On the other hand, in recent years Lewis Carroll himself has been the subject of several examinations of his unusual tastes, and a Dennis Potter filmscript, DREAMCHILD (1985). That title comes from the verse dedication in ALICE IN WONDERLAND - in fact, the word "dream" occurs three times there, while it occurs four times in the acrostic poem that spells "Alice Pleasance Liddell" at the end of THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. Dreams cause problems for anyone looking at the Alice books because while their events can be explained as dreams (Alice begins both books very tired), once inside they maintain a continuous if inverted logic. That is, they do not progress "dreamily". So much so that they are not very popular with children themselves, because the books are so dark, so cruel, with more than a cartoon cruelty.
Now into this world "Jeff Noon takes on the mantelpiece of Lewis Carroll, bringing Alice thoroughly up to date. Not so much a sequel to ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, more of a trequel, the third book in a series of misadventures even weirder than your dreams," the cover blurb says. Alice is visiting her Great Aunt Ermintrude in Didsbury, Manchester, and "beginning to feel very drowsy from having nothing to do", after failing to complete a jigsaw puzzle. In the first book she followed a rabbit, in the second a kitten. Here she releases a parrot from its cage, and follows it as it disappears into the workings of a grandfather clock, to see time racing past her until she is caught by 1998. But this is not 1998 as we will know it.
She enters through a termite mound, and finds, like the White Rabbit, that these animal creatures have little place for names:
"'Oh!' cried Alice, 'Miss Termite, you're just too ... too ... too logical for me!'
"'Logical? Of course I'm logical. I'm a computermite.'"
And a computermite we learn is "a termite that computes". On the other hand, or leg, this does nothing to stop another termite riding through on a bicycle.
We are in a land of strange confusions. In fact, it has been affected by "Newmonia", a disease that turns people into combinations - like Badgerman and Policedogmen. Alice the human stands out because she is not one of these chimera (all of them "invurtebrates"). Captain Ramshackle the Badgerman warns her:
"'Be careful out there, Alice,' shouted Ramshackle. 'Times may have changed since your day.'"
And, of course, they have. He's already told her that she's one-hundred-and-thirty-eight years late for her two o'clock writing lesson. He has not, though, warned her of the jealousies and paranoia induced by the "newmonia" and before long Alice has been arrested by the police, who are investigating a series of jigsaw murders. In Carroll's rabbit holes Alice went back into feudal times - it was royalty and guardsmen who threatened her. Now we have a police force to lock her up, though I'm not sure why Ramshackle would have used a line from HILL STREET BLUES to warn her.
So who is Automated Alice? because Alice so far has been the Alice that Carroll knew and perhaps loved. Automated Alice is an anagram - she is Celia the doll come to life, and it is this second Alice who leads the first through the topsy-turvy world. This is where Noon starts to get a bit gruesome - "Celia bent forward at her squeaking waist and then turned a couple of screws on each side of her temple. She swivelled aside the top of her head. Alice leaned forward to peer into the gaping skull and found inside a loosely-packed mound of soil through which a million termites were scuttling".
In the next chapter, though, we discover that not all these bizarre creatures are like Celia when we meet James Marshall Hentrails, who has been created by a reverse butcher: "She reached into the soft, damp, warm interior of the giblets (shivering from the squelchiness!) to pluck free a small piece of jagged wood that rested just to the north of the liver and the kidneys. 'This is a piece of my jigsaw zoo,' Alice said'", but Hentrails is almost completely lost to the world - too much a parody of the original Jimi. He had a pill problem, but the original Alice had a pill problem of a different kind. Alice's size changed as a result of her pill taking, now size problems re-occur in the use of handles on Celia's china legs that send them shooting up into the air, though unusual legs have already appeared in a hut on hen's legs that walks out of a garden. I'm not sure if this is just duplication or whether it represents a theme.
Alice begins to discover that she must collect her missing jigsaw pieces and meet the mysterious Professor Chrowdingler if she is to get back in time for her writing lesson in Didsbury. And both of those seem to represent problems with AUTOMATED ALICE. Firstly, I could not identify why the jigsaw matters - it is mentioned before Alice goes into the clock, but not significantly. Why should she want to collect its missing pieces, even in a dream - losing jigsaw puzzle pieces is an everyday problem? And secondly, I have discovered today that some of Jeff Noon's new themes are hidden too deeply. Only in the last couple of hours have I realised that "Chrowdingler" is based on "Schrodinger" of cat fame, but while the name tickled it did not hammer home its connection, and of course there is no cat, because the cat (Dinah) appeared in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS.
So is AUTOMATED ALICE successful? It has a lot in common with the original works - it's almost possible to think that Jeff Noon has got a little into Lewis Carroll's mind, but I'm not sure that it was a mind capable of sustaining a "trequel". The work with which I would compare this is Norton Juster's forty-year old THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, which also deals with time, number and logic in a fantastic way. Try reading them both. You'll need to if you want to make a comparison. And as Alice probably discovers you have to make your own comparisons - you can't buy them for love nor money.
Note: 28 May 2001
There may have been many spin-offs of which I was unaware: ALTERNATIVE ALICES: VISIONS AND REVISIONS OF LEWIS CARROLL'S ALICE BOOKS edited by Carolyn Sigler (Kentucky UP 1997), suggests there were at least 200 imitations, revisions and parodies, including Christina Rosetti's SPEAKING LIKENESSES (1974) and Edward Hope's ALICE IN THE DELIGHTED STATES (1928)
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