Scattergun execution

alice-liddell_
Alice Liddell in the 1860s

Gregory Maguire After Alice
Headline 2016 (2015)

The title is the absolute epitome of what this novel is: a kaleidoscope of conflicting contradictions. Is it a literal description of us readers following Alice and the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole? Is After Alice instead an acknowledgement that we can’t ever return to the state of innocence that was children’s literature before the world experienced Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Or rather is it a modern retelling based on Alice, a meditation on the themes the classic suggests but rewritten for a 21st-century readership? Perhaps it is all of these things, or even none of them.

In fact, is it about Alice at all? Was the Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland the historical Alice Liddell or merely a literary persona, and are any of these the same as the Alice of Maguire’s novel, whom we discover is actually one Alice Clowd? As Carroll’s Alice remarked, curiouser and curiouser. Lots of questions, then, in search of answers.

We soon discover that this is a tale that fluctuates between three or four youngsters, none of whom have anything to do with Dean Liddell’s children except that their story is set in Oxford one midsummer, sometime in the 1860s. Maguire gives us some early clues: for example, 4th July 1862 — when Carroll took the Liddell sisters boating — is identified as being ‘cool and rather wet’ but in Alice in Wonderland and in After Alice we are presented with an idyllic if somnolent midsummer’s day. Then there is Ada, a friend of Carroll’s Alice who gets a passing reference in Wonderland — here we have an Ada Boyce, but she’s a friend of a different Alice, Alice Clowd. The elder sister of this Alice, whom we spy reading the famous book “without pictures” (identified as A Midsummer Night’s Dream), is Lydia Clowd, not Lorinna Liddell. All this is enough to chase away any supposition that this is a story centred on either the real Alice or the fictional one.

Orthopaedic corset, Europe, 1801-1880 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Orthopaedic corset, Europe, 1801-1880 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

In trying to escape from her governess, Miss Armstrong, Ada Boyce inadvertently falls down a hole. Her iron corset, designed to straighten her spine, falls off her and she enters a Wonderland very similar to that described in Alice in Wonderland: one full of contradictions, plays on language, metamorphosing creatures and contrary characters. Ada soon finds herself on the track of her friend Alice Clowd, who is always a step or two ahead of her. Along the way she meets up with Siam, the ward of a young American, who has also found his way into this Wonderland, though he has come via a looking glass in the Clowd household. Meanwhile, above ground, Lydia starts to look for her missing sister Alice, joining Miss Armstrong looking for Ada, missions that will prove to be fruitless.

Already the reader is liable to be confused. Where Carroll had just one protagonist meeting fantastical personages Maguire chooses to present the points of view of three children — Ada, Lydia and Siam — with significant roles played by Miss Armstrong and by the elusive Alice. What with Maguire imitating and almost trying to outdo Carroll in punning and wordplay, his attempt to divide our interest between several individuals proves too much at times, as does the to and fro of action above as well as below ground.

Remembering that the first Alice book began life as Alice’s Adventures Underground I totally understand that the author is trying to play on different notions of ‘underground’, as he has explained in an interview. These are the mythical associations of the land of the dead, plus technological change in 1860s London (the laying of the sewers and the development of the underground railway). But Maguire is also keen to introduce the concept of the underground railroad, the escape route for Black American slaves fleeing from exploitation and persecution (which is where the character Siam comes in). This last theme seems to me, as it has done for many other readers, a tacked-on idea which is poorly and inconsequentially integrated into the plot, however worthy the conception.

In fact, all the extraneous material — the appearances of an unnamed Charles Dodgson and the Liddell siblings (in a boat), plus a named Charles Darwin, for example — appears not only superfluous but also too clever by half. And what of the sly suggestion that Miss Armstrong is somehow responsible for the attempted drowning of her charge and her friend? It all seems somehow meaningless, like a ghost image on a photographic negative. There is, granted, an underlying theme of emancipation — of Victorian females from their literal and metaphorical straitjackets and Afro-Americans from forced enslavement — but little of this seems to relate to the Carrollian witticisms peppering the conversations Ada has with Wonderland denizens. And when it comes down to the bottom line, what is the point of trying to ape Lewis Carroll’s originality?

Clearly, Maguire is aware that he may be castigated for indulging in such presumptuous behaviour; he says in chapter 14, as an apologia, that a “story in a book has its own intentions, even if unknowable to the virgin reader;” but I suspect from what follows that this particular story has also passed the author by. Elsewhere — chapter 30 to be precise — he muses on Oxford as an inspiration for much literature (“perhaps we love our Oxford because it seems eternal,” he declares) though After Alice is not at all in the same league as the examples he cites.

After Alice is, in the last analysis, scattergun in its execution and leaves the reader wandering in their own Wonderland: why was this written, they will ask themselves. For me an answer may lie in a response he makes in the previously mentioned online interview.*

His mother, he tells us,

died in childbirth leaving my father as a widower and four children. I was the infant; I was seven days old when she hemorrhaged and died. And that is how every fairytale begins. The child is thrown into the perilous world—to use a phrase of Blake’s—a child is thrown into a perilous world by the death of a parent.

Fairytales read in childhood therefore “felt like veiled biographies of me.” In After Alice the Clowd family have lost their mother, leaving the widower father with one daughter who regularly disappears into an imaginary world and another who feels the responsibility of being the mistress of the house. Ada Boyce meanwhile struggles with a mother who exists in an alcoholic haze, a noisy newborn child and a governess who has issues of her own — no wonder she chafes against restrictions, whether being chaperoned when she leaves the house or having to wear her hideous orthopaedic corset. Finally, young Siam, following an inhumane and cruel childhood, has been rescued and brought to an alien country — we can only guess why he might be tempted to retreat into an imaginary world rather than exist in a real one where nothing makes much sense.

Maguire tells us he has never got over being “fascinated by the plight of children who have to make their way in a hostile, and unwelcoming, and ungenerous world, and yet do it anyway and survive.” This, it seems to me, is what this novel is struggling to voice; that it fails to do so in any decisive way means it lacks the emotional heart that would justify the rehash of an already perfect classic.

* * * * *

* published by Broadly.

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23 thoughts on “Scattergun execution

    1. This was published in 2015, the 150th anniversary of Alice, and I now see from other reviews that I’m not the only one to think it missed the mark. Do yourself a favour and read something else more enlightening or entertaining!

      1. earthbalm

        Not a problem. That’s what I thought you thought. I went to a rock band ‘jam session’ last night. I’ve made up my mind that I’ll not be playing in a band any time soon.

  1. Pingback: Alice – A change is coming…

  2. I always react against something that uses a classic as its springboard, and it’s quite a risky enterprise as your rv shows. People will always be comparing it against the original and asking, why?

  3. You easily persuade me that I would hardly enjoy pursuing these adventures. At any rate I usually don’t like anyone writing variations or continuations of someone else’s story, with a few notable exceptions I may have mentioned before.

    1. Yes, save yourself the bother — life’s too short. 🙂 I found it a struggle to get through, and while it wasn’t all bad — he’s clearly good with words — it lacked clear motivation and direction.

      1. Perhaps he fell into the easy temptation to play with the words rather than tell a good story. Doing both without creating something contrived or pretentious is an art to be admired.

    1. Thanks, Laurie — not that I like writing negative reviews, I do try to find something of worth in every piece I read. Sadly, it doesn’t encourage me to read his earlier work, including his best-known title Wicked.

  4. Christine

    Thank you for reviewing something by Maguire, I’ve always been a bit on the fence with him. It’s not that I object to fan fiction (or springboard fiction, retellings, what have you) but I suspect this book might be more fun after reading Carroll’s original. That may be more trouble than this is worth. (I’d rather pursue the Wolves Chronicles, I just finished the first today and am very excited to catch up on all of the posts I avoided to escape spoilers.)

    1. I presume you’ve read the Wicked books then? How did you find then? Worth the effort or not?

      I really appreciate a good development of an earlier author’s original — I’m looking forward to the Wide Sargasso Sea prequel for example — and they can sometimes throw a light on and possibly improve on their inspiration. I quite liked one modern sequel (though ’twas rather violent) to Treasure Island and will be tackling Andrew Motion’s Silver in due course.

      Martin Gardiner’s Annotated Alice told me most of what I know about the Alice books, and Maguire’s novel didn’t — though it indirectly told me a bit about Maguire, and that may be the point. That’s maybe the point of all fiction, now I think about it! (Sounds like an examination question: “Novels only tell you something about the author.” Discuss.)

      Oooh, you’ve just finished the first Wolves story, yay! Hope you enjoyed it as much as it appears and have found my related posts helpful! 🙂

      1. Christine

        Yes, you’re probably onto something, novels do say a lot about their authors, and perhaps that is the point of books. I’m not sure what the Wicked series said about Maguire, and I only read the first two books and never got round to the others. It seems like a more compelling story than his Alice adaptation, though, with a lot more plot. Actually there’s a rather overwhelming amount of plot, I don’t think the writing could keep up with it. The story would have benefited from some breathing room. I might recommend borrowing the first book, you can see how you feel about the style after that. (The Wolves book was wonderful, by the way, I am currently tracking down the rest of the series!)

        1. I’m coming round to the notion I might try the first of the Wicked series — but maybe not just yet! And glad you’re hooked into the Wolves series,much less pretention and a whole more fun than Maguire, I suspect!

  5. I love a challenge, so I think I’ll take this book on later this year, despite (and possibly because of) your review. Thanks, as always, for the inspiration and nudge.
    Pace gertloveday’s comment, novels using classics as spring boards can provide tremendously challenging and satisfying reads: Joyce’s Ulysses is one example, but perhaps Lev Grossman’s Magicians series is a better one, because he digs a spectacular adult tale out of CSLewis’s puerile Narnia romps — in Grossman’s case, the re-take is far better than the original. (I’m warming up for a post about these two series on my own blog — I’ll save further comment for that post.)

    1. Look forward to your Grossman reviews, Lizzie, and agree they’re a cut above the Narnia Chronicles which begat them. That reminds me, I have yet to review the last novel — I may have to skim through it again though as I’ve left it a while.

      I’d be really interested in your take on Maguire’s novel; hopefully you’ll spot strengths that I missed in my reading. As I say, it’s not all bad, but my irritation may have prejudiced me against its more hidden subtleties.

  6. elmediat

    The Alice books have a unique character & place in fantasy & children’s literature. Whereas classic fairy tales, folktales, and faerie tales by their nature can be reinterpreted/adapted to re-telling, Alice and her adventures are less malleable. Unlike Dorothy’s Oz, which has an implied grounded social & political context, Alice’s Wonderland is grounded in the psyche. Social and political components are wardrobe & props for a dreamscape drama. Alice’s world is closer to Kafka’s or Poe’s.

    One can use Wonderland as a kind of template and make allusions to Alice, but trying to deconstruct/re-imagine it the way Oz was in Maguire’s Wicked does not work.

    Are familiar with Lisa Goldstein’s novel,: Dark Cities Underground ? It works with the premise that all these children who have inspired writers, such as Christopher Robin & Alice, had actual adventures in a realm that appeared different to each. It was nominated for a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature (2000).

    1. I don’t know the Goldstein novel but it sounds fascinating, and being nominated for a Mythopoeic award is even more of a recommendation! Your analysis of why Maguire’s Alice will always be less successful than his Oz excursions is succinct (more than my waffle!) and persuasive, thank you.

  7. I saw Wicked the musical, but haven’t read any of Maguire’s books – he’s done Cinderella from the PoV of the Ugly stepsisters in 17thC Holland, Snow White as the Borgias as well as all the Wicked ones. The one I’d read would be Mirror, Mirror I think – having just read Sarah Dunant’s latest Borgias novel! After Alice doesn’t attract, esp after your review.

    The Annotated Alice is a wonderful book though – I used to have a copy, and feel the need to buy it again. Another Alice book on my shelves is the first of Frank Beddor’s series The Looking Glass Wars – but I can’t tell you whether it’s any good, not read it yet.

    1. I’ve still got the Annotated edition I read way back, but I understand there’ve been a couple of revised editions — enjoyed it whatever the date! I might select my next Maguire (if there is one) more carefully, but the Borgias one does sound appealing. And the title Looking Glass Wars makes it intriguing!

      Books that take just one or other aspect of a classic / literary fairytale and run with it work best in my opinion. A series that comes to mind is Cornelia Funke’s Reckless sequence which uses a looking glass as an entry point to a fairie world inhabited by characters from the Grimm tales. All rather dark, as you’d expect from Funke.

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