Friday, January 31, 2014

Fiction Friday (24)

This month I read two books that pair well together. Both were historical fiction that center around two of my long time literary obsessions, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and In the Realms of the Unreal. Beyond the obvious similarities in these two works of literature, both displaying incredibly imaginative worlds, there are other interesting connections. Both books owe much of their existence to specific children who inspired the authors in different ways, and both books were written by authors with many unanswered questions about their lives. Given that, I thought the two novels below, inspired by the above mentioned works, would make for an interesting edition of Fiction Friday. Enjoy.

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
(Random House, 2010)

Among fans of Lewis Carroll's work, there seems to be just as much fascination with the story of his life as there is with the fictional stories, specifically his relationship with Alice Pleasance Liddell, the little girl for whom he created his most famous work, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Though biographies of the author, of which I have read many, cover this aspect of his life in detail, there has been little attempt to examine the relationship from the point of view of the other person involved. There are very few biographies about the "real" Alice, and most don't delve too deeply into the circumstances surrounding her interaction with Charles Dodgeson (aka Lewis Carroll), which is probably what made Melanie Benjamin's novel Alice I Have Been an instant success when it came out.

Though I was excited upon its publication, I held off reading it until this month. When this novel came out, I had recently read Katie Rophie's Still She Haunts Me, a novel that also imagines the relationship between Alice and the author. I loved that novel, and wanted to wait for it to pass through my system before entering Benjamin's world. While they cover a lot of the same territory, the books are very different. The focus of this novel is the little girl and her thoughts and feelings, and properly leaves the intentions of others to her speculation, as any first person narrative should.

Beyond the appeal of telling a story that has long captured my curiosity, this is a remarkably poignant coming of age tale about a girl who doesn't really want to grow up, but who like all of us, must. It's a touching portrait of a child caught in situations that she cannot completely understand, and ultimately has to live with the consequences imposed by witnessing adults. In many ways, this imagining of Alice's life is similar to the themes in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland about the nonsensical rules of an adult world imposed on a child.

I really enjoyed that the book didn't end where most discussions of Alice end. It continued on, exploring her grown up life in depth, and the kind of burden that came with being "the real Alice". I also appreciated how it didn't attempt to settle the long standing debate on the nature of Lewis Carroll and his intentions when it came to his child friends. Through the entire novel, Alice remained the focus and how the ambiguous historical events may have been seen through a child's eyes, and later how they may have affected her. It was tragic at times, beautiful at others, and always engaging.

While many of the facts concerning the interactions between Alice and Lewis Carrol have been intentionally lost, either by the elimination of his dairy pages after his death or the destruction of the letters he wrote to a young Alice by her mother, Benjamin's portrayal feels very plausible. But the great thing about this book is that it doesn't really matter if they are factual or not. As a novel, the interpretations are carried through with incredible skill, creating a character as unforgettable as the real life inspiration. (My Pinterest Board of Alice Liddell)

Outsider by Stephen Tobias
(Book Publishers Network, 2013)

The life of Henry Darger, one the most intriguing Outsider artists to emerge in the last thirty years, certainly contains enough mysterious elements to conjure up a great novel. Instead of trying to get into the mind of someone whose intentions and thoughts are much debated, Stephen Tobias decides to tell the story of the landlord who discovered Darger's alarming illustrations for his manuscript of the longest novel ever written, In the Realms of the Unreal.

While based on facts surrounding the life of Darger, this novel is the story of Nathan Learner, a semi-successful photographer who has lost his desire to take pictures after his ten-year old daughter's long losing battle with cancer. Remarried, he is surviving on his real estate holdings and a teaching job at a Chicago art school when one his long-time tenants succumbs to age and illness. When Herman Viereck is taken to a nursing home, Nathan is tasked with the chore of cleaning out his apartment and sorting through the stuff left behind. What he finds ends up being an astonishing treasure of art produced in secret over the years.

Eventually Nathan decides that the work needs to be shared with the public for a variety of reasons. The art is so unique and visionary that he feels it would be a travesty to deny sharing it with the art world, but there are also finical reasons because by selling the artwork, he can recoup the rent owed on the apartment, and later, pay for Herman's funeral. But as the art becomes a sensation, he begins to dig deeper into the experiences that caused Herman to produce the shocking images of the Vivian girls endless, horrific war depicted in the illustrations and manuscript. This investigation leads him to the unsolved murder of a child years before.

Since many of the details of Darger's life are unknown, this is the aspect of the novel that takes liberties with the story. While it's known that Darger was obsessed with the murder of five-year-old Elsie Paroubek, it's unknown why, though there is some speculation that he may have somehow been involved in the child's death. It is also known that Darger spent most of his childhood in a mental home, and the book speculates on the horrific influence it may have had on him.

While these elements are fascinating, and the main reason I read the book, the surprising strength of the novel lies in its examination of the art world and how it creates and celebrates myth in order to sell art. It's look at grief and loss is also quite compelling as Nathan comes to terms with his daughter's death, and the realization that there was much he didn't know about her.

This is a great read for those interested in Henry Darger, but I feel my enjoyment relied heavily on my knowledge of the artist's life. I strongly recommend that readers research Henry Darger before reading Outsider, or if not, then definitely after finishing it. I worry that some readers will take this account as accurate, and therefore condemn Henry Darger to characteristics that may or may not be true. (My Pinterest Board of Darger art)

 (Elsie Paroubek/ Alice Liddell)


  1. It's not surprising that Henry was obsessed with Elsie. In the spring of 1911, _everybody_ was obsessed with Elsie. Her mysterious disappearance captivated the nation. It was like the Lindbergh baby -- except that Elsie's parents were ordinary working class people. Laws were changed on Elsie's behalf. Judges, aldermen, the mayor of Chicago and Governor Deneen himself became involved, as did hundreds of schoolchildren who were asked by Supt. Ella Flagg Young to spend their spring break looking in out-of-the-way places in their neighborhoods. I've linked my signature to the Wikipedia article on Elsie, most of which I wrote and continue to work on.

    I'm convinced that Henry Darger, like everyone else in Chicago, dreamed of being the heroic rescuer of little Elsie.

  2. Thank you for this fascinating information.