The Weeks that Were
New Releases: Channel SK1N by Jeff Noon

Review Round-up: Rats and Pirate Queens

Short novels by Jules Feiffer and Bret Harte. Because... why not? 

HarryHarry, the Rat with Women (1963 - reprinted in 2007 by Fantagraphics) is Jules Feiffer's first novel. The famed illustrator (think, The Phantom Tollbooth, amongst many others) brings that same sense of elasticated reality to his prose that exists in his art. Everything is there and familiar, but somehow drawn and thin and somewhat ethereal; delicate but distorted.

Further stretching the comparison was Norton Juster's (the author of Tollbooth) aside that Mr. Feiffer did not like to draw backgrounds - everything was contained within the characters. Suitably, Harry reflects this mentality. The titular character is possessed of singular beauty. Raised by devoted parents, Harry grows into a stunning and self-absorbed young man - someone capable of winning over the entire world with his mere presence. Parties surround him, women and men throw themselves at his feet, political and religious movements are founded in his wake.

In one amusing scene, Harry takes part in a debate at his university. He argues his point and the audience, wooed by his beauty, applauds him for two hours. His opponent collapses in tears and concedes the argument. Bored, Harry then argues the opposite side of the debate. The audience applauds for another two hours...

The bulk of the book is one self-contained scenario after another: Harry effortlessly winning over crowds, Harry effortlessly crushing the lives of his admirers, Harry generally being a selfish dick. But he's never... evil. Mr. Feiffer's creation is simply the result of a superheroic nurture/nature team-up. Harry's gorgeous and everyone tells him so. At no point has anyone ever balked him, so he believes the entire world is built for his pleasure. He no sadist, just a narcissist.

His nemesis is equally indifferent. When Harry comes tumbling from grace, it isn't because one of his enemy's schemes has come to fruition, it is just because his time is up. Biology wins. The latter half of the book is, unfortunately, quite slow. However weird this parable may be, Harry's ruined conclusion was inevitable. Getting there in a meandering fashion drags out the suffering of a character who is an intentional vacuum of charisma. Feiffer portrays Harry as a force of nature, not a human - Harry has no (and expects no) empathy. When the conflict moves some from something caused by Harry to something experienced by him, there's simply not enough character there to keep the reader interested.

All in all, Harry, the Rat with Women would've been a better short story - possibly even a terrific one. As it is, Harry is still an enjoyable modern parable (a la, The Dice Man), written in a delightfully offbeat style, but - like its protagonist - lacks the depth to last for a full novel.

Kate GreenawayThe Queen of Pirate Isle (1885) was one of Bret Harte's multitudinous California sketches. The original edition was illustrated by the legendary Kate Greenaway and some industrious soul has scanned in fairly high-resolution images for Project Gutenberg.

Queen is an example of the weirdly self-knowing children's story. Something written for kids, about kids, with the story's characters lost in their own imaginations. The readers (children) get both narratives - what the characters are doing and what they think they're doing – and, in essence, get to play at being both adult and child. This is all neither here nor there, but the whole thing kind of screws with my mind...

The Queen is Polly, a charismatic little girl who, with the aid of her cousin (Hickory Hunt) and her Chinese servant (Wan Lee), decides to take to a life of piracy. Goaded by Hickory into venturing further afield than normal, the three wander down to the mine where their families work and poke around in the darkness. There are breaks for tea (with dolls), naps and racism (poor Wan Lee - the alternately exoticised and humiliated shoe-shine boy encapsulates everything wrong with 19th century American children's literature). The miners have fun playing friendly pranks upon the children, abetting their wild 'adventure'. Eventually, it is time for the children to go home for dinner. The dubious pleasures of piracy are abandoned in favour of a warm meal and comfy bed.

As a random denouement [SPOILER ALERT, although you have had 120 years to catch up with this one], the children lead the miners to a huge seam of gold. Huzzah! Everyone (except, presumably, Wan Lee) will be thousandaires!

Polly is the undisputed ringleader and her imagined scenarios are incredibly varied  - occasionally she dreams of a little family, occasionally she dreams of a fleet of conquering minions (and occasionally she dreams of the painful death of all her family - she may have a few issues to work out...). Mr. Harte, to his credit, is non-judgemental. Whatever Polly wants, she can achieve: regardless of gender. Of course, where race is concerned, there's no question that Queen is shameful. Wan Lee is never anything but comic relief and, worse yet, his antics are all based on assumptions that the Chinese immigrants are a lower order of being. Wan Lee recognises one disguised miner because the man still owes his father forty dollars for doing his laundry. Ho ho ho. Although part of the trio of children, his presence there is a temporary thing: he's not their equal, he's their servant, and although Polly might treat him kindly, Wan Lee will never be her friend. 

The whole thing also reeks of the twee. In the year of publication, Mr. Harte lived, not in California, but in London. He'd been outside of the US for seven years and away from California for 15. Yet still he used California as the setting for his Hallmarkian romanticism: a rough & tumble place where children played with miners and everyone tripped over gold.

(Anne & I ramble on more about Harte and his relationship with "California" in the introduction to his story in Lost Souls. Hinty hint.)