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A Highly Irregular Children’s Story: The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine

ISSUE:  Spring 1976

IT is difficult, initially, to imagine Donald Barthelme as the author of a book for children. It is true that he is best known for a novel called Snow White, but his Snow White has the same sort of relationship to the heroine of the Grimm brothers’ tale that Lolita has to Little Nell. It is not merely that Barthelme’s Snow White is a fairy tale for adults; it is a fairy tale for over-educated adults. In it, as in his shorter fictions, he displays an acutely painful awareness of what it is like to be a human being living in America in the latter half of the 20th century. Though commendable, this is not unusual; many writers have managed as much. But Barthelme is unique in that he is continually in the process of devising a literary form appropriate to this painful awareness. The apparent irrationality and disconnectedness of Snow White and the shorter fictions, the strangely mixed diction, shifting locations and identities, and incongruous juxtapositions—all these hold a broken mirror up to a world in which, as one of his characters in the early story, “The Piano Player,” says, “everything is in flitters.” It is not the perception that is new: Yeats tells us much the same thing in “The Second Coming.” But Yeats’s grave and resonant mode of expression—

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned. . . .

—nearly belies what he has to say; certainly, it reflects his rather complacent certainty that such times have been before and will be again. It has been left for Barthelme to pick “flitters” from the rag-and-bone shop of bizarre and little-used words and allow it to reveal itself by connotation as an example of the kind of disconnectedness it denotes.

Barthelme’s writing, in fact, is as much about writing itself as it is about its ostensible subject matter. In Barthelme’s fictions, the writer is a magician who conjures up an alternate reality, but he is a comically inept magician: we are continually shown the wires that hold up the naked lady, and the rabbit drums in boredom on the false bottom of the hat. Barthelme is the subtlest and most thorough ironist of contemporary American writers; again and again he shows us that among the many things we can no longer take seriously is the concept of the writer as omnipotent illusionist. The once-inhabitable world of conventional fiction is like Barthelme’s “Tolstoy Museum”: a charmingly grotesque anachronism which is a resort, but no longer a refuge. All that is left to us is what was there all along: the pure pleasure of the imaginative act itself, of fiction as lie.

We may wonder how so sophisticated a writer could write a satisfactory children’s book. How does the mocker of literary conventions deal with this most conventional of surviving literary forms? But to wonder this is to overlook the fact that Barthelme, whose characteristic tone is jaded, ironic, witty, and without hope, is capable of a startling sincerity which even approaches sentimentality upon occasion. (Sincerity, paradoxically, is one of his most effective devices. ) The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971) is a gentle book: the usual Barthelme irony is there, but little of the usual darkness and high seriousness is immediately apparent. Whatever else it may be, it is first a game. Furthermore, the young reader is perfectly capable of understanding that the book is a game. The wit which makes Barthelme an enjoyable writer for adults also makes him an enjoyable writer for children, as we can see if we will rid ourselves of the habit of condescending to the young reader by underestimating his intelligence, perceptiveness, and ability to absorb complexities. Conventional children’s literature habitually condescends to the child. The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine does not.

The conventional children’s book is Wordsworthian. Children’s books are written by adults, and to the adult the most interesting fact about the child is that he will not always be a child. Behind the Alice books, the Mary Poppins books, and The Hobbit is the author of the “Intimations” Ode lamenting the loss of the visionary gleam. The predictable consequence is that conventional children’s literature is often didactic in its basic impulse. It is meant to ease the transition from child to adult, to accustom the child to the idea that his state will one day be different. The purest examples of this, perhaps, are found in the Mary Poppins books. The baby Annabel in Mary Poppins Comes Back is quick to forget her “long journey” from “the Dark where all things have their beginning,” and the slightly older John and Barbara, in Mary Poppins, drift inexorably farther from a state of imaginative innocence:

“Listen, listen, the wind’s talking,” said John, tilting his head on one side. “Do you really mean we won’t be able to hear that when we’re older, Mary Poppins?”

“You’ll hear all right,” said Mary Poppins, “but you won’t understand.”

The pattern of the conventional children’s story typically follows the pattern of a single chapter of a Mary Poppins book: a journey, in the phrase Tolkien uses as the subtitle for The Hobbit, “there and back again.” The hero leaves his familiar world for Wonderland, the Lonely Mountain, or the Zoo at the full of the moon, and returns—to the older sister on the bank, the Shire, or Number Seventeen Cherry-Tree Lane. The exotic world of vision and imagination dwindles into the everyday world of adulthood just as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come dwindles into Ebenezer Scrooge’s bedpost. Although some slight token is usually brought back from the world of imagination to the light of common day as an emblem of a rather artificial integration of the two worlds— Michael and Jane Banks, for example, are always able to find some irrefutable proof of the reality of the fantastic things they have witnessed—the return generally represents a Pyrrhic victory for maturity and rationality. While it is handled gracefully in the best of these books, this covert didacticism is subtly demeaning to the child, who really does not need to be told these things. He knows he will grow up, and he knows the effect this will have upon his imagination. Moreover, he is accustomed to being given just this message in conventional children’s literature.

The premise of The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine is that the child is familiar enough with the basic conventions of children’s literature to enjoy a book which plays wittily with them. It is a deliberate impersonation of a conventional children’s book. Its main character is a young girl named Mathilda who, one morning in 1887, awakes to find “a mysterious Chinese house, only six feet high,” in her back yard. Although she had really wanted a fire engine, she explores the house, which obligingly expands to accommodate her. Guided by a djinn, she discovers such attractions as a pair of Chinese guards, a rainmaker, a pirate who knits and reminisces about his plunder, an elephant who rolls downhill, and a one-man band. After lunch—a ceremonial meal like the Mad Hatter’s tea party or the equally mad tea on Mr. Wigg’s birthday is a usual feature of the conventional children’s story—Mathilda is offered various souvenirs of her visit, but a fire engine, unfortunately, is not among them. When her nurse calls her home it seems that her “escapade” is over, but the following morning a bright green—not red—fire engine is standing where the Chinese house had been. Superficially we are reminded of the Alice books by Mathilda’s Victorian costume, vaguely Victorian diction, and her appealing combination of pluck and politeness. (The costume never changes, but the diction and deportment keep slipping into 1970’s American: Alice would never say “uh” or scratch herself. ) As in the Alice books, there is much nonsense, whimsy, and word-play, some of which may be over the head of a young reader—the pirate’s “plundered lady,” for example. (There is nothing wrong in this, of course: those things which are over the reader’s head are the things that keep a book from wearing out. ) As in the Alice books, the relative sizes of the protagonist and her surroundings shift, although Barthelme makes the environment rather than the girl change size, and without the clumsy machinery of cakes or mushrooms.

Like Alice, Mathilda goes from the real world (her parents’ house) to the fantasy world (the Chinese house) and back again. Mathilda’s sojourn in the Chinese house qualifies—or hopes to qualify—as an “escapade,” which the djinn defines as “something you didn’t expect. . .which surprises you, pleases you, and frightens you, all at once.” But it is an escapade framed by the safer, more mundane reality to which adults become resigned. Despite its apparent delight in disorder, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine displays a respectable, if hardly fearful, symmetry. The first and final pictures in the copiously illustrated book are of Mathilda’s parents, “that gay and laughing couple” (in the pictures they are plainly not laughing), and beneath that final picture, in appropriately old-fashioned letters, are words betokening accommodation to the workaday world:


Industry and Frugality.

The legend (also in antique letters) which appears above the beginning of the text suggests what is wrong with that workaday world:

Corseted Divinities with Waspish Affinities

Worrying, Flurrying.

Imagination is the conventional antidote to this constriction of our higher selves by the here-and-now, and the Chinese house, with its connotations of exoticism and gratuitous delight, is its emblem. The first picture of the Chinese house is accompanied by the legend “SUBURBAN DISTURBANCE”: it is an intrusion into, and a potential escape from, the world that is too much with us.

But if the Chinese house is truly intended to provide Mathilda and the reader with an escape, it is not performing quite satisfactorily. Again and again, it reminds us of that world we were supposed to have left behind. The fancy, apparently, cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do: she has succeeded in distorting, but not transforming, the materials upon which she is operating. The pirate, for example, is a conventional figure of fantasy in children’s literature, as he himself seems to realize: his first words to Mathilda are “No interviews!” A pirate usually connotes adventure, freedom from restriction and social convention, and a certain phallic power (which is sometimes frighteningly maimed—two of our most famous literary pirates are Long John Silver and Captain Hook). But Barthelme’s pirate is a model of “Industry and Frugality” who literally tends to his knitting. “Contentment,” however, has eluded him, and during the entertainment he wishes impotently for the return of his cutlass in order to show a pair of fencers “something about cut-and-thrust.” Another discontented fantasy figure (Mathilda, quite accurately, notes that he “doesn’t look too happy”) is the one-man band. He began, according to the djinn, as a piccolo player. The small, airy, high-pitched instrument suggests joy and freedom of motion, but he is now encumbered (thanks, perhaps, to his industry and frugality) with an accordion and a full set of drums strapped to his back, and his clothes would remind us of a Beckettian tramp were it not for the pagoda-like hat which weighs down his head,

The one-man band is presented to Mathilda along with a “grown-up tennis-playing hat-wearing woman” as something Mathilda could become during the course of her entertainment in the Chinese house. But several other characters Mathilda finds there also indicate what she could become. They are emblems of the adult world in which she will take her place: the industrious pirate, the “sour and severe citizen” sitting on a barrel of pickles, and the Chinese guards who greet her with relentless yet meaningless questions.

“Good morning!” they said in unison. “Who what when where how?”

Even the djinn, an arch-symbol of the imagination’s primacy over reality (our wish is his command), bows to the world of industry and frugality in his choice of words: the elephant, like an expensive restaurant, is “closed Mondays,” and the escapades he is peddling “come in two styles—fancy and more fancy.” The expression “slightly irregular” in the title, in fact, should be understood in its merchandizing sense: the fact that it is green rather than red makes the fire engine a less expensive “keepsake” for the djinn to give Mathilda. The commonplace and the rationalistic are everywhere in the Chinese house, despite its exotic and imaginative appearance. The “sour and severe citizen” and the “statue of the Chief of Police, heroic style, solid marble” (the description, of course, is the djinn’s; he is describing a head of Zeus) appear together and betoken the resentfulness of the governed and the rigidity of authority. The gigantic popcorn machine is joylessly over-complicated for so simple and happy an experience as popping corn (Mathilda rejects it politely as “useful, I don’t doubt”); and the man in the anatomical diagram (which she calls “anatomicomical”), neatly mapped and alphabetized, is much the same sort of machine, and is just as alien to imaginative experience. It is appropriate, therefore, that Mathilda be summoned from the Chinese house by her screaming nurse, who looks like Margaret Hamilton in the film version of The Wizard of Oz, and whose profession reminds us of Blake’s envious and malicious (but doubtless frugal and industrious) Nurse in Songs of Experience who calls her young charges home by telling them that “your spring & your day are wasted in play.”

The Chinese house’s parodic resemblance to the drab world of adulthood is not the only indication that Mathilda’s escapade is unsatisfactory as an escape. If it fails to take us far away, it also fails to take us there very convincingly. Part of this undercutting of narrative plausibility is accomplished by Barthelme’s use of collages made up of 19th-century engravings as illustrations. The popular art of the 19th century portrays a world both silly and desirable: silly because we have exposed as no longer tenable the assumptions upon which this art was based, yet desirable because we have no new assumptions as comfortable as those which have been lost. Such ideas are familiar and comprehensible (though they are certainly not verbalized) even to Barthelme’s young readers, who have been exposed to the ironic use of old engravings in present-day popular culture. But Barthelme seems to have an additional purpose. The illustrations give The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine an improvised air. They not only follow the text, but in many places seem to determine it. The story, in fact, comes to seem a clever way of stringing together a random sequence of old engravings. For example, Mathilda’s decision, on the first page of the text, to go “hooping” is made superficially because it seems to be “good hooping weather,” and literarily because the hoop is a convenient image of the book’s circularity—but most of all because Barthelme has found a picture of a little girl with a hoop in her hands. The fire engine—”a real Silsby,” we are blandly told—is clearly another found object. Despite the narrator’s suave imitation of an authoritative tone, the name “Silsby,” which appears on the fire engine in the picture, means nothing to us as a brand name; it is more likely not a manufacturer’s name at all, but the name of the town whose fire company owns the machine. It is often Barthelme’s method in The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine to concoct patently absurd explanations for the inexplicable pictures he has found. These explanations allow the reader to laugh at what is mysterious, and therefore potentially frightening (the pictures of the djinn, the guards, and the rain-maker might frighten a sufficiently young and impressionable reader)—and also to laugh at the writer’s comically inept attempts to explain.

The reader is further prevented from suspending his disbelief by Mathilda’s own apparent awareness that she is a character in a book for children. “I suppose I’d better go inside and see what strange things happen,” she says rather dutifully when she discovers the Chinese house. We have the impression that she is acting out what she knows to be her role in a conventional literary situation, and her boredom, though it is politely concealed, is never dispelled by what she sees in the Chinese house. The entertainment there is much like the “show” the narrator is putting on in Barthelme’s roughly contemporaneous collage-story, “The Flight of Pigeons from the Palace,” a near parable about the act of writing. In that story, we are told that

it is difficult to keep the public interested.
The public demands new wonders piled on new wonders.
Often we don’t know where our next marvel is coming
The supply of strange ideas is not endless.

Mathilda is a stand-in for the jaded reader, the reader as consumer, the reader whom the writer can no longer satisfy with “new wonders piled on new wonders.” The “wonders” of the Chinese house are decidedly shopworn: random, shabby, and verging on dullness. “Well,” the guards considered, “let us see. We have Chinese acrobats. I think that the cat-seller will be around before lunch. We have an elephant that falls downhill, head over heels. That’s rather interesting. We have some flying machines, although they’re somewhat primitive. We have Chicken Chow Mein. And we have a pirate. Do you want to see everything?” The Chinese acrobats are reminiscent of the Ed Sullivan Show (about which Barthelme wrote a devastating piece called “And Now Let’s Hear It for the Ed Sullivan Show,” reprinted in Guilty Pleasures, his volume of “non-fiction” pieces), the elephant merely awkward, the Chicken Chow Mein blatantly ersatz exotica—and, considered in conjunction with the cat-seller who “will be around before lunch,” somewhat unpleasant, Even if the flying machines were not “primitive” (a further indication of the limitations of the djinn’s power), it is doubtful that any flying machine (note the fin de siècle term) would be very impressive to a child of the 1970’s who has seen a man walk on the moon. Mathilda and the reader both realize that convention demands that they be fascinated, yet they are not fascinated.

But in The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, as in the rest of Barthelme’s fiction, the failure to fascinate is a calculated failure, and it compensates for itself by its own self-consciousness. Barthelme’s fiction is a logical extension of the doctrine of art for art’s sake: when all other pleasures associated with fiction fail, when fiction’s inhabitable world hardens into the Tolstoy Museum, the only pleasure remaining is the pleasure of its fictiveness. Fielding’s Partridge, in Tom Jones, praises a ham actor because he is so plainly an actor, and condemns Garrick because anyone would behave as he behaves on stage. We are amused, as Fielding intends us to be; Partridge is a silly character expressing an upside-down notion of what constitutes good acting. But Fielding’s own practice as a writer is anti-illusionistic enough to satisfy even Partridge’s taste. He constantly interrupts, editorializes, and takes every opportunity to remind the reader that he is witnessing Henry Fielding in the act of writing Tom Jones: anyone can see that he is a novelist. Fielding, despite the fun he has at Partridge’s expense, realizes that the transparency of the medium is not a necessary attribute of art. Most snapshots, after all, are perfect likenesses: what is missing is the sense of a controlling imagination, a human being holding the camera. It is, in fact, only our awareness of a controlling imagination, a deliberate artifice, which makes us call the “transparent” actor, like Garrick, a great artist while we would regard the same actions in everyday life as “only natural.” Barthelme’s art has not even the minimal transparency found in Fielding. What sets his writing off from what has gone before is that artifice has been purged of representation. The artistic imagination is not merely a tool in Barthelme; it is also the principal subject matter.

The imagination, then, is the central concern in The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine in a twofold sense. Barthelme follows, superficially, the same Wordsworthian tradition that writers of children’s books from Carroll to Travers have followed: imagination withers in the process of maturation. But that tradition is inherently self-contradictory: the “Intimations” Ode, after all, is no sapless philosophical tract, but a product of the very imagination whose apparent loss it laments. In Barthelme’s fiction, the imagination is the saving grace which makes us fully human. Its presence or absence is not necessarily dependent upon age: five-year-old Priscilla Hess in “The Piano Player” is already likened to a mailbox with a butterfly trapped inside. The true delight which the reader, child or adult, of The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine experiences is neither the obsolete pleasure of total immersion in illusion, nor the dry satisfaction of comprehending yet another Wordsworthian parable. Rather it is a delight in being in the company of an illusionist whose repertoire is a little dull and who keeps reminding us that his tricks are only tricks, but who persists in believing, like the djinn in his story, that “if there is anything better than lunch, it is Entertainment.”


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