This week I decided to review a Canadian author (Yes, I am aware that he was actually born in England and actually lives in the US at present, but he lived in Canada for a short time and also this novel is set in Toronto so I’m going to go ahead and claim him as one of our own), Steve McCaffery. No? You won’t let me call him a Canadian author? Fine. But it’s a Canadian novel at least; you can’t take that from me!
Now, this novel is the first I’ve read of his work, and from what I understand he typically writes poetry. Not that this novel doesn’t have a poetic tint to it, but it is in fact a prose work (usually, anyway. You’ll see what I mean.) This book is the first in a series which McCaffery calls “Queering the Classics”. If there’s one classic I love more than any other, it’s definitely Alice in Wonderland — so upon seeing the cover of this novel on a good friend’s coffee table, I decided right then and there that I had to have it. (This was the exact same reasoning behind my purchase of a Dr Who/Alice crossover tshirt). If you look very closely at the front cover, however, you’ll notice that this is not the Alice we know and love, but a seedier version of Wonderland. For those of you who love Lewis Carrol as is and refuse to hear any nonsense talk about drug-use or the slightly creepy photographing of little girls because it would ‘ruin your experience of the book’, maybe you should stop reading right now. Maybe go find a herd of talking bunnies rolling around in rainbows and kittens instead. Forget that you ever even heard of this book. The rest of you, come with me and let’s corrupt us some childhood, shall we?
The idea is relatively simple: the classic story of Alice with a huge makeover, and a heck of a lot more drugs. Alice is a little girl, addicted to all kinds of hallucinogens, who falls down a sewer in Tranna one day while trying to mug a bank teller. (Tranna is how native Torontonians pronounce the name of their city, FYI. I told you it was a Canadian novel.) The plot structure is very similar to the original novel, in fact some of the phrasing is incredibly similar, but what McCaffery has done is to change the environment around these events. So, while Alice still runs into a the character of the caterpillar, he is now a burned out junkie who advises her that “one capsule will give you an upper, and the other will give you a downer” (p64). It’s the simplicity of it all that makes it so ingenious; McCaffery has incredible skill as a wordsmith as he’s able to change certain things ever so slightly to get a whole new effect (for example, the chapter ‘Lobster Quadrille’ is now a ‘Mobster Quadrille’; or the gardeners become the avant-gardeners).
But it’s not all simple changes. There were a lot of larger changes to the story line (mainly in the form of drugs or other seedy business). While I appreciated a lot of the changes, mostly out of mere awe and admiration at the ease with which McCaffery pulled them off, there were times when I found myself taken out of the authenticity of it all because of something that was too similar to the original. Sometimes this would be a line that wasn’t altered, or the parenthetical style of the narrator which seemed out of place in this reworking, but often times it was simply because the action was too difficult to explain away in this new context: what I mean is that there are quite a number of times during Alice (original) that she measures her height by placing her hand above her head and feeling herself grow. A lot of the reworkings of these felt forced, using drug-induced hallucinations to explain it away. Luckily there were few of these moments, because I did find them a bit jarring. The other big change that I had an issue with was the choice to change the white rabbit into a female hooker – now, I know it’s a book about sordid characters in the underbelly of the city. I don’t mind that the rabbit became a prostitute at all. What I mind is that it had to be a female prostitute (aka the more recognizable stereotype) when the classic-Alice rabbit is male and McCaffery hasn’t genderbent ANY other characters (with the exception of the drag queen which was also poorly handled by being confused with trans* [usually using slurs] so I’m not even going to talk about that one because it’s pretty self-explanatory why I wouldn’t have been on board with it). For a book that claims to be ‘queering’ the classics, I think it would have been a more progressive choice to leave the rabbit character as a male prostitute rather than opting for the more normative stereotype.
Overall, I enjoyed the novel. As I said before, while reading it I had to pause every few pages just to admire how much McCaffery was getting away with it. I didn’t think he would be able to keep the authenticity of his rewrite running for more than a dozen pages before it got repetitive, but, for me at least, it never did. Also– the images were marvelous. The artist has used some of the classic Carrol drawings and done what I can only describe as collage-ing and scrap-booking with them. These were done incredibly successful, and I loved the style.
That’s all for now! Until next time: Happy Reading!