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Causation and Logic in Surrealism with Jon Scieszka

September 18, 2018

When my son was born, I inherited one of my favorite childhood stories through what passes for a time capsule in my family: a dusty box forgotten in the back of my parent’s attic. 

It’s called THE BOOK THAT JACK WROTE, written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Daniel Adel. My son is a year and a half old, and thus got bored about half way through (he’s just too young, yet) but reading the rest myself, I remembered why I loved it so much as a child. It’s surreal and ludicrous and horrifying, and clearly an early, if until-now unacknowledged, influence on my work. Many spoilers ahead, for those that worry about such things. 

THE CHALLENGE

With surrealism being my main stomping ground, sometimes I’m angsty about the entire concept of causation: the point of surreal narratives is to surprise and shock, to drive you where you don’t expect or wouldn’t dare to go. 

But recently, I’ve thought about causation while reading a few surreal books, like Ahmed Bouanani’s THE HOSPITAL and Samanta Schweblin’s FEVER DREAM, and I realized that I’ve been thinking about causation all wrong. In surrealism, or really in any form of non-realism that trends close to fairy tale, including most horror, causation absolutely is present, it’s just finicky. It’s distinct. 

To dig into exactly what causation (and a causal chain) looks like in surreal work, few examples are more illustrative than Scieszka and Adel’s 1994 fairy tale. 

THE STORY

Published in 1994, THE BOOK THAT JACK WROTE is a re-imagining of the classic fairy tale called “The House that Jack Built” which essentially unites a bunch of nursery rhymes in one long causal chain beginning with this first page:

This is the Book that Jack wrote.

The text is paired with a 3-D painting of the the book that Jack wrote (which in fact matches the cover of the actual book”). The next pages read as follows, with similarly representative images: 

This is the picture / That lay in the Book that Jack wrote

This is the Rat, / That fell in the Picture / That lay in the Book that Jack wrote

This is the Cat, / That ate the Rat / That fell in the Picture/ That lay in the Book that Jack Wrote

To read about half the text and see the illustrations (which publisher’s weekly called “bizarre but virtuosic paintings that evoke Alice in Wonderland by way of Francis Bacon”) in action, you can use the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon

That same publisher’s weekly review gives away the core structural feature of the book, that “a causal chain is steadily built.” And while it’s a fair enough statement, the reality of the book’s structure (and it’s causal chain) is much more complex. Our first step has to take the idea of building a causal chain and make it more specific. 

THE SOLUTION

For starters, THE BOOK THAT JACK WROTE is one of those rare stories that actually builds its causal chain backwards, although it’s not so clear at first. Also, I’d argue it’s much better than the other examples of backward-moving stories I’ve read (for the record: “Backward, O Time” by Damian Knight and “Currents” by Hannah Bottomy); by “better” I mean more satisfying and more willing to dedicate itself to the experiment.

In its conclusion, the Publisher’s Weekly review states that “Readers who require logic will be stymied; those who appreciate near Victorian oddities and Escher-like conundrums will tumble right in.” But here, perhaps, the reviewer is revealing a particular bias, because there is no shortage of logic in this surrealist fairy tale. On the third page, the causal chain begins: “This is the Rat, / That fell in the Picture / That lay in the book that Jack wrote.” Notice the verb: “fell.” It prompts the question “Why did the rat fall?” We do not get the answer on the next page, where the Cat eats the Rat, but if we pay close attention to the illustration, we’ll notice that the book is no longer in the frame. How did the cat fall if it had been eaten? It’s this subtle ambiguity that keeps us from realizing, quite yet, that the plot moves backwards. But on the next page, we get our answer, perhaps if only through implication: “This is the dog,/That chased the Cat,/That ate the Rat,/That fell in the Picture/ That lay in the book that Jack wrote.”  

From here, it’s hard to know where the plot will go. It seems that the causal chain is complete–the Rat fell in the Picture when it dropped from the mouth of the Cat when the Dog chased it. This a little wibbly-wobblyness to the timeline here, a muddiness that becomes hard to parse if you think too hard. But if we look at this from a logic point of view, we can ask “Why did the Cat eat the Rat?” and the answer is clear: “Because that’s what Cats do.” It’s natural. And there’s a similar logic to “Why did the dog chase the cat?”

“Because that’s what Dogs do.” 

But when you turn the page, you find a different answer: the dog was afraid:

“This is the Cow sailing over the moon, / That spooked the Dog, / That chased the Cat, / That ate the Rat, / That fell in the Picture / That lay in the Book that Jack wrote.” 

This sort of twist marks the rest of the book, taking you deeper and deeper into its surreal causal chain: the Cow was tossed over the moon by a Baby; and a Pie that hit struck him, angering him enough to throw it; and the pie was thrown by a Pieman (of course) who was startled by an Egg (humpty dumpty, actually) falling off a wall, who was knocked out the window by a Mad Hatter who tripped on a rug that was frayed by a bug. 

Then, in an unbelievable (literally) twist, we see a Man in a tattered coat crush the bug, and then himself get crushed by the Book that Jack wrote, leaving us in exactly the place where we started. And, in fact, one of the key pleasures of the book is when you become smart enough to restart the book (as this ending gives you permission to do) and notice that the Man in the tattered coat (who by all contextual clues IS the titular “Jack”) was already crushed under the book, like a wicked witch, on the first page. 

So, as you can see, each page follows a specific kind of formula: introduce a character that creates a question, and then use the next page to answer that question but raise another. It really is a microcosm of story: constant movement and change, all linked in a causal chain (with some exceptions). 

But, for those paying attention, I think you’ll already have seen, the entire structure of the book relies on logic. In fact, I think there are actually four different kinds of logic at work here. This book tries to stretch your imagination back through each logic, starting in a comfortable place and going deeper into surrealism and absurdity as you progress. The logic forms are these: 

  1. Instinct/Natural Logic
  2. Fairytale Logic 
  3. Surreal Logic
  4. Absurd Logic

The first, natural logic, is embedded in the pages that introduce the mouse, the rat and the dog. These familiar creatures are given to us in these pages along with our most familiar form of logic: common sense, instinct, purely mechanical. This is, I think, the logic desired by the reviewer (although perhaps I am presumptuous) and that’s no surprise; it might easily be called “mainstream logic” today. It’s the closest a children’s book may ever come to the logic of a mathematical proof, with certain things as “given.” 

But at one time, that sort of logic was viewed with quite a bit of suspicion, when an older, fairy-tale logic layered the world in metaphors and stories and focused on how emotions led us astray. In the second section of the story, we find out that it’s fear that drives the dog to chase the cat, and anger the causes the baby to throw the cow, and shock that causes the Pieman to throw the pie. In this logic, instead of being driven by instinct, people are driven by their emotional states–they’re like children. This is often the logic of fairy tales (at least the Russian, with which I have the most familiarity): “Once upon a time, a poor villager named Ivan felt angry with his brother, so he locked him in cage” might be a fine start to a fairy tale, to a journey that will lead to an epic conclusion, where Ivan is crowned king after defeating a dragon. Except in our epic causal chain, an Egg falling off a wall gets a Cow tossed over the moon. 

Finally we come to the third logic, what I might call the surreal logic. These pages introduce the Egg, the Hatter, and the Bug. In this form of logic, things happen simply because something else happened, with very little sense at all. There’s a reflection of the first logic in it, in that it’s incredibly mechanical, but it’s hardly instinctual: why was humpty dumpty sitting on a window sill? Why was the hatter even walking down the hall to trip (the hall is a dead end by all counts)? Why would a bug be eating a rug, and how could it eat enough of it to fray the rug so completely? The answer to each is simply “because” with a shrug. But notice how, as much as it’s senseless, there’s still causation, and there’s still logic. And in some ways, just like the surrealism of Kafka, once you give it a little more though, this feels more real than the natural logic of the opening: because we often don’t really know people’s goals and motives. “Random events occurring randomly” is often our point of view perspective in life, especially when it comes to disaster. 

Finally we come to the final logic of the book: absurd logic. This is brought to life by the first two pages (the Man is already crushed by the Book! How did the Book open up on page 2 for the Rat to fall in?) and by the ending, where the Man squashes the bug and then is himself squashed by what appears to be his own book. This absurdism also, of course, frames the entire book, as on several pages (including the one where the Man squashes the Bug) we see a framed photo on the wall of the Man squashed by the Book! 

It seems to begin (as all absurdism does) with an appeal to a traditional sort of logic: just desserts, an eye for an eye. The bug gets quashed BECAUSE it frayed the rug–look at the mess it caused. And then the Man gets quashed, which seems a little strange for a moment, but then you realize it’s only fair, it’s only karma–until you notice the first page. 

If the man was killed by the book, before any of this happened, how could the cat have dropped the mouse in the picture in the first place. It’s enough to drive you a little batty. I thought I found my way out of the time loop labyrinth when I realized (duh) that instead of finding out why the Bug frayed the rug, we got the consequences of the Bug fraying the rug (getting quashed), which means we’re moving forward in time again. But it still doesn’t add up. You could, if you tried hard enough, find a convoluted way to but together a timeline. But you will never overcome one basic fact: when the Man quashes the bug, there’s a photo of the man, already quashed, hanging on the wall next to him. It’s absurd. It’s karma without justice, it’s cosmic punishment without care, it’s fate without gods. It’s a wild narrative of out of control emotions and tragedy caused by habit. No sense required. No cause even. For that’s the secret of absurdist logic–which we can only call post-modern–“Things Just Happen.” The Man crushed the bug not because of the rug, but because the bug was a bug, and the Man was bigger. And no justice was had when the Man was crushed by the Book: it was just a big book crushing a small man. In these final pages, this book obliterates its causal chain, turns the whole plot into a farce and dares you to read it all again. To memorize it and repeat it in your sleep, as I did as a small child. 

FINALLY

To the reviewer (whose review was absolutely lovely) I say: more logic? This book is brimming with, over flowing with logic. It’s just that it can’t seem to decide quite what kind of logic it likes the most. 

Although it’s surreal and surprising, its best surprises are delivered with a smooth transition and an almost “inevitable” feel, it surprises in the way it resolves the cause, rather than by feigning zero causation. 

At the same time, though, it does in the end make an argument for unknowable causes, in the surreal section, and for a lack of cause, in the ending.

But that shattering of its causal chain is earned, and that’s why it works. 

Earned is maybe too vague, though, when what I really mean is that the shattering of its causal chain is exciting. It’s a final twist that makes you want to read again, that rewards you for paying attention, that lets most of its story live in the more rational world of cause and effect so that when absurdity strikes it has impact and import. And it’s important that this book is in some ways trying to resolve a conflict between contemporary logic and the older logic of fairy tales, a logic we often consider childish today but is still fairly instinctual to most of us. A case can be made that we ignore fairy tale logic at our own peril. We’d be careless to ignore the way instincts can drive us, but also emotions, but also external disasters and just bad damned luck or the cosmic whims of the void. 

There’s also something else about the logic, and by extension, the causal chain of this book: it’s poignant but it’s also very simple. The answer is often plain, and even it’s most complex, most absurd twist, should have been obvious from the start. The Man’s feet always were poking out from the book. He was always going to be crushed. Perhaps this is a strange place to land when writing about a children’s book–and the horror of this book continually grows–but ultimately it must be viewed to some degree as an existentialist lesson about mortality. And it’s the lesson a lot of existential philosophers left us with: the one inevitable thing. We keep circling back to it, don’t we? 

Good a place as any to land. I suppose it’s now time to ask you what you think.

What do you think? Have you read this book? Have you recovered? Are there books from your childhood that have revealed themselves as influences later in life? 

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