The Loneliest Book I’ve Read
I’m writing today about the loneliest book I’ve read – lonely in the wonderful sense that I’ve still never met anyone else who’s ever read it. This has increasingly seemed a wonderful thing to me. I’ve learned to value, actually to crave, that old privacy which used to be my constant familiar when I read, whether I was still selecting children’s books or making my earliest explorations of the grownup’s shelves. Books weren’t surrounded, for me then, by reviews, awards, consensus, zeitgeist or buzz. I never felt guilty for being the last to discover something, never felt smug or self-improving for reading something difficult. Instead, it was forever only me and a book on a lonely exploration. Me in a secret garden. And my loneliest book really was a secret garden – a children’s book called The Happy Valley, it concerned an isolated land where people were permanently happy and strange. No one but me has ever broken in there, to The Happy Valley, so far as I know (I realize I’ll change that by writing this essay). The irony, though, is that my lonely book was written by one of the most famous authors in the world, at least at the time he wrote it.
Eric Berne’s Games People Play was published in 1963, and held a spot on the New York Times Bestsellers list for over two years. Berne was among the fathers of something called “Transactional Analysis”, and in Games he became its popular explicator as well, and some kind of cultural star. This was that same moment when the Beatles dawned, and with them the ‘real’ sixties; our parents were ready for a fully-credentialed, fully-bespectacled psychiatrist to explain hostilities and neuroses as ‘bad games’ which could be identified and banished. The book is lucid and clever, with an air of existential empowerment, an anti-authoritarian tinge: institutions played bad games, whether they were governments, colleges, or families, relationships, or one’s own hidebound mind. Autonomy was the higher sport. If you’d found yourself backsliding into a round of “Frigid Woman” or “Courtroom” or “Now I’ve Got You, you SOB”, well, it was only a game: start over. Berne’s genius title found its meme-like way into the culture, giving title and lyric to both a country song by Joe South and a soul number by The Spinners – and that’s how it’s likeliest to be remembered now.
Then, as now, a pop guru with a two-year bestseller could rely on having his ephemeric jottings published, even if only as a courtesy – if Deepak Chopra has a children’s book in him, you can bet his publisher will put it in hardcovers. Eric “Games People Play” Berne did have a children’s book in him, and Grove Press published it in 1968: The Happy Valley. Grove published it, some adult purchased it, removed the jacket (and thereby any evidence of its connection to Games) and gave it to me – I have the evidence here in my hands.
I’ve never had confirmation of the book’s existence besides the copy in my hands. Unlike Bosco, The Bugaloos, Quisp and Quake, Free To Be You and Me, and other touchstones of my child-cultural experience which have not only been confirmed, but burnished into kitsch talismans, no one I’ve mentioned it to has ever heard of, let alone read, The Happy Valley. The book might as well have been scooped from an alternate world. Like any book in the mind of a child, it had the authority of its existence, which was all it needed then. You had Alice In Wonderland , The Phantom Tollbooth, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and A Wrinkle In Time: I had all of these and The Happy Valley, too. For me it was just as deep as those books, equally as a singular and self-contained a fantasy. And unlike the others, it has never been decanted into adult context – no erotic photography or disguised Benjamin Disraeli, no Christian allegory, no disappointing movie adaptations. In my early twenties I worked in a bookstore which specialized in Oz books and Oziana. There my glimpses of the nerdish frenzy of the collectors, and the showoffy one-upmanship of the scholarly types, who sonorously graded the deficiencies of the commissioned sequels by Ruth Plumly Thomson, forever ruptured the magic bubble of the first book. This can never happen to The Happy Valley. The Happy Valley is mine, and it is safe.
The book isn’t nearly as innocuous – okay, insipid – as its title. It’s thrillingly weird. The protagonist is a blue python named Shardlu, who is introduced as “not very handsome to look at, and not very clever… the only way he could earn a living was by being kind to people on Tuesday night and Friday morning. He was listed on the payroll as Friend & Companion.” Shardlu has a bad dream which causes him to curl into a ball and roll downhill, where he bumps into a sign, which sets the unpretentious, unforced surrealist tone for the book: “You are now entering the valley of Lamador. Everybody will see something different here. You will see one thing and your father and mother and dog will see something else. A father will see big trees, big birds, and big animals. A mother will see little flowers, little birds, and butterflies. A dog will see little animals, big and little trees, and bones, but he will smell more than he will see. But the main thing that you will see is to see what happens next.”
What does happen next has the deliriously digressive quality of a sunlit dream, or possibly four or five dreams drifting together like clouds. It involves Shardlu’s engagement with the citizens of Lamador – a caravan of dressed, talking animals which include a rabbit named Dulcy and a sheep named Flossie. The animals are led by a strangely idiot-sage elder with long white beard, named Abe, who never answers questions, but often volunteers wisdom impromptu, such as his speculation that Shardlu has come to them from Australia: “I knew that the Australians were going to fall off sometime, and now it has happened… any fool can see that the Australians are hanging head downward.” Also drifting through are an elegant Prince and a Princess with the air of spoiled, distracted lovers, not quite concerned with the main plot, and an explorer named “The Restless Nogo”, who confesses he discovered Lamador the first time he ever left his house. A temperate crisis is caused by Shardlu’s hunger, which he directs at Dulcy the rabbit – Shardlu recalls that his mother advised him to “always keep a little bunny for a rainy day.” In this he falls into alliance with the Princess, who’s been eyeing Dulcy’s pelt for a rabbit-skin umbrella to protect the fragile jelly-bean house she’s built to honor the Prince. Further mild conflict is provided by the arrival – by parachute – of three Robbers, fleeing their native land of Rodamal:
“How is business?” said the Princess.
“Very good,” said the leader. “Except we had to run away. A man got very angry and chased us. So here we are. This is Shamrock, this is Mustache, and my name is Tobedwego.” They explain further: “You see, we jumped on this man and beat him up.”
“We gave him a bloody nose,” said Shamrock.
“And a black eye,” said Mustache.
“And a sprained wrist,” said Tobedwego.
“We punched him in the chest,” said Shamrock.
“And kicked him in the shins,” said Mustache.
“And took all his money,” said Tobedwego.
“We took his watch,” said Shamrock.
“And his ring,” said Mustache.
“And then we forgave him,” said Tobedwego.
“What did you forgive him for?” said Flossie.
“For getting angry,” said Tobedwego.
“After we forgave him,” said Shamrock, “we decided to admire ourselves for doing it.”
“We decided that we had been generous,” said Mustache.
This vein of amoral generosity runs deep in Lamador – the creatures work diligently on a guilt trip good enough to persuade Dulcy to sacrifice herself to the python’s hunger and the rabbit-skin umbrella, which, as the princess points out to the prince, “I promised you, and what’s more important, I promised my conscience too.” This wouldn’t be 1968, though, if all apparently societal problems weren’t in fact solvable in the realm of person transformation. Handily, Shardlu has begun to itch, warning him that he may be ready for a major shedding. Everyone helpfully tugs at Shardlu’s outer skin together, while he clamps his teeth around a tree – but the unforeseen effect is that the python flips inside out. He turns a bright pink color, and lose his reason and eyesight as well, so gives blind, ravenous chase to Tobedwego, mistaking the lead robber for a meal. When Tobedwego escapes, Shardlu blissfully swallows himself, and vanishes.
Any time I’ve shown The Happy Valley to someone familiar with children’s books, they have the same quick response: that there’s way too much text on the pages for a colorfully-illustrated picture book, which is what it resembles in every other way. This may have dictated the book’s failure in its day (I don’t know this for a fact), but it isn’t fair. The proportion of incident to illustration is reasonable, and what fills the pages are the lovely paradoxical dialogues (“Do you know why you have to face front in an elevator?”/”No,” said Dulcy./”Neither do I,” said Abe. “So I always face the rear. It makes everyone nervous as a cat.”/”Cats are nervous,” said Flossie. “He’s right, as usual.”), which invariably enchant anyone of any age who I’ve managed to induce to dip into them.
A mention of the illustrations, which are by Sylvie Selig. The bright-hued pages are certainly characteristic of their era, for a certain paisley-decorative splendor, and for the bell-bottoms and Nehru collars on the animals’ two-piece suits. The style, though, is mysterious and wonderful and slightly naïve, less Peter Max-slick than a sort of cross between Henri Rousseau’s paintings and Klaus Voorman’s jacket art for the Beatles’ Revolver. And the drawings play a nice trick I’ve never much seen elsewhere, one which made the book particularly spellbinding and re-read-able for me as a child: they contradict and amplify and even sometimes seem to mock the text itself. For instance, where Shardlu’s work as “Friend & Companion” is described, the story also mentions his schedule of “breakfast on Monday morning, lunch on Wednesday at noon, and dinner on Friday evening.” Nothing more, but Selig has depicted Shardlu grinning over a plate of live – shrew? vole? Hard to tell – which pleads for its life. This nicely sends up “Friend & Companion” as well as prefiguring the rabbit-eating plot. Extra animals, unmentioned in the tale, clutter the peripheries – pigs, monkeys, alligators, even lobsters and giant beetles are shown joining in the communal hubbub. And as wordy as the book is, it stops several times for silent pages, where Selig’s lush, mysterious drawing bleed to every margin. This has the effect of stopping time, much in the manner of a Japanese film where scenes are lingered over, camera considering all corners of a room before resuming the plot.
Ah, the plot. It needs finishing. Though he never quite ‘tuned in’, Shardlu has of course dropped out and turned on quite heroically. His transformation doubly spares Dulcy’s life, since the blue skin he shed before swallowing himself makes the Princess a fine umbrella. The Robbers are likewise reconciled by a suggestion from Abe: that their intrinsic necessity of robbing be satisfied by robbing one another. The Restless Nogo might have to wander on, until he is given a similar insight: why not discover himself?
Finally a happy banquet is laid out for all the creatures, including the suddenly-returning Shardlu, who explains: “I changed my mind. So I unswallowed myself backward so I would be right side out again, and here I am.”
“Oh, my!” said Dulcy.
“Don’t worry,” said Shardlu. “I discovered that if you once swallow yourself, you can never be the same afterward. I don’t want to eat Dulcy anymore. Now all I want are flowers and toys and hardware and jelly beans, and there are plenty of those things around.”
“How did you change your mind?” asked the Princess.
Shardlu doesn’t know how to answer, but Abe does, and it is here Berne tips his hat just slightly to his great model, Lewis Carroll: “You either swallow yourself or get to the other side of a mirror. I was there myself when I was younger.”
So, there’s the gift The Happy Valley brought me – it took me as far on the other side of the mirror as the Carroll books, its Hippie aura no less poignant and affecting than the Victorianisms of Alice. Here’s the odd gift it brings me now: since The Happy Valley is entirely mine, it can still take me there, a little. I can still visit Lamador and have my bad vibes smoothed out by the happy inhabitants, the ever-so-slightly sexy sheep and rabbits, the droll Zen Koan-ish wisdom of Abe, which in truth stands for the naïve Utopian yearning of our parents’ sweetest, most hopeful selves. Unlike The Restless Nogo, they may not have convinced me (or the world) to stay back there in the late sixties. But like Shardlu, I can roll in for a visit.
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Remarkable Reads, 2004