The Wild Things backlash: it had to happen. Bruce Handy’s essay in last weekend’s New York Times Book Review called out Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are as boring, impenetrable, nonsensical and—to level the most damning possible charge against a kid’s book—not really popular among kids. The critique is probably a necessary corrective to the hype surrounding Spike Jonez’ Wild Things movie, out Friday, and Dave Eggers’ accompanying novel-sized built-out of Sendak’s slight slumberland misadventure. But, as a recently reborn fan of the original book, I can’t help but think Handy misses the appeal of its odd and slippery narrative. Yes, Wild Things is impenetrable and mysterious and lacks coherence. Of course it is. It’s about Night, Time and Reality.
Lately my two-year-old son has developed a keen interest in after-dark affairs. As the sun goes down—signal, for him, of the inexorable approach of bath, stories and bed—he now looks to the horizon and observes, with an air of calm detachment: “Night.” Sometimes, a cloudy morning confuses him and, as we step out the front door on the way to daycare, he fixes me with an inquisitive look: “Night?” The nighttime is the right time, of course—but for a two-year-old it is less a time of day than another brand of time entirely, a realm apart, glimpsed in the margins, never known. I would guess this is why my son finds night so fascinating, and this is the key to Where the Wild Things Are.
Little kids experience night, and time in general, in a way that’s totally foreign to adult minds. Sometimes before bed, the kid wriggles free and runs, pajama-clad, from his room to the parental bedroom, where he peeks beneath the lowered bamboo blind at the twilit street and says: “Bye-bye, night.”
This is the quality of perception Sendak’s book captures. With Jones’ movie imminent and the hypnotic trailer—a naked generational pander, with its Arcade Fire song and concerted wistfulness, to those of us who grew up in the ‘70s and now have kids of our own—provoking my wife to tears every time she watched it on YouTube, we disinterred our copy. I sat my son on my lap and opened the tale of Max, the boy in the wolf suit.
As the story begins, Max’s decision to hoist the black flag of domestic rebellion earns a stretch of hard time in his bedroom. Max’s imprisonment leads to the transformation of said bedroom into a trackless seaside forest and his flight across an unknown ocean, a journey that lasts “in and out of weeks and almost over a year.” Max arrives in the tropical country of the Wild Things, where giant goggle-eyed beasts live in a state of roughshod anarchy. The beasts proclaim Max their king. The wolf-suited argonaut enjoys a brief and lustily violent period of misrule—call it the book’s Last King of Scotland section—before tiring of the Wild Things’ scene, and their threats to devour him, and then returns home. All is forgiven.
I read this story to my son. The process took about three minutes, including ample time to gaze into the watery nocturnal blues and crosshatched depths of Sendak’s illustrations, which do all the narrative work all by themselves for pages and pages. Where the Wild Things Are is not a book of words; the text’s hybrid of prose and poetry adds up to just a dozen sentences or so. My wife, doing something across the room, looked up when I reached the end.
“That’s it?” she asked. “I remember it being longer.”
So did I. I even paged back through the book, to make sure I had not missed—I don’t know, perhaps the part where Max drives a herd of Wild Things across the vast pampas to attack the Forbidden City of Jade. I don’t know. Whatever it was, it wasn’t. A story that lived in my memory (and presumably, has now been envisioned in film and novel form) as a sprawling surrealist epic is, in reality, much closer to haiku. Through the rest of that day, my mind kept straying back to this anomaly: the Sendak Paradox, a definite wrinkle in the theory of narrative mechanics. Why did I believe Where the Wild Things Are to be so much longer—so much heftier—than it really is?
And then I figured it out: I was not wrong, I was just remembering the book through my kid-mind filter. For a little kid, Where the Wild Things Are is enormous, because they have not lost the ability to perceive time’s porousness. While modern adults have learned to live on scheduled, uni-directional industrial time, very young children have not yet been broken to our chronological rules.
Sendak nailed this. In a nonsensical wisp of a story, he suggests that different kinds of time can nest within one another—that in the course of one groggy night, you can experience two ocean voyages of more than a year and a rambunctious interlude as overlord of a tribe of quarrelsome monsters. And make it home before dinner gets cold.
And no, as Handy points out, this makes no sense at all to an adult mind and may not appeal to our more streetwise youths. But one need only scratch the surface of quantum physics to Wikipedia depth to learn that the consensus perception of reality and time’s onward march are both, to say the least, mutable.
Not long ago, our neighbors invited us to a barbecue. We walked fifty yards down the alley behind our house to their open backyard, which is raised up above alley-level, like a platform, in a way characteristic of our neighborhood. My son spent two evening hours clambering up and down the yard’s low stone walls and sprinting up and down the banked driveway that linked up with the alley. Four other little boys, all about his age, joined in, and aside from the usual territorial and toy-custody disputes, a good time was had by all. As we made our way home, my son pointed to the sky and cried: “Night!”
A few days later, his usual rambling led him out of our yard and back down that same alley. When he came to our neighbor’s backyard, now empty and sunlit, he shot me a narrow, suspicious glance. “Where’s the party?” he asked. In his mind, that yard had achieved escape velocity from our parochial little timestream and floated off on its own, a perpetual party. The boring yard of today just didn’t make sense. And as the certified adult in the party, I thought this was amusing and quaintly poetic and all that. But the enduring mysteries that go along with being a conscious being mean I have to allow for the possibility that my kid has it right and that I have it wrong—that he, with his natural circadian rhythms and his hair never cut, just might understand the true nature of the universe in an intuitive way that I can no longer manage.
Where the Wild Things Are has succeeded for decades as a book and, now, as an incipient pop culture phenomenon precisely because it allows adults to experience time the way tiny children do. For little kids themselves, I suspect that Sendak’s book is just a work of pared-down hyper-realism, an apt reflection of the baffling and exciting way things really are.