A review of Alice in Plunderland by Steve McCaffery with illustrations by Clelia Scala and also of the original collages for the illustrations currently on display at the Niagara Artists’ Centre (NAC) in St. Catharines.
I first thought of writing this review as my current contribution to “Once Upon A Time,” a Newsletter on Teen and Children’s Fantasy issued in Minneapolis by an APA – amateur publishing association – and restricted to a small group of fans of this genre, mainly children’s librarians. Although based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice in Plunderland is definitely not intended for children, since it has much to do with the contemporary underworld and drug scene. But the original “Alice” is such a standard children’s classic that I think my fellow contributors should be interested. I mentioned this project to Natasha, who helps run the office at the Niagara Artists’ Centre, and she has asked me to leave off copies of my review as a way of starting an in-house dialogue.
Clelia Scala's illustrations were my introduction to Alice in Plunderland, which I have bought and read. The blurb on the back of the book says that Steve McCaffery is a "multi-award winning poet and scholar" whose "innovative poetics ...transform this classic story according to McCaffery's theory of 'palindromic time' by which the past is contemporized and the present historicized" and open new vistas for "fans of experimental writing and linguistics." I know very little about experimental writing in the 21st century, having limited my scholarly endeavours to the study of 20th-century French literature in general and of Marcel Proust in particular. That gentleman died in 1922 while working on his novel, A la recherche du temps perdu ("In Search of Lost Time") on which he had been exclusively engaged for years and to which he was so committed that he used his own first brush with death as the basis for a death scene in the novel. Insofar has his work is experimental, it is an experiment in challenging and transforming sexual and temporal and social identity.
Proust said that including theories in a work of art was like leaving the price tag on a present, and in any case Steve McCaffery’s theories on poetics are largely unknown to me, since I’d never heard of him before, so I shall simply attempt to explain my own immediate reactions.
I do know something of Surrealism, under which rubric Steve McCaffery may be shelved, although I agree with its founder, André Breton, that it is not a literary movement. Its chief aim seems to be to innovate and disconcert, and an example early Surrealists often gave was the placing together of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table. The purpose of this seems to have been to shock the viewer out of all his or her accustomed responses and make him or her see customary objects in a completely novel way.
In my opinion this is more successful in art than in literature. The reason for this is that there is no necessary connection between the sound of a word and the mental image of a thing, so that when you set out to destroy usual connections, words tend to lose a lot of their meaning, whereas it is not so easy to destroy the meaning of a visual image. For instance the word "apple" becomes "pomme" in French, "Apfel" in German, "manzana" in Spanish and a variety of things in other languages, while an image of an apple always remains recognizably an apple despite differences in context. It could keep the doctor away or be an apple for teacher or an apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or from the Garden of the Hesperides. You can have a lot of fun with all these different apples, which is why I responded much more enthusiastically to Clelia Scala's illustrations than to the book, which chiefly interested me because of the illustrations.
Certainly the illustrations are inspired by the book, which in its turn is inspired by the original “Alice,” just as the illustrations always retain the original Alice as drawn by Tenniel. And they do take their point of departure from McCaffery’s text. At the same time they go beyond it. There are some of her illustrations which show Dante meeting Father William while exploring his Inferno. This is a situation which McCaffery does not name, but his acidhead Alice does seem to be in Hell as she searches constantly and desperately for yet another fix, a search which could easily become repetitious and monotonous—one of the points Dante makes is that this is what Hell is like—if it were not for the extreme variety in McCaffery’s use of drug users’ slang. As things are, from the little I know of the drug scene, I imagine it is repetitious and monotonous, exactly as Steve McCaffery describes it, and it takes Clelia Scala’s visual imagination to give it real variety.
The original Alice was accused of being mad and by no less an authority than the Cheshire Cat. It is easy to forget that the Victorians had a horror of madness which for them was ultimately evil. You have only to think of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester’s mad wife in her attic to realise the fear which which it was surrounded. Due to more successful therapies, as they have been developed since then, we have learned not to look down on the “mentally ill.” But we have no such scruples about drug addicts. So it would seem that Steve McCaffery has actually restored some of the more sinister connotations of the original “Alice”—connotations that seem connected to the complete freedom and joy Charles Lutwidge Dodgson felt on forgetting with his childhood friends that he was a respectable academic in Holy Orders and allowing himself to make a mock of the moral teachings imparted to them by their governesses and mammas. Steve McCaffery may actually have taken fewer liberties with “Alice” than at first sight it seems. For all I know, he is fully aware of this.
But I still maintain that Clelia Scala takes a step beyond him. I have bought one of her framed illustrations and plan to look at it every day for a while. It is quite heartwarming for me because it shows Alice’s reduction of all the people who’d bullied her to a pack of cards—and a pack of cards in complete disarray. It may be relevant to point out that this is a passage taken over almost completely unaltered from the original “Alice.” The only thing that has been changed is that the cards, instead of being the usual court cards we see in the original “Alice” have become Tarot cards. This appeals to me because I learned the Tarot from a gypsy master and take my bearings from it early in the morning every day. This underlines the fact that what is truly worthwhile in Alice in Plunderland owes its status to its close association with Lewis Carroll’s original work. If it were not for that, Steve McCaffery’s Alice would be nothing but a screwed over victim I would not care to identify with. “Screwed over” is in fact an idea that occurs again and again in Steve McCaffery’s book in a variety of guises.
In closing, I should mention that André Breton actually introduced Lewis Carroll to the French reading public as an early and benign example of Surrealism. The other examples, such as Kafka and the Marquis de Sade, represented black humour, but Carroll’s humour, so André Breton said, was rosy pink. Steve McCaffery, or so it would seem, has brought it more in line with the main trend of Surrealism by turning it black. Maybe Clelia Scala’s illustrations are, in terms of metaphor, an interesting shade of violet.