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Netty in Wonderland

February 23, 2010

“We’re all mad here” – the Cheshire Cat to Alice

It’s been a very, very long time since I last went down the rabbit hole, but with the imminent release of Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, it seemed timely to revisit Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. It actually came up as a possible Reading Challenge book a while back, but had to be knocked on the head because I had read it – and many times (and I’m still incredulous that Andy has gotten this far through life without doing so – maybe Alice is more a girl thing, although I’m sure Burton would disagree).

I don’t actually remember the first time I encountered Alice, but it must have been very early on because it is one of my most enduring childhood reading memories. Certainly I have a very worn copy in a box of books somewhere in the bowels of my mother’s garage. I also have – thanks to a long-time ex-BF, who undoubtedly remains blissfully unaware of its absence from his collection – The Complete Works Of Lewis Carroll (complete with John Tenniel’s wonderful original illustrations), of which the centerpiece is Alice. And I would have last dipped into it about 20 years ago. So no real surprises, although I was always so enamoured of the journey I was surprised to find I had forgotten the ending – so stunning and spot-on in its simplicity. I’d also forgotten the character of Bill the lizard!

There is no need for me to rehash the plot here. Everyone (well, everyone except Andy) knows how it goes, and even if you’re one of the very few who has never dipped into its pages, Alice has turned up in almost every facet of popular culture since it was first published in 1865 – from pastiches to pictures, music to movies (there’s even a porn version of Alice out there, if you’re that way inclined).

I have rarely taken the liberty in my adulthood of revisiting loved books of yesteryear, often times concerned age would diminish the sense of childhood wonder. Thankfully that was not the case here, although there is no doubt I read Alice through a very different set of eyes now than when I was six or eight or 10. I might have been about 15 when I first heard 1960s psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane, and their song White Rabbit. Grace Slick’s Alice is mired in the drug culture of the day – presumably LSD – and it was impossible for me to reread the passage where Carroll’s Alice encounters the Caterpillar, perched on top of a mushroom, smoking a hookah and instructing our protoganist that “one side will make you grow taller and the other side will make you grow shorter” without seeing it as a trip. No wonder (no pun intended) the book was a rediscovered ‘60s favourite – it is steeped in druggy, hallucinatory imagery. Obviously, LSD was yet to be synthesised back in Carroll’s day, and there is no evidence the writer used any drugs, but his biographical information states he suffered from aura-inducing migraines – where sufferers can experience episodes reportedly similar to the distorted perceptions of psychedelics – and possibly epilepsy. More likely, that the surreal, fantastical aspects of Wonderland are the product of a vivid imagination in tune with a child-like, boundary-less sense of the absurd.

Speaking of the absurd, Carroll has long been touted as one of the best purveyors of “literary nonsense”, and it was a delight to rediscover his wit teeming through the pages. In several attempts to reconnect with reality, Alice tries to remember – or is asked to recite – certain poems, which she hopelessly, and hilariously, mangles. It is one of the key strengths of both the book, and Carroll’s oeuvre. The Complete Works, as the title suggests, collects all of Carroll’s verse – several hundreds of pages worth.

Of the myriad and far-reaching tentacles of Alice, the two that have made the biggest impression on me are the paintings of Australian artist Charles Blackman and an album by US singer-songwriter Tom Waits. Blackman retrospectives do the rounds of the major galleries every few years, so go if you’ve never seen his take on Alice. And Waits’ 2002 album Alice – a gorgeously understated, elegiac work – is a song cycle written for the 1990s play of the same name, depicting the relationship between Carroll and Alice Liddell, the young girl for whom Adventures In Wonderland was written.

So next time you’ve got an hour or so spare (and that’s all you need – it’s only 100-odd pages long), I thoroughly encourage you to follow the white rabbit down that hole. And I guarantee you’ll emerge from the garden with a smile.

Footnote: A very good friend of mine, the extremely talented and wonderfully idiosyncratic Ms Debbie Harman, has self-released her own homage, Alice In Tartland, which deserves your attention ASAP. Check it out at http://aliceintartland.blogspot.com/

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