I have very mixed feelings about this book; at times I hated it and at others I laughed or admired the writing or felt I could appreciate what Schulz was doing. Sometimes I was horrified by it.
It’s a series of short stories, sort of — I think of the chapters as being on the boundary line between stories and sketches. Some of them actually told a story with a plot, while others were more descriptive, without much, or any, narrative. They are about a young boy’s family and his city; I think we are safe in assuming that the main character is at least partly based on Schulz himself.
These stories are often fantastical. They might start off in a realistic mode, but most of them eventually veer off into the dream-like and the impossible. I wasn’t expecting this, and so I spent a lot of time figuring out what Schulz was doing and how I supposed to approach his stories. I found the reading experience to be disorienting — which isn’t a bad thing, really, although it wasn’t purely pleasure, either. As I was describing the stories to the Hobgoblin, he asked if they might be called “magical realism,” and I thought not, because to me magical realism is more about describing the fantastical or the magical as though it were real — to treat it matter-of-factly — when what Schulz does is the opposite; he takes the real and makes it strange and otherworldly.
My favorite chapters were the ones that had more narrative, such as “Birds” or “Cinnamon Shops.” The more descriptive chapters drove me crazy; I felt like I was drowning in Schulz’s incredibly dense language. As I look over the book trying to find a passage to show you what I mean, I realize that this isn’t bad writing really, not bad in the sense that Schulz loses control of it and his meaning gets away from him. Here’s an example:
Once Adela took me to the old woman’s house. It was early in the morning when we entered the small blue-walled room, with its mud floor, lying in a patch of bright yellow sunlight in the still of the morning broken only by the frighteningly loud ticking of a cottage clock on the wall. In a straw-filled chest lay the foolish Maria, white as a wafer and motionless like a glove from which a hand had been withdrawn. And, as if taking advantage of her sleep, the silence talked, the yellow, bright, evil silence delivered its monologue, argued, and loudly spoke its vulgar maniacal soliloquy. Maria’s time — the time imprisoned in her soul — had left her and — terribly real — filled the room, vociferous and hellish in the bright silence of the morning, rising from the noisy mill of the clock like a cloud of bad flour, powdery flour, the stupid flour of madmen.
I’m fine with the passage for the first two sentences, and even the third, although I do wonder what kind of “chest” Maria is lying in. I like the description of her as “white as a wafer and motionless like a glove.” Then we get the silence talking, and I feel like we’re entering into deeper waters, but I like the idea of silence talking, and even arguing and being loud. The last sentence begins to lose me, though — Maria’s time is filling the room? I sort of get it, if I stretch a bit. I like the image of the cloud of flour filling the room, but why the “stupid flour of madmen”? This book is full of language you can struggle with for a long time, if you want. Or, I suppose, you can refuse to struggle with it and just let it wash over you.
The sections that describe the father were the most powerful; it was these sections that horrified me. He goes back and forth between sanity and insanity, and during his insane times, he does things like keeping a flock of birds in the attic and crawling across the floor like a cockroach. And the family can’t really do anything about it. They often act as though he’s not there, as though there weren’t a completely insane man living in their midst. I wonder if some of the book’s mixing of fantasy and reality is the boy’s response to his father’s madness; in the world the boy lives in, how is he supposed to distinguish what is real and what is not? What does he have to hold on to that’s solid and certain?