Saturday, September 15, 2007

Say "Uncle"

"Uncle is an elephant. He's immensely rich, and he's a B.A."

Uncle, by JP Martin and illustrated by Quentin Blake, is amazing. Imagine the Moomintrolls living in Gormenghast, only more urban.

Moat and drawbridge, of course. There are stairways and elevators and waterfalls and chutes and tunnels, and a bathing pool in a secret location that defies the logic of space. There are towers, so many towers, one of them haunted. There are 2 stores: one where things are impossibly cheap and one where they are outrageously expensive, in which Uncle found an artificial pineapple for 33 pounds and bought it at once. "Uncle is the last person in the world to put artificial fruit on the sideboard, but he can't resist anything that is capable of being thrown."

But it's an episode about shoes that made me a convert — not for the shoes in themselves but for the depiction of the politics surrounding them.

The Old Monkey's uncle is called the Muncle and he's a very nice person, but seems to live for footwear. Uncle likes him, but thinks he is a bit too fussy about shoes.

However, he told the Old Monkey that the Muncle would be welcome, and, about half an hour later, just as he had settled down to his paper, the Muncle arrived. He was wearing an enormous pair of travelling boots. These have electric motors in their soles so that they can run along with him, and they come up so high that he can lean on the top edges. He always keeps a lot of stuff in them, including several pairs of smaller boots and shoes.

He came scooting over the drawbridge with an anxious expression, then drew up with a joyous shout. "Not a spot of mud on them!"

He is always terribly afraid, when he comes to visit Uncle, that Beaver Hateman, the leader of the Badfort crowd, may splash his boots with mud. Beaver Hatemean always tries to. But today he had seen nothing of him.

He sat down by the open window with a smiling face.

"So glad to see you, sir, and also my nephew. He looks well, though I am sorry to see his shoes are dusty. Nephew, open the right-side compartment in my travelling boots and you'll find a pair of dove-coloured visiting shoes. Ah, that's a relief. My travelling boots are rather heavy."

Then he looked keenly at Uncle and said: "Excuse my saying so, sir, but your shoes are somewhat shabby. I wonder if you'd gratify me by putting on a really nice pair?"

Uncle said to the Old Monkey:

"Just look in my number eight shoe saloon, and on the fourth shelf to the left you'll find a pair of red ones; I rather think it's the sixty-ninth pair from the door. Bring them here."

The Muncle seemed deeply impressed by this speech. He had never imagined that even Uncle possessed such a vast stock. He was still more deeply moved when the Old Monkey appeared with an exquisitely shaped pair of elephant's morning shoes of a deep red colour.

"Oh, those look very well, sir!" he cried, in a rather envious voice. He was thinking hard how he might regain his lost ground as shoe expert.

Then he pulls some poems out of his pocket, and Beaver Hateman comes by and ruins the Muncle's shoes and it's decided they should give him a new pair from the store. And we never hear of the Muncle again.

It's a strange world Uncle lives in, but one that I have no trouble accepting — my 4-year-old's imagination devises similar joys and evils, where complications and near magical solutions are a matter of course. The child's logic reigns supreme here.

For example, the school room is immensely long, and the teacher is railed in, but beside their desks the boys can access the many underground passages that lead up into the teacher's compartment.

The Economist wonders whatever happened to Uncle:

Much of the humour in "Uncle" is so quirky and understated that it is more likely to appeal to an adult than a child. For example, in most successful children's literature, a haunted tower would be genuinely spooky. In Uncle's castle, however, it is a great disappointment. One room is said to be inhabited by a ghost known as the White Terror. But the phantom turns out to be only a foot high, and stands on a bedside table, muttering monotonously, "I did it! I took the strawberry jam!" Quentin Blake, the book's illustrator, muses that "The books have always had terrific fans, but they have never attracted a mass following because they are so eccentric." Charlie Sheppard at Random House agrees that "there just may not be enough truly eccentric children out there." Even the most ardent Uncle fans would probably also concede that the stories suffer from a certain lack of narrative structure.

Nothing much happens. I mean, lots of stuff happens, but there's no plot to speak of. Uncle keeps pace with a child's attention span and concept of cool.

I'll be scouring the shelves of the second-hand shops for more Uncle titles.

Fans of Uncle: sinister cabal.
Looking for Uncle: a plea for reissues.

Next fall, NYRB publishes the second volume of Uncle's tales, Uncle Cleans Up.

Tales from Homeward: Uncle is alive and well and maintains a blog.


Suzanne said...

This book looks delightful! I've never heard of it -- I'm thinking I will enjoy it more than the kids do, but that's perfectly okay with me.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... Sounds good.

Quentin Blake? Ah, yes, Roald Dahl.

Will check it out.