Extreme Exercises in Absurdity - My Review of 3 of Lewis Carroll's books
July 26, 1951 - 85 years after the original children's novel debuted, Walt Disney released Alice in Wonderland. I was born almost 30 years after that. Alice in Wonderland has always been the blonde girl in the blue dress with the Winnie-the-Pooh-Voiced Cheshire cat in my consciousness, like most in my generation.
Last week when I began listening to the collection of Alice's Adventure's in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and the Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll, narrated by Jessica Renfro, I was pretty sure I knew what I was in for. I've never read it, aside from sections here and there out of context, such as the famous Jabberwokky poem. The audiobook included a brief historical introduction that may have colored my interpretation just a little, but considering how much Pop culture from Disney to Jefferson Airplane have hijacked Alice, a little historical background probably helped to 'cleanse the palate' a little before I launched in. In particular, hearing that Carroll himself detested people looking for meaning in the story, I found interesting. The introduction did delve a little into the themes (not morals, but just ideas per se) explored in the three works in a way that made me more aware of them as I listened. Some of those themes, I would have definitely picked up on myself, while others beyond what the editors pointed out have also come to my mind. And a few of their conclusions I pretty well dismissed out of mind.
Jessica Renfro narrated this classic & did an admirable job. Her read of the narrative was in a general North American accent, while providing the characters with variations on British. Her recitation of poetry, in character as Alice, or whatever other character was speaking was superb.
Now - For my title 'Exercises in Absurdity' - Lewis Carroll was undoubtedly the precursor to Dr. Seuss. If a word doesn't rhyme and you need it to, just make up a different word, of course. Pretty sure Shakespeare is actually the original precursor in that respect, but the direct line from Lewis Carroll to Theodore Seuss Geisel is just a little too obvious to miss. L. Frank Baum is probably in that line as well. I grew up loving Dr. Seuss for many of the same reasons that makes Carroll's writing fun. Do good writers follow rules? Undoubtedly, but I think some of the best write their own rules and are willing to throw out any number of rules that just don't work for them. If you want a rhyme & there's just not a word for it, make one up.
Both of the 'Alice' books are drenched in pun, double & mistaken meanings, and tangential conversations based on homonyms. I'm not going to declare that men have a monopoly on that type of humor, but there's a reason that it's 90% of what qualifies as "dad jokes." My oldest son and I could probably riff indefinitely on things as simple as setting the table. But I'm pretty sure Lewis Carroll could beat us both into the ground. I was surprised a couple of times when he missed the opportunity though. Just a few sentences after explaining why they called a particular turtle a toroise because "he taurght us," he completely missed the opportunity to explain that whitings are called thusly because (Channeling Eliza Doolittle's dad here) they always keep us "witing."
The history of how these stories began definitely explains some of the absurdity. These are the stories Carroll told to Alice and her sisters. He after the fact, compiled them for publication. The nature of it being a story told to kids & from the perspective of Alice, a child, still v astly ignorant of "real life," is if nothing else, an exploration of the absurdities of adult life. Have you ever thought about how you would explain what you do every day to someone from 500 years ago? Or equally absurd, to someone from 500 years in the future?
The bizarre politics, consequences and so much more of adulthood are just about as difficult to explain to a small child. The amount of ridiculous rules we go by, social, cultural and otherwise are every bit as mind boggling as the peculiar adventures Alice experiences.
All in all, I would rate this classic 5 frumious stars out of 3.1415926538 pancakes. Everyone should eventually read or listen to it. Renfro's performance of the audio is equally as gyre & gimbling.
I received a promo copy of this audiobook in return for an objective review. Enjoy my incombobulum.