Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hiding In Plain Sight: Wake Up, Percy Gloom!

Cathy Malkasian quotes William Blake at the beginning of her new book, Wake Up, Percy Gloom! The quote is "The fool who persists in his folly becomes wise", meaning that there are times when pursuing a truly foolish or ridiculous course of action all the way can sometimes lead to liberating, if frightening, revelations. Her books have always had wise fools and foolish wise people. Following what seems to be wisdom can instead lead to folly, and following craziness can sometimes yield wonderful results. Deception and in particular self-deception has always been a running theme in her work, with the undercurrent being that sometimes certain kinds of self-deception can be actually of greater benefit than knowing the actual truth.

This is the second Percy Gloom book. The first saw him discover his true legacy as an immortal, just like his mother, and a realization that every now and then he would take naps that could span up to hundreds of years. He fell in love in the first book as he started to go about the task of building a city that had collapsed. The second book begins with him in a boat with his true love Margaret, only to quickly move to the present where we learn that Percy has fallen asleep again. The reader is quickly let off the hook and told that Percy was only asleep for a year, but he hadn't been able to tell Margaret his true feelings for her nor the nature of his immortality. The mystery of the book is just why Percy fell asleep if he loved Margaret so much.

Meanwhile, his mother Clara (a true delight in terms of character design) is trying to deal with the very long-term results of what began as a joke. She created a book centuries earlier as a work of satire: a joke book about a fictional, magical kingdom that represented paradise. As the year went on, those approaching the book grew further away from its original intent, treating it instead as a religious text and taking its predictions quite seriously--including one that precisely prophesized the date that paradise would float down to heaven. Of course, that prophecy also urged its readers to build towers of furniture in order to ensure a soft landing, but the most absurd actions take on a sober meaning for true believers. Malkasian's satire of religion is a gentle one, as Clara does her best to actually create paradise for them as she also tells her latest lover about her true nature and meets with others of her kind. Immortality, it seems, is simply being so amazed at the world that it takes a long, long time to do things. Folly and wisdom play out in the form of true believers looking for this paradise that Clara has set up, as well as the quixotic quest of Mr Tetzel, a man incapable of telling lies. He was abandoned by his parents (both merchants) because of this quality, and he was secretly taken care of by Clara's group, who convinced him he was living in this paradise country.

When Percy encounters him, it forms the backbone of the book's plot, as he tries to fight through his melancholy and we learn more and more about why he fell asleep. Malkasian's background is in animation (the Curious George cartoon and The Wild Thornberrys being her best-known), and it shows in the way that her characters are in constant, propulsive motion. Static images are generally reserved for moments of contemplation or great aesthetic revelations and are few and far between. Her art style is heavily feathered and textured, looking like a cousin to the likes of Renee French and Bill Plympton. Indeed, her art mimics the grotesque qualities of those artists, only in a much more gentle manner. Percy himself is on the grotesque side, with a head that literally lights up like an upside-down lightbulb, a squinty eye and a lazy eye. The blend of melancholy, emotion and whimsy is reminiscent of Charles Schulz; it's clear that Malkasian has genuine affection for her characters. Unlike Schulz, she's willing to give them a happy ending, and in Percy's case it takes the form of a good lesson. In the book, he plays both wise fool and foolish wise man as he has to grapple with the single most difficult aspect of being immortal: the knowledge that he will certainly outlive his loved ones. How he fell asleep was a moment of selfish weakness and cowardice, though an understandable one. The happy ending feels earned, though I missed the sharper satiric tone of the first book. It's still a fine statement about loneliness and the ways in which we create the circumstances that lead to isolation.

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