Friday, February 22, 2008

Adam Gopnik

The King in the Window
by Adam Gopnik
Recommended Age: 12+

Until now, if you have thought about Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking Glass at all, you have probably thought of it as a patchwork of nonsense and humorous wordplay crafted to amuse a little girl. This is not to say that there isn’t poetry or even genius in it, but who would have thought that Through the Looking Glass was actually a kindly clergyman’s attempt to describe a girl’s frighteningly real experience in a bizarre, alternate world—an attempt to make it seem more whimsical, less threatening? This perhaps totally original thought is what lies beneath this novel by New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik.

Well, it’s one of the things that lie beneath. Among the others are a passionate love for the city of Paris, a son’s dogged love for his increasingly distant father, an intriguing comparison between the educational systems in France and America, a glimpse into the golden age of French art and culture, and the perhaps not-so-futuristic idea of a “quantum computer.”

Now that I’ve scared off 85% of the people who started reading this review, you and I can have a nice comfortable discussion of this book—we few, but we privileged few, who will probably read it. I suspect that it will not be a record-breaking bestseller, but it may become a well-worn favorite of, say, the top 15% of the class. It is a profoundly weird book, but one could also call it daringly original. Fast-paced, action-filled, it sweeps you up at full speed into a dizzying whirl of events, settings ranging from scenically picturesque to nightmarishly odd, a cast of characters varying just as richly, and a hailstorm of far-out sci-fi and fantasy concepts, beginning with a rock that (when kicked) always leads you home, and ending with a breathless pursuit across an infinite number of parallel universes.

And in between you have the War Between the Windows and the Mirrors, which would take me so long to explain to you that you would be better of just reading the book. The best I can do is to point out a few seemingly unconnected things that may, at best, whet your appetite for this very special book.

First: Oliver Parker is an American boy living in Paris, going to a French school, and participating in typically French customs such as celebrating Epiphany with his parents over a cake containing a charm that entitles him to wear a paper crown. It is while wearing this crown, and thinking about how lonely he is, that Oliver first plunges into the bizarre world of mystery and adventure where, inexplicably, he has become king.

Second: The reflections you see in shop windows are actually imprints of living people—wraiths—captured in the glass at the moment they felt their most intense desire. These “window wraiths” are good guys. The creeps who live in mirrors—where everything is turned around—are out to steal everyone’s souls. And the King of the Mirrors has set evil plans in motion, plans for enslaving the whole world and beyond.

Third: In his battle against the King of the Mirrors, Oliver is helped by a pretty but tempestuous French girl, a visiting best friend from New Jersey, a witty woman, and a secret society of Parisian winos. There are other allies I haven’t mentioned yet, but you wouldn’t believe me anyway, so why not read it for yourself?

Fourth: Have you ever thought it would be cool to see someone being sucked down into a glass of cola? This book not only has an illustration showing this, but it also somehow manages to make the event make sense in a very strange, but definitely exciting way.

Fifth: By reading this book, you’ll learn a lot about France and Paris—but in a fun way. The few Parisian landmarks most of us know about will come into clearer focus, along with their place in the life of a city that still has its own remarkable atmosphere, a kind of magic just waiting for you to discover it.

UPDATE: Gopnik is not the only author to portray Through the Looking Glass as an account of a real, alternate world - viewed, as it were, "through a glass, darkly." For a quite different approach to this concept, see Frank Beddor's book The Looking-Glass Wars.

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