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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What Book Influenced You the Most

If I wanted to be high-falutin in this post, I’d probably say Nabokov’s tour de force – I do not employ this expression lightly – Pale Fire. The first half of the book is a beautiful poem meditating on death and the possibility of the afterlife. The “author” of the poem is John Shade, whose daughter’s suicide has sent him seeking answers to the big questions. The second half of the book, ostensibly a critical essay by Shade’s self-appointed biographer, Kinbote, quickly dives off into bizarre tangents of Kinbote’s own, and the book digresses into a tale of fantasy, deceit, and murder.

My Cousin Bob lent me this book, which I destroyed in the course of reading because the glue holding the pages was deteriorating, and they fell out as I turned them. Although I was sorry for Bob’s book, this actually enhanced my enjoyment of it, because the book was doing to itself what Kinbote was doing to Shade’s poem. In printing terms, gluing in pages is called “perfect binding,” a preposterous misnomer, if you’ve ever experienced a book fall apart in your hands. I had a similar experience as a teenager reading Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. I remember having to read it quickly, because if I didn’t finish soon, I wouldn’t have a book left to read. Again, though, I was conscious that my experience mimicked the fictional world: Verne’s adventurers constantly have to rush to escape as underground tunnels and bridges collapse behind them just as the pages were falling out as I read them.

Actually a more influential book than Pale Fire, was P G Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith. My mother got me several Wodehouse books one Christmas, and I remember my delight at the chapter titles, “Almost Exclusively About Flowerpots” and “More on the Flowerpot Theme.” This was the writer I’d been searching for: even his chapter titles were funny! I adore Wodehouse to this day, and Psmith has a special place in my heart.

But a still more influential book for me was Huck Finn. I first read it in elementary school, and for years afterward, it completely messed up my writing. You see, Huck wrote the way I talked, and I thought since this book was in the library, it meant I was allowed to write that way, too. I’m not.

I’ve read Huck Finn maybe a dozen times since then in various classes as well as on my own, and it never ceases to astonish me that each time I read it, it seems to become a new book. When I first read it, I took it as just a straight out adventure, which in part it is and a damn good one; it was only later I appreciated Twain’s humor lurking behind Huck’s deadpan delivery.

But.

The most influential book for me was earlier than that. When I was seven years old, I found in Ft Pierce, Florida’s public library Edward Gorey’s charming little tome, The Wuggly Ump. It’s a wonderful story about three children playing idyllic games inter cut with scenes of the title monster approaching from the distance. At the end of the story, the Wuggly Ump has eaten the children and we see them floating in consternation inside a cutaway drawing of his belly, with Gorey’s epitaph, “Sing tiraloo, sing tiralump, from deep inside the Wuggly Ump.”

In one of Saki’s stories Clovis tells his niece and nephew a story of a little girl who was “terribly good” and is eaten by wolves because she can’t stop the various medals she’s won from clinking against each other. After hearing the story, the nephew says, “That’s the most beautiful story I ever heard,” and the niece says, “That’s the only beautiful story I ever heard.” This is how I felt about the Wuggly Ump. After returning the book to the library I looked for it again, but could never find it. At the time, I thought it had been mis-shelved, or maybe I’d misremembered the author’s name, but looking back on it, I now believe some officious parent complained about such a wonderfully subversive little book in the county library. Years afterward, after I’d forgotten all about the Wuggly Ump, Gorey’s work began appearing in the National Lampoon, and I became a fan all over again. When I bought his collection Amphigorey, there to my astonishment was the Wuggly Ump, and it all came rushing back to me. “It’s him! The guy! I found him again!”

But.

As much as I loved, and still love, Edward Gorey, The Wuggly Ump is not the book that influenced me most. That honor goes to P D Eastman’s Go, Dog, Go! You may think I’m joking. I am not. I’m old enough – fifty-one – that I no longer have to blush over my love of children’s books. Go, Dog, Go! is not Eastman’s most lovely book; for my money, that would be Gus and the Firefly, a story that takes place entirely at night. I don’t any artist that can render darkness and make it as soft as Eastman.

Go, Dog, Go! opens with a single word: dog. There is a picture of the dog to match, tipping his hat to us in greeting. Over the next pages, Eastman introduces more dogs – yellow dogs, blue dogs, green dogs – dogs in and on houses, dogs under and on trees, and dogs in cars. (Keep your eye on the cars; these form a leitmotiv in this book.)

When P D Eastman has experimented to his satisfaction with variations on the dog theme, he gives us the first hint of narrative. A girl dog – we know she is a girl because 1. She is a poodle. 2. She is pink. 3. She wears a fancy hat about which she is vain. She meets a boy dog who wears a bowler hat and carries a walking stick. (I will not even deign to defend Eastman against charges of sexism. Eastman is not dealing with gender stereotypes, but simple opposition.) The girl dog asks if he likes her hat, and he – rudely, eyelids down in an expression of indifferent contempt – replies that, no, he does not like that hat. The poodle leaves in a huff, saying, “Good-bye!” and the other dog also leaves with a “Good-bye,” but in his callous rudeness, he is smiling broadly, either unaware of the pain he has caused, or even glad of it.

Now come more dogs, dogs in various transportation devices. There is a blimp, a helicopter, and more cars. Always more cars.

Then, exactly midway through the book, the girl and boy dog appear again. This time they are at the peak of a snow-covered mountain. The poodle’s stocking cap trails out behind her, floating in the air like a kite tail. Again she asks if he likes her hat, and again the boy dog rudely replies he does not. She skis downhill with an angry good-bye and he leaves with a carefree, “Good-bye,” in turn.

Do you see what’s happening?

Eastman’s still just improvising, shuffling around a few basic elements in as many amusing ways as he can, but something else is happening, too. A story is starting to emerge. A story told in only four lines: “do you like it,” “no, I don’t,” “good-bye,” “good-bye.”

More dogs. Dogs in ever increasing numbers. Dogs in lots of cars. Finally, we have a night scene. I have already mentioned that no one does night scenes as well as Eastman. This one, frankly, is pretty tepid. Four rectangles of light from a windowed moon float on the bedspread. Dogs fill, and overfill, a bed that fills the room. The text notes that night is not a time for play, it is a time for sleep. And it is a time for sleep, we, like Eastman, need a rest at this point.

The next page is the same scene except now it’s daylight, the dogs’ eyes are open, and one of the dogs is at the foot of the bed with a megaphone and a hand bell, telling the dogs, “Get up! Time to get up! The sun is up now!”

The dogs run out and get in cars and drive off in a long line to the horizon. Where are they going in those cars? "To the tree! To the tree!" In the distance we see a leafy cumulous atop a tall un-branching trunk.

And what’s at the top of the tree? A dog party. Every dog in every combination we have seen up to now is present: there are dogs playing checkers, dogs playing with yo-yos and toy airplaines, dogs eating cake, dogs in party hats. On the next page we see the pink poodle climbing down a ladder; atop her head is a hat the very image of the party atop the tree: dangling rubber spiders, propellers, feathers, and gee-gaws. The boy dog is waiting at the bottom of the ladder. “Do you like my hat?” she asks, predictably, but the boy dog has changed his tune, “I do,” he says, “I do like that party hat!”

Wonderful! The boy dog has finally learned to show decent appreciation – and unfeigned, for the hat is clearly delightful, and the girl dog has finally discovered her latent sense of fun. The two say their good-byes a final time, but this time they’re saying them to us, waving over their shoulders as they drive off together into the sunset on the final page.

Well, I don’t know if I did it justice, and admittedly, it’s not the most subtle of books, but if I have to name the book that influenced me the most, that is it. A story that coalesces out of that single atom, “dog,” that over the pages, like the universe emerging from a singularity. I have read and loved books that fell apart in my hands – Pale Fire and Journey to the Center of the Earth – but Go, Dog, Go! is the story that pulls together as you read it.

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