Mr. Punch

By | Monday, December 04, 2006 Leave a Comment
I managed to snag a few free moments to finally read Mr. Punch, which I purchased several weeks ago. (Blogger's image-uploading doesn't seem to be working just now, so I'll point to where you can buy it on Amazon, if you're interested.)

The story is about a boy who spends some time with his grandfather one summer, and does some growing up in no small part thanks to Punch and Judy. It's a small story -- not in the sense that it isn't powerful, but in the sense that it focuses on a small, but still significant, part of the boy's life. It's very much told through the eyes of the boy -- now much older and telling the tale with some degree of hindsight -- and the reader very nearly takes on the role of the boy himself.

Dave McKean's art is extremely clever. He depicts the story in much the way the protagonist sees it, and the reader is given no visual information to which the boy would not also have. But, interestingly, McKean still steps back and shows the boy in a third person perspective frequently, so readers are not expressly asked to become the narrator. There's a scene in particular that springs to mind when the boy, peeking through a slit in some canvas, witnesses an arguement among several adults that he doesn't recognize. McKean actually shows the boy from the perspective of the adults (if they had seen him) and then casts shadows of them against the canvas. We, the readers, are removed enough from the story so as not to confuse the boy's life with ours, and yet we're travellers with him and are only privvy to his interpretations of events.

The story itself, though, is more powerful, I think. I picked the book up in part because I heard that Neil Gaiman has noted it as being the work he's most proud of, and it's easy to see why. It's unclear if it is in fact autobiographical, but it is filled with sincerity, as if it were. The story is one in which nothing terribly significant happens -- the narrator doesn't even seem to purport that the events are particularly life-shaping. And there's no big conclusion with a stated moral or life lesson. It's more powerful than that, I think, because Gaiman avoids stating things directly. He presents the story, and allows readers to draw their own connections and conclusions. It has many hallmarks of a fable, without the preachiness or overt guidance that keeps them in the realm of children's literature.

For those who don't know, Mr. Punch is a tradtional English puppet who's stories generally involved killing people who interferred with his entertainment and/or happiness. That included his baby, his wife (Judy), the police, wild animals and even Satan himself. I'm sure I haven't even seen a tenth of Mr. Punch stories there are, but I doubt there's a single one of them in which any character besides Mr. Punch actually survives an entire performance. And even though the puppet is designed to be generally psychotic and frightening looking, the performances are often quite entertaining nonsense. That characters keep getting killed with such violence and such frequency mutes the effect of death itself, in much the same way that Kenny does on South Park.

My father was, and indeed still is, a magician. He performs at festivals and birthday parties and such. One of his earliest regular gigs was at a series of craft shows, loosely themed around the American colonies. All the vendors had to dress in more-or-less colonial costumes and the crafts themselves were supposed to be created largely by technology that would've existed in the late 1700s and early 1800s. My father was hired as a performer, and he became friends with a puppeteer that also performed at the shows. She did a Punch and Judy story every hour on the half-hour for the entire hours of operation at these shows. My father brought my brother and I along at first for the vague appreciation of history we might get, but soon convinced the owners that we could earn our keep by selling concessions or taking tickets or whatnot. The upshot is that, several times a year, from the time I was 7 or 8 until I was 17 (when I began working regularly at McDonald's) I watched and heard several hundred Punch and Judy performances.

The shrill "Atsawaytadoit!" echoes in my mind to this day. And "You've thrown the bai-be our the window!" (The puppeteer always used this odd pronounciation of 'baby' that seemed to make for good comedic empahsis.) Oh, and Mr. Punch taunting his latest advesary: "Lookit that! Poor Mr. Alligator! Lookit that! Poor Mr. Alligator!" I could probably recite at least one or two of the shows by heart to this day.

So Gaiman's Mr. Punch was probably a bit more visceral to me than to most Americans, and I'm sure that explains a large part of it's unfamiliarity. (When my local comic shop owner called around to see if he could find a copy, one of his peers even noted that he had never even heard of it, despite being familiar with at least some of Gaiman and McKean's other works.) Nonetheless, everything you need to know about a Punch and Judy performance is in the story, and I expect that 'normal' Americans who've never seen Mr. Punch in action could still relate to it in some way.

A good writer can connect with people on some level, even if they don't share the exact same experiences. Good writing, when you boil it down, is about the human condition. Gaiman does an excellent job that, and Mr. Punch is a particularly stellar example of it.
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