Tuesdays, themed posts, November = mysteries for younger readers, and Ellen Raskin was a name that appeared in the comments a little while ago promising riddles and word games and puzzles and all sorts of other joys…so what to make of this, her debut novel?
Honestly, I don’t quite know. It’s a weird one, the sort of book that only the 1970s would produce as legitimate children’s literature, in that it deals with nothing approaching a serious theme in a serious way and is absurdly thin on…anything. But at the same time it has an undoubted charm in its helter-skelter freeform skittishness that works brilliantly…but can you honestly see the average 9 year-old being all that bothered?
It is, though, gigantically charming for the most part. Two young children end up heirs to a soup fortune and are married to ensure its success, only to then be separated — she aged 5, he aged 7 — and not meet for 14 years. This opening alone is full of many of the joys and weirdnesses that work so well in its favour, Raskin’s footnotes in particular, and if the idea of a five year-old being turned away from all the respectable girls’ schools because she’s a married woman amuses you (as it did me), well, you’re in good hands here. The humour is coarse enough and yet reliant enough on simple ideas (such as Caroline’s father constantly repeating mantras like “Money is money, “Boys will be boys” and essentially every variation on “X is X”) to stretch the concept of what qualifies as a joke enough that you clearly have to take things on Raskin’s terms, so pay attention. No small achievement.
It’s the footnotes I really fell in love with, though (especially the one about soy sauce) — ranging from the startlingly, delightfully pointless to the so on-the-nose that you go back at the end and wonder how you missed it, there’s a fun being had here that I’ve not experienced since I stopped reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books about 12 years ago. Raskin tells you a clue is coming up, or that this section contains a word that helps complete the message, but equally will throw in an aside to point out that a phone number given in the text “has been changed here just in case some crank knows how to read”. Thankfully it’s nothing so crude as “the text is for the kids, the footnotes are for the grown-ups”, though there is a maturity in purely appreciating the timing — and especially the phrasing — of a lot of what they contain.
Clues?, you say. Clues to what?
Well, upon being reunited with her lost love, Mrs. Carillon (it’s a long story) loses him over the side of a pleasure boat and the central plot is set in motion. As he sinks beneath the waves, he struggles out the message that gives the remainder of the book its focus:
“Noel glub C blub all…I glub new…”
When she wakes up in hospital, Mrs. Carillon learns that the man she was with has been discharged and — determined to track him down — she seeks the meaning in these words, seeing them as the only clue to his whereabouts…filling in the blanks obviously first being in order.
From hereon, what you essentially get is an extended piece of wordplay — for example, “C blub all” could be “seals”, possibly in “new” York — and we skip ahead several years to find Mrs. Carillon still searching for her husband Noel (or is it Leon?) by stringing together all possibilities from these meagre beginnings. And…that’s it. It’s fun, but very slight, and I’m guessing possibly too unfocused to hold younger minds — Mrs. Carillon adopts orphan twins, starts a riot at Bloomingdale’s and accidentally catches a notorious perfume thief, wins a year’s supply of camembert cheese, and is made into a “living martyr”. The twins attend school, where Tina feels awkward because she doesn’t get many Valentine’s cards and Tony had trouble making decisions…the humour remains sly, but it’s like every page is a New Thing without any structure to it. It’s one of those books that you go “Well, that was probably really easy to write” and it turns out it is, so long as you’re happy to repeat a few unconnected points here and there and make sure to work in a few repeating motifs.
And it gets a little dull.
It makes no pretence of being a detective novel in the traditional sense, and that wasn’t what I expected when I went in anyway, but if you want to force a GAD analogy it’d be like interviewing the suspects in chapter 5 and still interviewing them in chapter 17. There is no progress at all, and it makes a weird sort of reading experience. I started out a little nonplussed, then began to really love it, and then at about the two-thirds mark found myself wishing that it contained something more than just a loosely connected string of coincidences and some left-of-field context-free jokes. Yes, there is a revelry in the joy and absurdity of language, but there’s never really enough happening to genuinely engage you in anything — something which becomes agonisingly clear in the interminable final chapter that takes time to give everyone a happy ending because…that’s what books are supposed to do, I guess?
“But JJ, it’s for kids, you’re missing the point,” you might be thinking (you might not, of course); sure, but I just don’t see this having enough heft for kids to really get into. Does Augie Kunkel winning third prize in a crossword-setting competition have any effect on the reader? No. Does the footnote telling us he won first prize a year later have any effect on the reader? No. These things are included almost because they’re the sort of context-free information that we’re expected to associate some sense of positive meaning to…but nothing is done to earn it. I work with kids, and kids are smarter than this, you need to give them– as with any reader — something to connect to rather than simply the connections between things.
But all is not completely lost.
The solution to “the glub-blubs” is actually quite good, and very well explained as an outcome, giving you plenty of scope to scroll back through the book and examine the footnotes that promised clues or correct words. They’re not really clues in the proper sense of the word — you don’t logic this out, it’s just a sentence that happens to fit the gaps and turns out to have been surrounded by the coincidences that comprise the plot — but it’s a charming enough revelation that holds up well and was always going to be a little spurious anyway. Given the lightness and deliberate freewheeling on display throughout, it also makes a surprising amount of sense. I would have been just had happy had the whole thing turned out to be a bust (in a way, that would suit the tone better), but it’s also sort of right that the glub-blubs turn out as they do.
Taken as a sort of extended causerie rather than a novel it is — to steal a phrase from Noah Stewart — relentlessly okay. I don’t really think it acknowledges or respects the innate esemplastic abilities of young minds, but it’s an enjoyale-on-balance, perfectly forgettable, unusual time. The idea is charming, the art (which I’ve used to illustrate this post) is interesting, the eventual resolution is probably not quite worth the effort expended (by you, the reader), but it’s gentle enough and sly enough to get a pass overall. And, thankfully, things have moved on a lot in this field since this time.