[Christianity Today/ Books & Culture, July 17, 1995]
Fiction is delicious, I discovered one day. I was about eight, sitting under the sycamore tree in the back yard and reading my mother’s childhood copy of Through the Looking Glass, while idly tearing off and eating the page corners. This old volume is before me now, and it is still full of pleasurable memories, visual, tactile, and even tasty.
The book includes both the Alice stories, with Alice in Wonderland first. The cover, loved to pieces, shows a full-color Alice plumper than Tenniel’s familiar version; she is floating down the rabbit hole in a pose of peaceful surrender, one hand on her breast, something like Saint Teresa in Ecstasy. Inside, the book is inscribed in black ink, “To Barbara from ‘Inkle Ferber,’ Christmas 1930.” I have no idea who these people are. (Perhaps my mother stole the volume from another little girl.) The pages are cream-colored, aging to brown at the edges; they are thick and invitingly chewy. The oversized print is charcoal-gray.
I read Alice in Wonderland, more than once, but it was Through the Looking Glass that I loved best: that was the story that led me to carry the battered volume to high school, to college, off into marriage, even to the hospital to read between contractions. In this second adventure, Alice goes through the drawing-room mirror, which melts like mist to her touch. In the Garden of the Live Flowers, the Red Queen shows Alice the countryside laid out in squares like a chessboard, and invites her to take the place of the White Queen’s pawn. As Alice progresses from square to square, she meets characters like Tweedledum and Tweedledee (who recite “The Walrus and the Carpenter”); Humpty Dumpty (“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean”); and the lost, gentle White Knight with his absurd inventions.
It is a delightful work, and some passages still make me laugh out loud. Yet overall, the story bears a scent of a melancholy. In comparison, Alice in Wonderland is shallow and contrived, a series of jokes. Through the Looking Glass moves at a more shadowy depth, as if sounding up from the bottom of a lake. At some points it is disturbing, even threatening; surrealism unfolds like the petals ofa dark rose.
For example, the sleeping Red King must not be disturbed because, as the Tweedles tell Alice, “You’re only a sort of thing in his dream… . If that there King was to wake, you’d go out—bang! —just like a candle!’ ‘I am real!’ said Alice and began to cry…. ‘I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears?’ Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.”
In a dark shop, Alice encounters a hostile and abusive proprietress, a sheep knitting with 14 pairs of needles at once. (Many of the book’s characters are rude and insulting.) The sheep offers to sell Alice two eggs for less than half the price of one: “Only you must eat them both, if you buy two.” Alice declines this unsettling invitation.
The Bread-and-butter-fly lives on “‘Weak tea with cream in it,’ the Gnat explained.
“‘Supposing it couldn’t find any?’ Alice asked.
“‘Then it would die, of course.’
“‘But that must happen very often.’
“‘It always happens,’ said the Gnat. After this, Alice was silent for a minute or two, pondering.”
There was nothing remotely like these seductively enigmatic passages in the sappy children’s books I usually encountered. They created a taste, you might say, for more. Perhaps I nibbled the page comers hoping to ingest that mystery. Maybe I thought that, like a bottle marked “Drink Me,” they would enable me to write with comparable power.
Thus this book kicked off in me a longing to be a writer, too; I wanted to get on the other side of the Looking Glass, to make the wonderful word-engine chug and toot. Most of the kids on a merry-go-round are sailing around and munching cotton candy; I was the kid who sits near the inside and watches the cigar-smoking guy with his hand on the lever. I was thinking, Someday I want to pull that lever, too.
So I read and read, discovering and discarding my masters. My shifting list of heroes is a chronology of my wayward life: in high school, Catch-22, Allen Ginsberg, Kafka, Vonnegut; in college, Barth, Borges, Joyce; then (guess what happened here) Flannery O’Connor, Dostoevsky, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers.
Then I made a mixed marriage: I married a man who considered fiction a waste of time because it wasn’t “true.” This lasted until the day he picked up A Good Man Is Hard to Find, which affected him like a mallet to the temple. Still, for years the books piled on his side of the bed were by Christopher Lasch and Barbara Tuchman, Eugene Genovese and Alexander Schmemann; the stack on my side layered Kristin Lavransdatter with Carson McCullers, John Updike with Geek Love.
But how to get from reader to writer? I could press my nose against the Looking Glass, but I had no idea that I could climb through. Real Writers seemed to belong to a different strata of life, like movie stars; their Clubhouse was intimidatingly exclusive. As far as I could tell, there were no doors on street level. Without the encouragement of a generous editor, I would never have attempted to find my way in.
Once on the first square, I learned that, on the other side of the Looking Glass, everything is backwards. The doors my first editor opened led to others, but every one was stenciled “Nonfiction Only.” My clippings file was growing, but with opinion pieces, profiles, and headlines about breast cancer, politicians, welfare reform. For too many years I had responded to my husband’s taunts by saying, “Well, the stuff you read is boring.” The stuff in my file looked disconcertingly like the stuff he read.
When I decided to begin a novel, I encountered a shock; compared to nonfiction writing, fiction felt miserably uncomfortable. It was not as easy as it looked, to pull the lever on the merry-go-round. Nonfiction has an innate security: when I report that the senator’s wife was wearing a yellow dress, by golly, she was wearing a yellow dress, and I’m prepared for us to step outside and settle this like journalists if necessary. But when I write that Monica was wearing a cream (no, moss-green) suit in summer linen (no, raw silk-yeah, that’s the ticket), I can’t prove it; it’s (gulp) not “true.” I fretted to my editor, “No one’s going to buy this for a moment. It sounds like I’m just making it up.”
“Buying it” was the concern of the next square. Even if I got it right, how could my little book find a place in the already overcrowded field? Every season a new flock of novels bursts from the starting gate, each elbowing for position; a year later, I see forlorn discards on thrift-shop shelves. One editor inadvertently disconcerted me by referring to my goal as “a somewhat literary work that’s not going to sell a lot of copies.” On a bad day I think, “I could just set this in the recycling bin right now and get the same end result. Hey, there’s still time to catch ‘Animaniacs.’”
In this present square, compositional difficulties have lifted, because I have learned that fiction comes from a different quadrant of my head. It is nearly a physical sensation; I go upstairs to the theater in the right front of my forehead and simply write down what the actors do. There are some limitations to this method; I am still not sure where the action is taking place, so every time we go out, I try to read a license plate. Mid-Atlantic, I think. The weather is nice.
I move from reader to writer, from square to square, but I am beginning to suspect that the board is actually a circle. As a writer I play creator, peopling a world and forming creatures from dust. Sometimes they follow my plan, and sometimes their audacious free will astounds me. I move white letters around on a flat, blue screen, a two-dimensional world reflecting reality with, I hope, approximate truth—truth such as might be found in a wavery old looking glass.
Behind my computer I can see through the window a sunny yard and a branching tree. I recall the scent of heat and bark and the look of shifting light on a page. A Creator might craft such a day, to intoxicate a little girl, to make her love words and long to echo the act of creation. What he does in glorious three dimensions, she can offer back flattened, but still sweet as a flower pressed in a book. Heat bakes the page, and it gives off a tempting scent. The page corners look delicious.