October 19, 2011
If you hate the word “snotty”—the taste of reading that word, the visceral memory of that kid in grade school who actually did keep a collection of boogers stuck to the inside lid of his desk—it’s going to be hard to read Tod Davies’ novel-length fairy tale, The History of Arcadia: Snotty Saves the Day. But you’re an adult (fairy tales were the YA–adult crossover genre before Harry Potter and the Hunger Games), so you’ll stick with the fewer-than-200 pages (including footnotes and ink drawings), and find this book really is hard to read.
Despite what Disney and company have done to fairy tales, these stories are the original penny dreadfuls and dark morality messages. Their characters murder their spouses and torment their children and hide their identities in the untailored skins of donkeys. In similar fashion, Snotty is “a snotty little boy” (many of the characters’ names are definitions or descriptions capitalized) who runs and deals drugs in a “mean and ugly and cold and wretched” world. What Davies explores through this book is whether a positive change in one person change an entire situation, an entire people: will Snotty learn, and by extension the reader be reminded, that Big is not always Best, that brute force and complacent obedience to an unseen Mr. Big (so named in this book) is not the only way for us as individuals and as a collective? His conclusion is hopeful but not absolute, so even though many readers will accurately guess this book’s ending, the story beyond the last page is not so easily understood.
Snotty goes through the looking glass—in his case, “through the springy weeds at the center of Seventh Garden”—early in the book, as should any fairy-tale anti-hero worth his salt; and walking, talking, and warring Gnomes and Teddy Bears and Mercy, Truth, and Justice replace the swindlers and murderers and beaten homeless men that had been all Snotty had known. Snotty tumbles, often literally, through different landscapes, being accepted by different groups, but his biggest journey is of course one that is beyond the physical: mental, emotional, and even gender bending.
Recognizing the evils of our world in Snotty’s will make readers uncomfortable, ashamed, and frustrated. But we’ve also heard this lecture before, and so readers may feel justified in retaining some of the cynicism that’s being mirror-mocked back at us. For instance, in Snotty Saves the Day, the one thing that succeeds in getting through the “Wall of Prejudice” is “Ideas.” Snotty’s life begins to change when he realizes everyone—including his supposedly lowly self—is connected along one web. But it’s not that perfect, not that simple, readers may cry.
At this point, readers should make use of the footnotes—yes, footnotes. In a fairy tale! It’s awesome. They’re written as nonfiction, by the (fictional) scholars who annotated Snotty Saves the Day before sending it to the (real) indie publisher Exterminating Angel Press. These academics, through trial and error in communicating their mistakes, lessons, and history from their war-torn world to ours, now know: “Technical works do not travel well. Stories do.” Stories, they have discovered, include and stand up to rigorous scientific thought and testing. The professor who sends Snotty Saves the Day to our world cites a book by one of her world’s scholars, On the Discovery of Truths in Fairy Tales, among many others. (One caution: Readers may start wishing these cited texts actually exist.) Through these footnotes, readers learn more about Snotty’s world’s fairy tales, and by extension ours, and so there’s some interesting meta-story happening parallel to the main narration. Think of it as a strongly realistic TV drama that’s all the more intriguing because viewers can switch channels and see the same types of stories contextualized, or summarized, in the evening news. Of course, it is rather funny that the fictional professor character who makes these footnotes can’t resist making these footnotes.
There’s plenty of humor in the book. Some are sly asides, such as Snotty’s mother being described as “no oil painting herself.” Others are dark jabs, as when the neighborhood mothers gossip that one of their own has “‘been on a rag ever since that kid of hers got shot by the cops.’ ‘What, still? That was—must’ve been at least a month ago. AND he was a stupid kid.’” And there’s dry surrealism. Snotty is mocking the army of Teddy Bears he has recently met, and it’s leader responds: “Big Teddy sighed, the Teddy Bears sighed, and with a sad nod, she strode forward with one . . . two . . . three strides of her enormous black and yellow stubby legs and, with one blow from her enormous plush paw, knocked Snotty a powerful clout on the head.”
And the best is the truth—what Is, as the book calls it—Snotty discovers about himself. He doesn’t just see the error of his old ways; he re-becomes an entirely different person. And that possibility, that ability—that we all might re-become what we were born to be—raises a wonder, a “sympathy with the idea of ‘changing the world’” that beats louder than does a superficially bleeding heart. The purpose of education—in the formal and informal senses—is not one of theory but of practice, “to provide a better life for the community.”