We Remember What the Dormouse Said
Ten authors cut you a little slice of their own personal Wonderlands
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
10:00AM, Tue. Mar. 31, 2015
Down the rabbit hole we go, reader, and you're already familiar with that metaphor – due to a classic of fantastic storytelling called Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
Oh, that wild, strange, and relentlessly delightful novel of lunacy and logic! It was first published in 1865, the brainchild of one Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a multitalented man of letters and photography better known to the living world as Lewis Carroll. Over the past 150 years, the book's narrative course and structure, characters and imagery have been – as Wikipedia rightfully asserts – enormously influential in both popular culture and literature.
You want a concrete indication of just how influential that is, you can take a little jaunt to UT's Harry Ransom Center, where the currently featured exhibition is all about Carroll's masterpiece, its origins and iterations, its incarnations in times throughout history and cultures across the globe. At the HRC, you can eyeball photos of the actual Alice Liddell, notebooks filled by C. L. Dodgson, various antique English editions of the book (including that more modern one illustrated by Ralph Steadman(!)), a long wall bright with foreign editions of those Adventures, stunning prints of the illustrations by surrealist Salvador Dali and photographer Abelardo Morell and others, and all manner of collateral merchandise (card games, rubber stamps, puzzles and toys).
If you're a grown-up with children, your offspring will enjoy the various Wonderland-inspired activity stations for kids that are set up throughout the exhibition. If you're a grown-up of any sort, especially a whimsical one, we reckon the HRC's show will be just the thing for your most uffish thoughts … and you may also enjoy what comes next right here:
A vicarious indication of just how influential Alice's Adventure in Wonderland has been – as expressed by several of our favorite wordsmiths, some of whom live right here in Austin, and all of whom have been, to one extent or another, affected by what that clever Dodgson fellow set into motion one golden afternoon …
Alice is everything. “What’s your personal connection” doesn’t even begin.
Myself age six, eating toast, getting butter on the pages as I tried to guess what comfits and wages and treacle were. (Still not 100% on treacle.)
A little older: we moved around lot, and I privately cast myself as Alice in each new place, matching the characters around me to Alice’s: brisk, rattling Red Queens; tender, excitable White Knights; pompous, lecturey Humpty Dumpties; sly cool-dude Mock Turtles.
When I say “a little older,” I mean I still do that. Only I no longer always cast myself as Alice. These days I often see the White Queen in me: my clothes are always in inexplicably bad temper, and my hair just won't go right.
Alice comes out in my writing all the time, too. One of my favorite scenes in Through the Looking Glass is when Alice and the fawn enter the forest where you forget your name and what you are, and—abstract categories out of the way—strike up a friendship. In my book Summer and Bird, I borrowed that idea for a section where the grief-stricken Summer enters a strange place of healing where she forgets for a while who and what she is.
Clearly, in the Beatles v. Stones of Wonderland v Looking Glass, I am more of a Looking Glass person, though both are bedrock. I am working on a rather Carrollian project right now, in fact, involving girls and mirrors.
A few years ago for FronteraFest, I wrote and performed a short play based on the “Wool & Water” chapter of Looking Glass. In the play, a half-asleep woman is describing her dream. Carroll’s worlds work like dreams: things keep changing into other things—queens into sheep, a store into a boat, knitting needles into oars. The world is always knitting and unraveling and re-knitting itself around you. Some Salman Rushdie narrator says: “Metamorphosis is the secret heart of life.” Carroll knew that, I think.
Metamorphosis is also the heart of metaphor and of that metaphor-writ-large genre, magic realism. When I discovered Borges and Garcia Marquez in my late teens, it was like discovering I could still have Alice.
Near the end of the “Wool & Water” chapter is the poignant scene where Alice gathers sweet-smelling rushes that die away as soon as they’re plucked. As a kid, I found that page dull – rushes, another addition to the I Don’t Know What That Is list – but now it kills me. In my play, the half-asleep woman recalls:
“And what I gathered dissolved into nothing and left fragrance at my feet, at the bottom of my boat.
“And everything I wanted most slipped to another shelf just out of sight, everything I loved floated past just out of reach, or dissolved into incense and air once I had it in my arms.
“And the boat flowed on.
“And the river flowed on.
“And everything became incense and air and nothing.”
I think that tucked inside one of my brain wrinkles there's an enlarged language receptor. (Despite being raised Jewish in Brooklyn I don't assume it's a tumor.) As far back as I can remember (on good days, not on those other days when I can maybe remember as far back as Thursday), human words have excited and delighted me the way human food excites and delights a dog.
I can't remember – now there's a surprise – exactly how old I was when I first read Alice In Wonderland. I do remember it flat-out lit me up.
The elastic language.
Characters justifying their madness with hilariously seamless logic.
The notion you could invent your own words – frabjous! – and yet the reader would have a pretty good idea what emotional state it connoted. It was, it was, it was – my first toke. Yeah. Like that.
Lewis Carroll was the first in a line of writers who knocked me out because they play with words as if they were toys. Especially the Brits, especially the ones who wrote for actors – William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Tom Stoppard. And lyricists – Larry Hart, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Lyle Lovett.
(Lovett isn't in there because I'm sucking up to a Texas audience. I mean, sucking up to an audience is a key part of my job description, but on this topic honesty and pandering overlap.)
I wasn't that into the Disney version. And while I like a lot of Tim Burton's stuff, his 2010 Alice was sluggishly paced and it kinda labored to be weird. Weirdness is effortless or it's like driving on three flat tires. In fact I've never seen a dramatization of Alice I liked.
Until this November.
Many theaters around the country stage an annual production of A Christmas Carol to vacuum up the holiday dollars. But a group in Chicago called Lookingglass Theatre (wonder how they picked that name) vacuums with an annual production called Lookingglass Alice. Their version is a highly stylized, mega-energetic-eccentric, witty, death-defying extravaganza. The company specializes in extreme physicalization; many of the performers train at a place called The Actors Gymnasium and bring circus-level skills to the party.
Six actors play all the roles, tearing into them with velocity and precision. I'm talking 20-foot stage dives, mass chair-flinging, stunt roller-skating, an Alice who exults by doing a trapeze act over the audience's heads – and it's all in character and makes sense and honors Carroll's language. This production physicalizes the leaping gymnastics of his syllables, embodies his wit, takes your breath away with Carrollian daring and has children and adults howling with glee.
So, all verbosity aside, here are the only two things I have to say about Alice In Wonderland:
Forget the cartoon and movie and TV versions. Read the fucking thing.
If you're in Chicago at the right time of year, go howl at Lookingglass Alice.
I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass so early and often I don't even remember the first time. It must be confessed that I often did not know what I was reading, but, like Alice, I was determined to keep putting one foot in front of the other. As Alice dove headlong into the rabbithole after the White Rabbit, I plummeted each time into a world of unfamiliar words for which I had no context: comfits, caucus, cucumberframes, kidgloves. As Alice struggled to climb up the slippery legs of a glass table, I painstakingly scaled Carroll's nonsensical songs and parodic poems, the best, funniest jokes always perched just out of reach, like little cakes with “EAT ME” written on them. As the Duchess's baby transformed into a pig in Alice's arms, one word shifted into another before my eyes through Carroll's puns: “tale” into “tail,” “not” into “knot”, “horse” into “hoarse”; others, like “ignorant” and “indignant,” looked so thornily similar I had to fight to distinguish them. In some sense, Lewis Carroll taught me how to read.
Probably, like many childreaders of Alice, the love of food kept me going. I remember trying rapturously to imagine something that tasted, as the “DRINK ME” bottle did, like “cherrytart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered toast” – a feat complicated by the fact that I didn't know what custard and toffy were. The idea of a world sprinkled with tiny decorated cakes and labeled vials, each one of them capable of transforming one’s reality, appeals to a deep sense children have that transformation should be more readily available in our world, and that the magical pleasure of putting something colorful in your mouth and swallowing it should yield better results than a momentary sugar rush. It also explains the enduring drug cult around Alice.
A few years later, when I was about nine, my mom spotted a book called Beyond the Looking Glass at a used book store and, based on the title, brought it home to me. It turned out to be an anthology of Victorian children’s literature by the likes of George MacDonald, Christina Rosetti, and John Ruskin, full of dazzling illustrations and complete with academic essays in the front that gave me no end of dizzying ideas to parse. In college, I wrote my first research paper on Victorian children’s literature, memorized “The Jabberwock” in French, and cowrote a paper with a friend on mathematical concepts in Alice. Later, the co-writer of that paper and I painted the walls of a rented cottage in Clarksville with orangeandred harlequin diamonds, wrote the words “Curiouser and curiouser” onto the walls, and invited all our friends over for an Alice-themed party.
That house got torn down; now it's condos, a type of transformation common in Austin these days. But Austin and Alice remain linked in my memory. What I love about Alice is that, unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, she has no interest in going back home. Motivated by the pursuit of the beautiful and the strange, she's always chasing her curiosity down a rabbithole or trying to find her way to a distant garden glimpsed through a tiny door. And she never stops asking questions, no matter how frustratingly impossible the answers.
My most unshakable glimpse of Alice in Wonderland was from the backseat of my parents’ car as they drove me and my sisters through Project Noel in the late 1970s. Project Noel, a collection of paper maché, wood, and chicken-wire Christmas displays set up on the sprawling, spooky campus of what was then called The Richmond State School (in Richmond, Texas), was for me not festive but unsettling.
We drove along the route at night in a slow parade of vehicles, creeping up on menageries of disparate stories lit up by spotlights. Snoopy, Santa, Star Wars. Suddenly and most memorably the terrible Queen of Hearts appeared out of the darkness with the Cheshire cat above her grinning down at us from his perch in a tree.
At night on that route it was impossible not to wonder about the kids who called the place home, an institution for intellectually challenged youth that was known to me mainly as the cruel punchline of playground jokes. But Project Noel is also mingled in my memory with my older sister’s sickness – she had two craniotomies before she turned 12, and though she would eventually recover, that time was mysterious and frightening. My parents were often at the hospital and my younger sister and I stayed with friends, quiet and worried and not quite sure what was happening or when it would end.
Nothing felt safe, and driving along the course of Project Noel was like moving through my fears in slow motion. I longed (and still do!) for everyone to be okay and I was not comforted by that all-knowing cat staring down at me in the dark, much less by the unavoidable Queen and her capricious wrath, or the thought of being separated from my family to grow or shrink or disappear forever.
My initial reaction when you invited me to write something correlated to the HRC’s exhibition on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Brenner, was to attempt to describe my deep affection for the incredible artists who have illustrated the various editions – Arthur Rackham being my favorite, though he is in excellent company – and yet a sub-question you somewhat airily threw at me forced me to suddenly realize I had an old axe to unearth, and then grind.
Your question was, “Did you see the animated Disney version […] perhaps while tripping on acid?”
Short answer: No, but I distinctly recall the smoky Austin living rooms and efficiency apartments of my early twenties, and the announcement by a friend that he or she had procured something, and – in order to dubiously heighten the experience – had also rented a VHS copy of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, or The Wall, or Alice in Wonderland. I can remember my typical reaction to these proposals so vividly I can almost feel my throat stifling into a sigh and a “Must we?”
To this day, I am told, the youths of industrialized nations go through considerable lengths and risk their personal liberty to acquire substances intended to sensitize and expand their consciousness … and then park their minds in front of a screen – and consider such experiences almost a rite of passage. Alice in Wonderland is probably the exemplar of this. It’s not the kids’ fault – it’s almost never the kids’ fault – but a national drug policy that is at turns prudent and clear, and at turns insane and hypocritical, making the idea of tripping on the beach or under a starry night in the woods more than a little fraught. But I digress.
My first actual memory of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the picture-book we had when I was growing up, and I can still clearly recall my extreme displeasure, bordering on dread, at the “Eat Me, Drink Me” passage. My reaction, at five or six, was acute, visceral, and almost autonomic: “NO!!” I wanted to shout at Alice, “Don’t do that!” (I think I had only recently been made aware of the existence of poison, and had been given the standard warnings about foodstuffs of questionable content or origin.) This sounds trivial, but it circles back to where I started: As a general rule, one probably ought to be aware of what he puts in his body, and duly mindful of how he feeds his head. Perhaps nowhere in Lewis Carroll’s story do we find this as an explicit directive, but the overarching idea of Alice is not incompatible. For me, she represents the often unappreciated power of point of view. Not “will” or “struggle” or “morality.” Just self-awareness. For all the dangers and crises and confusion, knowing that she has the shape of a self (if not always that shape’s content) is enough to see Alice through.
Which will be more than a little reassuring, should you ever find yourself to be the last sane person in a world of madness – which happens to everyone, and is thus the true rite of passage.
The childhood story I really loved was Calvin and Hobbes: a kid whose hallucinatory imagination toward his environment allows him to transform it and control it, turn the harsh contours of life –including, if you think about it, total rejection by one’s peer group – into something fantastic, friendly, warm. A fundamentally conservative kind of mind-expansion.
How sad it all is didn’t strike me until a lot later. At the time I thought it was great. I could learn to imagine space vistas like that. I could be in control.
Alice in Wonderland is about being out of control. To be Alice is to be trapped on a chessboard, in a forest, at a tea party, running as fast as you can without ever being able to get ahead while nightmare chessmen scream nonsense at you. It had the feeling of a psychic car accident, Cheshire serpent like a viper coiling around the neck of childhood faith in an orderly world. It was hard for me to want to finish it. Alice is not in control of Wonderland; Alice wants Wonderland to stop. It is a fantasy for children that is predicated on the author’s ability to psychically overpower children. If your faith in your own ideas about reality are a major thing that sustains you – if reality itself sometimes does not feel capable of sustaining you – then this is not a fun fantasy. But it is supposed to be fun. You know you are supposed to laugh, to feel comfortable being taken on this ride.
As an adult, I can appreciate Alice hella more as basically an occult initiation. You must trust the author implicitly. He knows you must trust him implicitly. Alice has no way out save to make it to the end of the chessboard, which sounds logical enough, but which in practice follows no logic save the author’s dictates. At best, it’s Alejandro Jodorowsky shaving your head and leading you up the mountain. At worst, it is some Patty Hearst shit.
A dinner party for a high school friend that I was invited to, sitting in a corner drinking mineral water while uncles and aunts gabbed and child-cousins played. My friend, speaking to his little three or four-year-old niece, who was wearing a green dress: “That’s a really pretty red dress you have on.” “It’s a green dress,” she screamed, getting more and more upset each time he repeated it. How we all laughed! We felt like reality was solid – we had our colors and shapes pretty down by that point – we felt okay with laughing.
Part of growing up, obvs, is realizing that Alice is stupid and that you are a lot smarter than her. The extent to which one can enjoy the book is, I think, the extent to which one can do this – or maybe the extent to which one is willing to trust the adults around her. I was upset by Alice to the extent that I identified with Alice. To the extent that Alice is inhuman, object, external: Wow, what a great book! Its use of language and mathematical imagery is really clever, and you and the March Hare will get along just fine, maybe smoke cigarettes together or listen to interesting records. I get that Alice in Wonderland is basically a hell comet of adulthood smashing into you before you are ready for it, that its author maybe intended it to be that.
Maybe I was, and am, unnerved by that.
I have this tattoo of a keyhole on my arm. It's actually not a tattoo at all, it's a branding. It was burned it into me and it was important that it was burned it into me. Painfully. Because the pain of this burning experience is the surest way to remember a lesson, and because when I forget, I have to go through the pain again and I don't want to go through the pain again. Not now not ever.
Let me explain …
I was a little girl when I watched Disney's Alice in Wonderland for the first time. My father recorded it onto VHS tape for me from the then pay-for-view Disney channel, and like a Caucus Race all my own, I would watch it on a loop again and again and again. Not because I enjoyed it, actually, but because I was amazed that something outside was showing me the way I felt inside. The "offness" of being alive and being me. The dark cell shading, the anxiety of never catching up to the rabbit, the way everyone in the world seemed bent on twisting the reality to suit themselves all while a little Alice insisted and twisted logic to make sense of a world that was in truth more a maze, that turned out to be a dream anyway, and who can say that reality isn't a dream anyway? But as of yet, my little brain had no idea how to communicate and articulate that complex feeling of anxiety and raw nerve and deep knowing that everything was not okay in Wonderland. Hers or mine.
Looking back, that movie was one of the first moments I knew I was a drug addict. I didn't consciously know of course, but I knew … I knew I was different and very uncomfortable. And I knew that my own Wonderland made about as much sense as hers. Growing up became about controlling my reality and getting lost following my own White Rabbit and feeling older and wiser as soon as possible. As I grew, I got addicted to shrinking and growing and thinking that I could figure myself out of reality if I just kept shrinking and growing and speeding and slowing. That's logic.
As a young adult, I began collecting every interesting iteration of Alice that I could. I was discerning in my taste, keeping my favorite interpretations. I would take mushrooms and stare at the images in each of my many books, asking each character to tell me where I was going. I always felt that I was one turn away from remembering what I had lost. They knew the answer and the way but I found that I forget the instruction as soon as I turned the page.
Keyholes ... In the very first chapter of Alice in Wonderland, she finds a door but she's too big to get through and all she wants in that moment is to get through and get to a garden. A lovely Garden.
"Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rathole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head though the doorway …"
And all I wanted was to get through, my head and my friends and my experience and my whole damn life that felt like it was full of a great big maze of nothing. I wanted to get through to a lovely Garden so that I could stop running. I was so tired of running after whatever White Rabbit I thought would fix me. A few times I tried to come to a full stop. Close the book. But I hadn't gotten to the Garden yet, and would you believe me if I told you that the only thing that prevented my suicide on the very closest of purposeful tries (there were accidentals of course, but those tend to happen in droves when you are occupied with shrinking and growing and slowing and speeding all at once …) was the thought of never lying down on fresh grass in a Garden like Alice? Blade in hand, I put it down and wept. A great big pool of tears at the thought of that silly little loss.
Years later, when I finally woke up from the dream logic of addiction and got sober, I awoke in the Garden. But due to years of neglect it was a barren field of shadow, wreckage and dirt. I had stopped running. I was standing still, still shaking, but I was ready to start planting the seeds I had been given, nervously hoping that I still had time to watch them grow.
And I have to remember the feeling. I can't forget that Alice tried for the whole entire book, to get to that Garden – and when she got there, it wasn't the same one she saw in the beginning. But it felt like she was at the end from the very start, didn't it? And through all the twists and turns, it had a bitch of a queen and the roses were the wrong color and she wasn't done running and they put her on trial and was this what she was trying to get to the whole time? Was this what she saw in the beginning? Or did she ever find it at all … ?
My keyhole is a small window of pain, looking into the place I am always longing for. If I look outside myself, in other keyholes, I will die from running toward them. The Garden is within me, and I do not need to look to find it. If I stand still, if I plant seeds, I am the Garden.
Although I remember having an illustrated copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a child, it was hardly my favorite, as it wasn’t written by Judy Blume. I wasn’t much for whimsy back then. However, I was really into my mom’s vinyl record collection from the 1960s, and her copy of Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane found its way onto my Fisher-Price turntable soon enough, "White Rabbit" being the track that appealed to me most, probably because of Grace Slick’s voice or the syncopated drums. This was before one could look up lyrics on the Internet, so I asked my mother what the song meant. She didn’t really want to explain what a hookah-smoking caterpillar was, so she told me the song was about Alice inWonderland, and reminded me that I liked the teacups ride at Disneyland. I quickly found The Beatles, and forgot about "White Rabbit" until college, which was at one of those fancy East Coast joints where a capella groups abound. One of my friends sang "White Rabbit" as her solo number, and I finally listened to the words of that song as an adult. Not needing my mom to translate the lyrics, I quickly figured it out on my own: Drugs. That song is about drugs. Is Alice in Wonderland about drugs? I don’t even know. Ask me about Alice Munro. Now that’s an Alice I can talk about for hours.
I was a teenager when “I am the Walrus” and “Cry, Baby, Cry” led me back to Wonderland. Lewis, Lennon, and Monty Python crept into my brain and poked holes in the gray.
I found something darker than I had recalled – here was a lost little girl in a world of mutilations and poison, insanity coupled with authority, unending rancid tea parties, corpses and cakes and mad mathematics.
And something very, very honest.
Films, books, teachers, and preachers had unthinkingly promised me that the world made sense. Good guys win, love conquers all, and life has meaning. But Lewis Carroll knew nonsense was the only constant. Not justice, not love, not right and wrong – nonsense. There’s no moral to be found in Alice in Wonderland – that’s why so many film versions fall flat. There’s no answer to the riddle. Once I realized that literature didn’t need to make sense to be of great worth, I was on my way to discovering that life didn’t need to make sense to be of great worth.
And the wonder of it, the wonder of Wonderland, is that nonsense has a melody. Like math and lovemaking and answerless riddles, there’s a music to nonsense. A melody dangerous, unreliable, meaningless, and of astounding value.
[And here, as a sort of lagniappe, is a response without any personal Alice connection, really. But it's a response from a writer we can never read enough of and is anyway, we feel, sufficiently charming to be included … ]
I have been racking my brain for personal connections to Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland, but I can find none. I didn't read the book, see the movie, or possess plush effigies of characters therein. I know and like the Jefferson Airplane tune (and recall its electrifying significance in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a favorite book), but I didn't lose my virginity or any other non-negotiable tender to it. The only link I can think of that I've got to AiW is most tenuous – I knew a guy in a halfway house I lived in in the '80s whose medication made him grin psychotically, much like the Cheshire cat. I could write a few words about that if you like, though that's prolly stretching it …
July 28, 2021
July 20, 2021
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, Harry Ransom Center, Rebecca Beegle, Jeanne Thornton, Benjamin Reed, Mo Daviau, Amy Gentry, Katherine Catmull, Lenny Kleinfeld, Bill Cotter, Sarah Marie Curry, Owen Egerton