By James Thurber
All Posts Contain Spoilers
And now for something completely different.
“Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.” (p. 1)
Sometimes, I feel as though I’m the youngest living person who loves James Thurber. Thurber, who died in 1961, was a humorist and cartoonist, publishing most often in The New Yorker, and perhaps most famous as the author of ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’
My mother, who thinks he is hilarious, used to read me Thurber essays when I was kid. He is hilarious, in a dry, folksy sort of way. I see his collected essays and humors in used bookstores from time to time, and I always pick up a new title. I have never, however, encountered one of his titles still in print, on the shelves of a new book store.
Until now. Right before the holidays, I was wandering around the Brookline Booksmith when I spied, on their Fiction and Literature shelf, a novel by James Thurber that I had never seen before. It was a bright and colorful new printing of a novel called ‘The 13 Clocks‘ with an new introduction by Neil Gaiman, of all people! In which introduction Neil Gaiman describes ‘The 13 Clocks’ as “probably the best book in the world”.
OK, so I can admit this: I have some ego on the line where books are concerned. I’m not the best-read person on the whole planet, sure, I know that, but I’m no slouch. So I was a little miffed not to have even heard about a book written by an author I love, and I was super miffed not to have heard of it given that it might be “the best book in the world”. I expect myself to have heard of the best book in the world.
So I bought ‘The 13 Clocks‘, and I read it immediately.
And I can set your mind at ease, I think: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is not the best book in the world. I can say that with some confidence; let Neil Gaiman come and do his worst.
‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the story of the wicked Duke and his niece, the beautiful princess Saralinda. The Duke is a cold man, and he is afraid that one day, a suitor will come and win the hand of Saralinda, which hand is the only warm thing in the Castle. So he has frozen time, and stopped all 13 clocks in the castle. Each suitor who comes to try for the hand of Saralinda is subjected to impossible tasks and, usually, terrible deaths.
However, one day, disguised as a wandering minstrel, the Prince Zorn of Zorna arrives at the castle, and falls in love with the Princess Saralinda. With the help of his friend, the ambivalently helpful Golux, he will try to rescue Saralinda from the Duke and restart time.
If that sounds to you like a child’s story, you’re not wrong. ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is one of those stories that is written for children, but with deep metaphorical meaning that is meant to move adults.
It has many characteristics of that kind of story: a simple story which ripples with deep, creepy currents; faint echoes of existential terror and deep grief hidden under alienating silliness; little word games, meant to sound to funny to children and clever to adults; cute absurdist paradoxes; witty illustrations.
A great example is the Todal. The Todal does not appear on screen (as it were); rather, it is a sinister force which threatens the Duke if he fails. It is described as a “blob of glup”, and is “an agent of the devil, sent to punish evildoers for having done less evil than they should”.
Do you see what I mean? Do you see the tension there between something frankly childish and silly (or, if you like, stupid), the blob of glup, and the more adult, sinister idea, the Satanic agent which punishes failure? That tension lasts throughout the book – you are always watching the childishness for the quick flicker of darkness which will move behind it.
“Something moved across the room, like monkeys and like shadows. The torches on the walls went out, the two clocks stopped, and the room grew colder. There was a smell of old, unopened rooms and the sound of rabbits screaming. “Come on, you blob of glup,” the cold Duke roared. “You may frighten octopi to death, you gibbous spawn of hate and thunder, but not the Duke of Coffin Castle!” He sneered. ” Now that my precious gems have turned to thlup, living on, alone and cold, is not my fondest wish! On guard, you musty sofa!” The Todal gleeped. There was a stifled shriek and silence.” (p. 107)
And, mostly, it’s pretty charming (that’s pretty clear from the excerpts, right?). So, why do I say with such certainty that ‘The 13 Clocks‘ isn’t the best book in the world?
Well, because something can be very sweet and very charming and very clever without shaking the foundations of the earth, that’s why.
I don’t think that the only role of literature is to move the world, to wrench and rip open the fabric of complacency which covers our eyes, and I don’t think that that is the standard by which all books should be judged.
But books do this – books have done this. Not all, but many. And some have even done it while being charming and clever and sweet. Some have even managed to do it while being beautiful.
And while those books exist, shaking the earth, there is no way ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. It’s super cute, a great little read, but the best book? No.
Although, there is something I have not considered: perhaps Neil Gaiman lives (tragically) in a world without great books, without ‘East of Eden’, or ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, or ‘Brideshead Revisited’, or ‘The Screwtape Letters’ (which is the best book in the world). Perhaps Neil Gaiman lives in a world where the only books in the world are ‘The 13 Clocks‘ and, like, ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac.
In which terrible case, he is absolutely correct: ‘The 13 Clocks‘ is the best book in the world. But, Neil, get out of there.