Important!I started writing this on 28 October 2010 on my bookblog. Then I decided it was more about me than about books, so I moved it over here, played with it for a year, and then forgot all about it until now. 700 fewer words, and here it is.
I don’t like to let my mind wander, but I was doing some research for class and I came across a reference to a book called Viva Chicano, which I had never heard of before. The point was that this was a book about a young Latino written by a person who was not himself Latino, leading to all sorts of questions about the insider/outsider controversy. I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time, merely noting that this was, after all, the 1960’s, when voices of color were just beginning to be noticed in the publishing world, and this attention was by and large targeted directed at people writing for adults, not for young people.
At some point, however, something went off in the back of my mind, and I took another look at the journal article I had set aside. The author of Viva Chicano was none other than Frank Bonham. When I saw that in print, all sorts of fireworks went off in my brain, because I recognized him as the author of one of my favorite books of my youth: The Missing Persons League.
Set in a dystopian future, the book tells the story of a high school boy whose mother and sister, along with a number of other people, have disappeared. The world is dying, or so it seems, because people are forced to subsist on algae, the oceans are sour (this was written at the peak of the acid rain crisis, apparently) and everything that could go wrong apparently has. (One scene I remember quite distinctly is an episode in which our main character puts a dollar in a vending machine at school to get a wrinkly, unhealthy looking apple out of it.) And now people are going missing.
As I recall, the book kept me riveted right up to the end (which I won’t spoil for you, because it’s a good one). A Google search didn’t bring up much, other than the cover you see to the left, and now that I look at it, I do recall that there was something about rings, although this had nothing to do with Tolkien (which I wouldn’t discover for another couple of years).
It is safe to say that I have not thought about this book for a very long time, and it is even safer to say that the last time I thought about it, I had despaired of ever reading it again. Despite some very positive reviews by the four people who have read it and reviewed it on Amazon, it seems to be one of those books that kids stopped checking out and librarians thus tossed out. I was aware of interlibrary loan, but such knowledge held no sway over me—because I was not able to pick it up off a bookshelf, I was able to relegate its existence to a past that was truly past.
And yet, the past is never something that we can get past, that we can escape, or that we forget. (If nothing else, the Time-Life series has seen to that.) The problem with the past is that it has the potential both to lift us up and to weigh us down.
All of which is to say that I would love to get my hands on this book again. It would be but the matter of a few clicks on my computer and it would be available at my local library through interlibrary loan, or a few clicks on my computer and a small indentation on my bank account, and real flesh-and-blood book would appear in my mail box.
And yet…and yet…
I am wary.
What I enjoyed as a child, I enjoyed as a child, even though I now recall them as an adult. There is the actual experience of encounter, and there is the recall of those encounters. And these are not always, if ever, the same.
I have spoken at length about my early encounter with The Chronicles of Narnia. So significant was this encounter that it is safe to say that without encountering those books at the age of ten, I would not be the person I am today. (Of course, there are a lot of books I could make that claim about, but these are the first that I recall.) I even received a boxed set of the trade-paperback version for Christmas a year later (after what seemed like a lifetime of begging). The set was nothing fancy, but I read it many times, making it into an object of veneration until, after one move too many, it disappeared, a tithe to the god of moving.
I have rued that loss ever since, until a few years ago, when I had the opportunity to pick up a new set a few years ago by sacrificing my soul and joining a book club (but that’s another story). So desperate was I to revisit this much valued and almost mythological portion of my childhood that I quickly signed up, not realizing what I—or my checking account—was in for.
The books arrived a couple of weeks later. There were differences, of course. My original set had been mass-market publications, with plain white covers with somewhat boring (or so I feel now, although I don’t remember feeling much about them then) illustrations by Roger Hane:
My new set, trade paperback in size with superb illustrations by Chris Van Allsburg (the chief cleric of children’s book illustration mysticism). Even better, the internal illustrations, rendered in a somewhat whimsical style by the highly talented and much missed Pauline Baynes, were intact. (She also did some illustrations for J.R.R. Tolkien, and you can see the cover illustrations she did for the first edition here.)
But there were problems. For one, the books were in the wrong order. My original set had been ordered as they were published; my new set were now in chronological order, so that the narrative of the seven books matches the (single) story that they tell. And each contains, on the copyright page, a note that this edition has “been renumbered in compliance with the original wishes of the author, C.S. Lewis.” That may be, but C.S. Lewis is not telling a simple tale of “there and back again” and I think he loses much in deviating from the telling of this story in the order he created it, which presents a very complicated narrative, full of gaps which urge readers to keep going. C.S. Lewis apparently had difficulty reconciling the differences between story and narrative. (A problem that J.R.R. Tolkien did not, for he presents us with a complex narrative in which the past always intrudes into the present, and the present is always intruding into the future. The Harry Potter books do similar things in a different time frame.)
(For the record, the order that these books were originally published in is reflected by the book covers you see above.)
I remember my friend Rick (who had introduced me to the series) telling me that I would understand the books better after reading The Magician’s Nephew, but as it was the penultimate book in the series, I “would have to wait for it”—as I recall, these were his exact words. Thus, there was the sense of delayed gratification—”you may be confused now, but stick with it, for you’ll be rewarded with a greater and deeper understanding by delaying your gratification and coming to each book with less than perfect understanding.” And we, as ten-year-olds, understood this and even appreciated it.
I’m going to step away from Narnia to look at Twilight for a brief moment, but don’t worry: like Patton, I shall return. I liked Twilight much better than I thought I would, given its popular press (after all, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a practicing tween girl), but this was largely due to the story’s structure, rather than the writing strength of Stephanie Meyer (which is poor, at best, but more about that later). In a way, she begins her story in media res. We get Bella’s back story (yawn…it’s boring), and then, like a bolt of lightning, there is Edward and his clan, fully formed like Athena emerging from the skull of Zeus. But we know that there is a lot of back story to the Cullen clan, and it’s not long before we’re wondering who these vampires are and how they have become what they are, and, interestingly, who they were before. In other words, I wanted their back story much more than I wanted Bella’s, and I eventually got it. Meyer didn’t give it to us up front (no flash of genius here: Bram Stoker didn’t either), but that lack of an explanation did give me time to think about the Cullen clan and ask questions about them, and make some reasonable guesses (often wrong) about those questions. In other words, by holding off on back story, Meyer allowed the creation of mental lacunae in which I could ask those questions and eagerly anticipate the answers to them. In other words, holding off on back story creates gaps which readers must then fill in as they continue to read.
In this sense, Meyer does her job a bit too well, for those mental lacunae are now filled like a pothole with fresh hot asphalt. After all, I didn’t rush out and eagerly read the other novels in the Twilight series, nor have I been the least bit tempted to reread it, although it is sitting on my bookshelf right now. Meyer delays gratification but not for too long—apparently this series is not designed to appeal to anyone other than tween and teen girls (and their mothers).
C. S. Lewis pulled off a niftier trick than Meyer, for he delayed his explanation of how things came to be until the penultimate book in his series. (And I know enough about the Twilight series to know that there is another question many readers—myself among them—are probably wondering, but that is not answered until very late in the game.) In other words, we have had to wait an awfully long time to see the origins of Narnia, if, indeed, we had been questioning them at all, but I think there are enough seeds planted in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the books that follow that any fairly intelligent child (which is to say, an average child, at least until they start watching series television) will recognize the making of a mythology, and will start to wonder as to its origins, looking for the “in the beginning…” moment.
Perhaps writers are too attached to their stories. Tolkien, after all, considered The Silmarillion to be far more important than The Lord of the Rings, and while it’s a good read, and an interesting read, it is, after all, back story. The Lord of the Rings has a scale and grandeur that is nearly biblical, if you think of Moses’s parting of the Red Sea or the destruction of the walls of Jericho. Reading The Silmarillion has its own rewards but in some ways, and perhaps in too many ways, it reminds me of endless chapters of “so-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat so-and-so” et bloody cetera.
So anyway, I read the note that this was how C.S. Lewis wished these books to be arranged, but I felt free to ignore that (I had paid for these books after all, and he is now dead) and arrange them in the order they were published in and in which I had read them. The original order presented a complex narrative with plenty of meaty mental gaps that one’s mind can chew on, and this is what I wanted to recall, what I wanted to preserve. This is what I wanted to exercise my mind on—not just taking it for a walk and on the simple treadmill of story.
And then, a tree fell in the forest…
You’ve heard the question “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Okay, here’s the reader response version of that question: “if someone publishes a book and no one reads it, is there still a story there?”
If you know me, you can probably guess at my response to this, so it won’t jar you too much if I just get back to my story.
I put the books on my shelf in the correct order. And I started reading them.
I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. About halfway through, however, I started questioning myself: “was this really the first book in the series?” “Gee, was this book really this long?” etc. I eventually got close to the end, although my approach to the last thirty pages is a textbook example of skimming.
I then read Prince Caspian. (Which I had apparently forgotten in its entirety, as it seemed like an entirely unknown book to me.)
After that, I read The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”. (And I wondered just how boring a never-ending voyage at sea could really be.)
And then I started reading The Silver Chair, but I stopped halfway through.
I didn’t mean to stop. But it was late at night and I was tired and I really needed to sleep.
Only, when I awoke, I found that it was far easier to pick up another book, a less boring book, and read that instead. It took me nearly half a year to realize the painful truth: I wasn’t going to finish The Silver Chair. Not then, not ever. And then came the startling realization that I had outgrown not just the Narnia books, but Narnia itself.
So I took the bookmark out of The Silver Chair, closed the cover with a reverent hand, and reshelved the book in its proper place.
Another six months later, I would look at those books on my shelf and sigh, and with downcast eyes wonder if I would ever be able to read them again.
Now, the easy answer is that of course I can someday go back to those books again. But only as an adult, only as a scholar. The ten-year-old self that had first encountered and appreciated (devoured would perhaps be a better term) those texts is long gone. To mis-appropriate a zen term, it is difficult, if not impossible, to go back to a “beginner’s mind” and read a book for the first time twice.
So what would happen to my beloved Missing Persons League if I dug up a copy and reread it? I would be rereading it, after all—to this day there are enough vivid images that stick out in my mind that I would eagerly anticipate them. My favorite involves the protagonist’s father’s painting their car purple (“I’ve always wanted a purple car,” he says at one point—or at least I remember him saying) and then driving through a car wash, only to have it return to its original color. They were fleeing the authorities, you see, and he painted the car with water-soluble paint. So while the authorities kept looking for a purple car, our happy trio (the protagonist, his father, and his girlfriend) make off in a car of another color.
I’ve always wanted to try that (painting a car with water-soluble paint, that is, not fleeing from the authorities) just to see if it would really work. One of the purpose of good literature is to make you think about things in your own life in a new way, or to think about things you never usually think about. Even though it’s been relegated to the literary junkheap, The Missing Persons League is a great work of literature. I’m not sure I want to risk disturbing that memory by rereading it.
Update: For the record, I recently ordered a used copy of The Missing Persons League from Amazon, along with a favorite from seventh grade: The Butterfly Revolution by William Butler. I have yet to read either. I’m kind of scared to.