Sun 21 Sep 2014
by RK Biswas
Ekphrasis is not a common literary art form as far as fiction is concerned, unlike its use in the case of music or painting. How can one category of prose try to relate to another by delving into its essence and spirit and still manage to come up with a story that narrates the original story without becoming a copy or a caricature? A question like this begs another: How can a cat disappear into thin air, leaving behind its smile intact?
Going by William Todd Seabrook’s chapbook, The Imagination of Lewis Carroll, it is all perfectly possible, and as easy as finding a wonderland beneath the ground, as long as one is willing to lose one’s conventional senses, conventional essences, and conventional ideas of what a writer is supposed to do. Carroll’s Cheshire cat did just that; un-cat itself I mean. And we, the readers, can too, so long as we are willing to enter Lewis Carroll’s mind through the tunnel, or rabbit-hole if you will, that Seabrook has dug in his chapbook, published by Rose Metal Press.
As Michael Martone says in his introduction, “It is into one of these mad elastic petrified steam-punked tropic jungles of a book of wordy words that William Todd Seabrook prospects here, using the fracking apparatus of flash fiction to crack open the quarried quarry and mine the refined riches he finds elaborated within Lewis Carroll’s work.” He explains further, more succinctly (lest we wear the Mad Hatter’s hat the wrong way or pour the potion down the drain, perhaps!), “this is a gutsy book as it confronts the exhilaratingly convoluted quagmire of high Victorian nonsense with a minute poacher’s spade shaped from a sterling coffee spoon.”
A “gutsy book that confronts…with a minute poacher’s spade….” This is what the reader encounters right from the start, during that golden afternoon when Seabrook’s Lewis Carroll begins to disappear, not the way the Cheshire cat does, but almost as if he is being consumed by his own story, each physical sense at a time. Carroll has no power to stop it, for every time he tries to end the story, the imaginings, by saying “the rest, next time,” the three Liddell sisters cry out, “it is the next time.”
In Seabrook’s chapbook, we trace Lewis Carroll’s life and imagination through this portal of “next time,” which lets us grasp the kernel of his sensibilities, and creativity, without being tied down to physical reality. Needless to say, the situations that spring up from the pages are indeed about being in the ‘next time.’ No present time can be more bizarre. So it has to be a time that cannot be clocked at all. Readers on a quest will certainly be given answers. Just as all ‘ravens and the writing desks had answers, and none of them actually right.’ Not one from the total of 500, asking the same question; so it is here as well.
Seabrook is after all imagining what Lewis Carroll did—digging a hole and closing it up again, ‘leaving his discovery to be discovered by other (children), again and again.’ We are taken by the hand down Seabrook’s rabbit-hole, and not only led through events in Carroll’s life that wound up in the book but also the other way round; book life and real life events being interchangeable. The experience is akin to Alice falling, very slowly, with plenty of time to look about her in the tunnel.
In The Imagination of Lewis Carroll, we witness an execution, watching young Lewis in the crowd screaming “Off with his head” along with everybody else. We have tea with a Bishop and the grown up Carroll, notorious for his books already, in which his Excellency is shown the door for taking life too seriously. We participate in Carroll’s relentless micro-management of his characters and their appearances, watching helplessly with John Tenniel, the illustrator of his book, but in the end finding them exquisite, because we are on Carroll’s side. We suffer his three-day-long sermon along with his congregation, but in the end we want more, whether it makes any sense or not. We read his essays, and agree (with him) that “a mathematical student must keep his head level at all times–that way it will be much harder for it to roll away.” We practise turning our names into Latin and then anglicizing the Latin names, because we have been convinced that readers of nonsense must be twice removed from reality always. It is of course no surprise that we side with Carroll during his duel with Lord Viscount Newry, even when he steps over his opponent’s broken body, because the duel too is part of “fits of nonsense, completely absurd, but still, it is all that matters.” Like Carroll, we imagine time to be accurate always, and stand in wonder at the intellect pouring forth from his ambidexterity.
Literary largesse, and certainly when it is of genius proportions as in the case of Lewis Carroll, does not come without its shadows. In Seabrook’s retelling of the writer’s life, opium dims memories and knowledge, instead of slowing them down and fading away; life is laid out like a chessboard, and the Red Knight sleeps soundly, knowing that he has already won.
According to Seabrook, Carroll created 5000 card games, as well as word games. After his death they uncovered a chessboard where all the kings, queens, knights, rooks and castles had been replaced with pawns, and behind the board was a picture of Carroll, sitting alone, toying with the world in his head. It gets progressively darker, in spite of the innocence that was Carroll’s hallmark. The controversy in his real life (about photographing children in the buff) has been captured with irony, tenderness and sorrow, paying homage to his friendship with the real Alice. His terror of the Jabberwocky is as real as Alice’s in the book. The looking-glass reflects in reverse. Constantly looking at the world through the mirror, therefore, will take a toll. And Carroll’s interaction with the physical world becomes increasingly fragmented.
The pseudonym—Lewis Carroll—increasingly takes charge of the man christened Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, until the latter is certain that it is not his real name. And we may assume that it was as Lewis Carroll that he won the deadly duel with Lord Newry in 1862, even though it was Dodgson who fired the shot, eschewing a mental duel for a physical one. Dodgson remains a child at heart though, refusing to let the “harsh penetrating eyes” of adults to influence him. In the end, his obsession with childhood and the characters he created, especially Alice, hacks away at him. The world outside Alice’s creator can neither be controlled nor contained.
Seabrook vividly captures Carroll’s terror of being alive in the casual chattering of people long after he is dead, “a terrible fate.” He’d rather be extinct. But in Seabrook’s imagining, Carroll suffers a similar fate at his burial, after dying of pneumonia. Nevertheless, he doesn’t become a prized exhibit in a museum like the dodo. His afterlife, according to Seabrook, is a happy world, where Carroll makes peace with his tormentor, his muse, his alter ego. In Seabrook’s own words:
“It is time to wake up,” Carroll said. “One can’t sleep forever.”
“But who is dreaming whom?” The Red King asked, adjusting his spiked crown.
“I should think we are all dreams,” Carroll said. “I can’t imagine anything more.”
What a beautiful imagining of a great writer’s life, lived after his physical life is passed. This is how every lover of Carroll would wish him to be, and for that we must give thanks to William Todd Seabrook for letting the imagination of Lewis Carroll in our lives, making us “fat with words,” “swollen with jam.”
RK Biswas’s novel Culling Mynahs and Crows was published by Lifi Publications, India in January 2014. A short story collection—Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women—is forthcoming in mid 2014 from Authorspress, India. Another story collection from Lifi Publications, New Delhi in mid 2015. Biswas’s short fiction and poetry have been published in journals and anthologies, both in print and online, all over the world. Her poem Cleavage was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. In 2007, her story Ahalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s notable stories of the net. Her poem Bones was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at http://www.rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com