could be entertaining if executed gracefully. Alas, the Carroll connection is just another ingredient that seems tossed clumsily into an overly flavored stew.

On page 165 we discover that young hero Oliver goes to sleep to the sound of Lewis Carroll's Alice books because he's an insomniac. On page 22, Oliver does have trouble falling asleep. That would be a perfect place to establish his insomnia and listening habit, but Gopnik skips the opportunity, leaving the impression that his protagonist is unusually sleepless because of the magical events he's just experienced. Oliver falls asleep with no problem on page 99 and page 134.

On page 131 Oliver notices that his elderly friend Mrs. Lucy Pearson has a spoon with the initials "LL" engraved on it. She also reads Through the Looking-Glass in French. After many episodes, on page 269, he guesses that her name was originally Lucy Liddell, and she confirms, "Yes, I am Alice's granddaughter."

This opens the door to revealing, supposedly, what the playing cards and Tweedledum and Tweedledee and Humpty Dumpty actually were. Naturally, Gopnik tells us that the "truth" is darker than the books that Charles Dodgson wrote in an attempt to soften Alice's traumatized memories. As in The Looking-Glass Wars, the unsettling power of nonsense isn't allowed to exist on its own; there must be malevolence behind it.

But that's not all. In Chapter 12 Mrs. Pearson returns to the small house near Oxford where Alice Liddell and she had both grown up. By going through the mirror there, she actually meets her grandmother, returned to a catatonic girlhood.

As long as we're talking about what actually happened, Alice Liddell and her sisters grew up in the deanery of Christ Church College, Oxford. (She spent summers at a house in northern Wales.) I've had the honor of staying overnight in that deanery. It's not a house; it's part of a massive stone building with its own crenellated towers. Check out this virtual tour of the college.

But for the purposes of this novel, I can accept that Gopnik's fictionalized Alice is different from the real Alice, just as the girl John Tenniel drew doesn't look like young Alice Liddell. As long as The King in the Window has an internal logic, then it can stand on its own as entertaining fiction.

But the story doesn't have an internal logic. If Lucy Liddell changed her last name to Pearson when she married, then her grandmother Alice and her mother would have changed their names, too. Mrs. Pearson would never have had the last name Liddell, and Oliver would not be able to deduce that she had. Dodgson was an expert in both logic and nonsense, and he would never have stood for such a mix.

No comments: