Goodnight Mantle Decor, Or What Margaret Wise Brown Conveniently Overlooked

There's a children's book called Goodnight Moon, which if you don't have a child or don't remember your own childhood, because let's face it, that could have been quite a while ago, you at least might recognize from a certain Audi commercial.

Goodnight Moon was published — or maybe we should say "put together," since "writing" isn't a word I associate with a 130-word piece — in 1947 and it reads weirdly in that weird way that stuff from back then reads. Not that it's necessarily weird, just that children from the 1940s seem like they were probably weird (sorry, Mom and Dad!). Maybe it's just that for me stuff from the 1940s seems like the line between olden times (like the Civil War) and modern times (like, I don't know, Mad Men?). (Actually, wasn't this a plot line on Mad Men, that Don Draper was the demarcation line between old-school war hero U.S. culture and new school 1960s culture? See I knew this tangent wasn't totally off base. Thank you, Matthew Weiner! Even though you were born in 1965, so like what the fuck?)

Anyway, all of which is to say that Goodnight Moon feels like it's old. Like in the way Dashiell Hammett feels old — and maybe in a way Mad Men does not; one of my pet peeves with that show is that I've wondered whether there was too much anachronism in the motivations of the characters: Like this is a modern drama trapped in a 1960s set piece (and the attention to detail is distracting and diversionary). But let's not get sidetracked on Mad Men, because that would be stupid.

No, what I really am most interested in right now is what is left out of the text in Goodnight Moon, because as you're probably aware, Moon features a young bunny rabbit (don't ask) saying goodnight to all the random shit in his (his?) room. I don't know why this makes it a smart book — it's certainly not "smarter" than Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, for example — but people really like this book.

I think what they like about it is the reason all well-done children's books are done well, which is that the language has some rhythm and cadence (think Dr. Seuss, because you probably haven't forgotten those). Because babies are dumb, I've noticed this is what they seem to glom on to. As an aside, it's funny how many children's books don't get this — a lot do, don't get me wrong, but so many are just pieces of shit. Without shit-talking too many children's books authors, some just really piss me off. There's one about a fucking pigeon, for example, that just plods along and is boring as all get out; and then the pictures suck, or rather the art work looks pretty to hipster parents but leaves babies cold, which makes the whole endeavor just about the most asinine, self-centered thing to do — write a children's book that a child won't read. Those people need to seriously fuck the fuck off. Please.

Anyway, back to Goodnight Moon, which I suppose succeeds in part because it's inscrutable to adults and seemingly scrutable to children, which is to say, when you read it you're like "What the fuck just happened?" Because as near as you can tell when you read it, all that happens is that a bunny rabbit says goodnight to a bunch of shit in his (his?) room not once but several times.

"Goodnight Moon" Panel 8

But see, here's the thing that bothers me about the book — there are so many things that the bunny rabbit — and let's be clear, is it even a bunny rabbit? Does an anthropomorphized bunny count as a bunny rabbit? — so many things that he (he?) omits, and omits in favor of stuff like "air" and "nobody," that you're kind of like, there's something odd here. And not "odd," but "odd" like this book is sneaking-messages-past-Nazi-code-crackers odd. Here's a list of those therein:

1) A sort of animal skin rug on the floor beside the bed. I don't know what kind of animal this would be; it sort of looks like a cross between a zebra and a tiger, or what happens when a zebra, tiger and bear have a sexual romp. Perhaps it's obvious why this item doesn't get said goodnight to: I don't know how it would sound, maybe something along the lines of, "Goodnight Zebra-Bear-Hybrid Rug." Or maybe Clement Hurd just correctly anticipated IKEA design.

2) Slippers next to the bed that look like Chuka-Uggs, as in "Goodnight Slippers That Look Like Three-Quarter Uggs."

3) A pile of logs by the fireplace, as in "Goodnight Logs, Goodnight Log Rack" . . .

4) Related, "Goodnight Fireplace Tools And Stand, But With Missing Fire Poker" . . .

5) And of course, the fireplace itself — including an active fire — which seems a little bit like an elephant in the room.

6) Except that there's an actual elephant in the room, or at least an elephant doll.

7) And then that brings us to "Goodnight Strange Naked Male Doll On The Bookshelf" . . .

8) And "Goodnight Giraffe Doll" . . .

9) Also, "Goodnight Strange Partially Clothed Female Doll On The Bookshelf" . . .

10) And speaking of which, there's a pretty large bookshelf there that escapes scrutiny, but whatever.

11) Except forget "whatever" because there's also this self-reflexive copy of Goodnight Moon sitting on the nightstand next to the telephone, which I've been meaning to bring up, actually, because what is a telephone doing in a child's room? The 1948 FCC Annual Report (page 89 in this .pdf) shows there to be 20,499,920 residential telephones in the United States in 1947 out of a population of roughly 144 million, meaning about one phone for every seven people. And you want to tell me that a fucking bunny rabbit has one of these things in his (his?) room? I call bullshit. Or is this not a "child's" room after all? Are his parents dead? Did the Nazis take them? The best thing about children's books is that it's perfectly acceptable to raise more questions than get answered. In a "normal" book, an editor would say something like "You can't distract a reader with a telephone without explaining what it's doing there" but this is a different kind of writing, I suppose.

12) Right, speaking of which: Nightstand.

13) Did I mention the billowy drapes? Or does "Goodnight Billowy Drapes" not have a ring to it?

14) "Goodnight Woven Area Rug."

15) I could talk about the picture of the bunny fishing for another bunny next to a felled tree, but the whole idea sort of creeps me the fuck out.

16) And finally, the mantle holds two items next to one of the clocks that I honestly don't understand what they are. Perhaps urns for the ashes of the bunny's dead rabbit parents? I'd call them candlesticks but they really don't look like candlesticks. Maybe just "Goodnight Mantle Decor"?

Next up, an evaluation of the political subtexts of Caps For Sale, followed by a critical appreciation of Sandra Boynton.

Posted: December 21st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing, The Cult Of Domesticity | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Satisfice It To Say . . .

There's a thing people do when they reach some sort of milestone where all of the sudden they're really engaged by certain topics, where conversation about stuff like gas water heaters, the optimal level of collision coverage or male incontinence becomes really engrossing and the players turn very animated. It's this thing where someone's like, "I just had a guy come and lay tile," and the other person will be like, "Oh, wow, what kind of grout did he use?" and basically if you don't have a bathroom — or care about owning one — you're kind of like, "Can't we just talk about the latest episode of Homeland or something, you know, important that I might actually care about?"

All of which is to say, when I started reading Lori Gottlieb's Marry Him: The Case For Settling For Mr. Good Enough, the one thing I couldn't get out of my head was how this writer — who is a single parent with a young child — found the time to write this book.

The point of the book is not that she's a single parent but rather that she's single, period. And that the reason she's single, she explains, is that she spent too much time before she got old and mommed being a big bitch about who she would or wouldn't deign to go out with until one day only 50-plus men would ask her out.

But for the first 100 or so pages I could only perseverate on the fact that even as a single parent, she had all this time to go interview groups of women and men in bars, visit with matchmakers and dating consultants and generally do this gumshoe investigative reporting about how women in their 20s and early 30s are, before they know it, in danger of becoming old and single, or at least only attractive to prospective AARP members. Seriously, even with a nanny or or whoever, how do you write an entire book? Because all I can find time to do when I'm home with Monkey is answer a few emails and maybe finally brush my teeth at some point mid-morning — either that or eat. It sucks. And that's why I'm up doing bullshit at 2 a.m.

It was highly distracting — You can speed date and read Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb 800 times a week? Like, how? — until I finally gave in and figured that there's probably some boarding school somewhere that accepts 18-month-olds. That and I got totally sucked into Gottlieb's pitch-perfect self-deprecating style, which evokes much less scorn than straight-up pity and really does work as a tale that cautions.

The genius thing about its utility as a cautionary tale, for guys at least, is how much dudes (and bros and, yes, even jabrones) can root for this lady to tell these bitches what we've been trying to say for years, which is that they're sure as shit not gonna get any prettier, which will only make it that much harder to check out of that miserable relationship with that dickhead financial services scum once she discovers he's been cheating on her for, like, the eighth time or whatever, which is why she should lock up a good thing now — i.e., this — and give the bald, the poor, the fuzzy asses a chance — one, lousy, goddam chance — with a beautiful baby for once, Jesus H. Christ and Harry S. Truman's Syphilitic Son.

The message for the intended audience is I guess a little different, which is roughly something along the lines of when high-achieving children have been groomed to expect only the best in their education or careers, it is only natural for her to expect "the best" in her relationships as well, which is why women carry around a giant laundry list of necessary characteristics for a mate, a list comprehensive enough to ensure that no man could possibly work, or if one does, he has approximately 48 million potential women to choose from. And so women spend their optimal mating years either ignoring basically good solid men or (and) going after men who aren't good matches for them and then all of the sudden the 32-year-old who gets asked out more times each week than there are days in the week becomes the 38-year-old who guys — i.e., the solid, upstanding marrying kind of guys — wouldn't ever want to bother with.

It's common sense, but like so many self-help or self-helpful books show, there is a big market to be reminded about common sense. I should add, though, that part of the book's power is that it's — I think at least — calling out common sense that people with sense don't want to hear or think it's bad to mention, which probably accounts for much of the negative reaction to the book (or at least the provocative title). I didn't read the negative reaction because a) I don't really give a fuck what some no-sex-having bitches think when they're confronted by the truth and b) I actually don't think the book is saying what people think it's saying (though the provocative title of that and the original article don't help assuage people's skepticism).

There is a funny point in Marry Him where Gottlieb interviews some of the men in her life who probably were "good enough" but who she never ended up with. One in particular — who she was friendly with and who she says she probably should have ended up with — talks about his "settling" in ways that seem a little depressing. Maybe that's a gender thing? It's noticeable that the book's female examples generally describe feeling a stronger and stronger connection with the schlubby men they settle for but this guy — who marries a "bland" lady — simply starts focusing on other qualities: "'She's bland in ways that aren't important int he big picture,' he said. 'I'm a talker, and I love the banter, and I'm intense about things, and she's just not. It mattered more when we were dating. It still would be nice to have in a spouse, but it has so little to do with the day-to-day of marriage that it matters very little now.'" I hope this guy is a composite because his wife should be pissed the way she's described in the book.

Another small thing that you start to notice after a while is how Gottlieb is usually very careful to note that there is always "physical chemistry" in whatever settled couple she uses as an example. It's noticeable because she sort of seems to add it in as a parenthetical a lot, which makes you question how often it's actually there. You know, like, if you keep having to mention it, etc. . . . At the very least I wondered if it's not maybe always there and doesn't it sort of undercut the argument? Those are unknown unknowns though.

Ultimately, Marry Him succeeds in two ways: One, it's a huge literary feat that you, the reader, somehow by the end of the book start to feel your heart hurt for this person who is not such a huge jackass that she didn't understand that having a child via sperm donor in her late 30s wouldn't lead to dimmed dating prospects but that she — like all of us — kept holding on to this idea that she could still feel a spark with someone who was the love of her life. You feel for her. And then she admits that she is turned off by a match she is presented with because he went to San Diego State. And you're, like, wow, you're kind of an idiot, because while I'm sure the California public higher education system is under great financial stress right now, the difference between SDSU and UC-Berkeley is not that great that you shouldn't be able to just suck it the fuck up. I mean, Jesus H. Christ and Harry S. Truman's Syphilitic Son you come off like a hose beast. To continue One (above), you read this selp-helpful book thinking she's going to triumph at the end with a real nice guy and then when she doesn't it's such a huge muted-trumpet moment that you almost — not quite! — feel teary-eyed when you hear that the Mr. "Good Enough" she finally found, after hundreds of pages of trials and travails and child-neglect, was forced to move away for the good of his family. It's written very smartly that way.

Two (I nearly forgot what "Two" was) — and this is a message that Atlantic editors probably care like not at all to emphasize, which is why Gottlieb is somehow vilified — is that ultimately Marry Him is about being kind. In this case, to dumpy men with limited financial prospects but who will help out around the house and take their sons to soccer practice. On behalf of dumpy men with limited financial prospects but who will help out around the house, I want to personally thank Gottlieb for encouraging hot young chicks to get real about some of these dandies they insist on bringing home and instead indulge in the dark arts of the League of Bald-Headed Men. Thanks bro! We owe you (a bunch)! She's like a more useful Foundation For A Better Life, in that with FFABL, all I get is some jock to pick up the books I dropped in the hallway; with Gottlieb, at least I get some yoni out of the deal, you know? Seriously men, she's doing some Yeoman's work up in this heeze.

Posted: October 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , , , , ,