June 17, 2010


Mimi’s Dada Catifesto. By Shelley Jackson. Clarion. $17.

Palazzo Inverso. By D.B. Johnson. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

     Sometimes books only seem to be for children. They are really for the child in all of us – the person who, whatever his or her age, is capable of seeing the world differently, of retaining a sense of wonder about everything out there, of perceiving reality in a decidedly off-kilter way. At their best, books like this – books like these, since both Mimi’s Dada Catifesto and Palazzo Inverso fit this description wonderfully well – play with children’s delightfully un-adult perception of how things look and work, while communicating some messages that adults would also do well to heed. These books appeal both to children and to adults’ inner children – at least when adults are willing to open up their consciousness and look within.

     This sounds like a tall order and a recipe for pretentiousness, but what is so amazing about the books by Shelley Jackson and D.B. Johnson is that they are neither difficult nor stuck-up. Complex, yes; even confusing if you do not get into their spirit. But by all means get into it! Mimi’s Dada Catifesto pulls you in immediately: the cover actually bears the word “manifesto,” with the “man” crossed out and “cat” substituted; and there is a picture of a lovely orange cat sporting a truly handsome mustache. And a couple of well-dressed cockroaches gesturing to the author’s name. And all the letters on the cover appear to have been cut out of newspapers. And you haven’t even opened the book yet! Once you do, you find what you think is the story of an alley cat seeking a human with whom to live – but not just any human, for Mimi is even more independent than most cats are, and her human (as she realizes after some talks with Laszlo, a pigeon) must be….a dadaist. And what is a dadaist? Well, the story takes place in Zurich, Switzerland, where dada was invented in 1915, unless it wasn’t. And it features a self-proclaimed artist/performer named Mr. Dada, who wears a fish on his head and likes it when people throw rotten fruit at him as he proclaims that anything can be art. And the story is about how the perceptive alley cat and controversial perceiver of what it means to be artistic eventually find themselves together – with plenty of commentary by those cockroaches, who will have 20 or 30 babies before the book is over, and by various characters in the book’s margins, who detect this influence and that one as Mimi creates sound poems (backyard screeching to the uninitiated) and ready-mades (dead bug, hairball and pigeon poop neatly displayed). Mimi’s Dada Catifesto is hilariously funny – cat and human eventually get together when Mr. Dada realizes he is cursing the cat with the exact same language that other people have been throwing at him – and it is also wonderfully instructive, showing what dada is through the story itself and the design of the jumbled, every-which-way pages. The inside back cover, which displays caricatures of more than a dozen famous dadaists (plus Mimi, plus an outline called “you” with mustache pre-drawn) is the icing on a thoroughly delicious, misshapen, squashed buttercream-and-bologna cake. This book is an absolute gem.

     Palazzo Inverso sparkles, too, but in sepia tones rather than the splashes of color throughout Mimi’s story. This tale is built (yes, built) on the work of an artist whose regularity of form is in stark contrast to the anything-goes approach of the dadaists, but whose perceptions are just as strange and mind-melting: M.C. Escher. The hero of the book is a very angular character named Mauk, and D.B. Johnson designs the whole work to be read from front to back, then turned around (the text turns around, too) and read from back to front – with the illustrations making perfect sense in one direction and a different kind of perfect sense in the other. This is a technique perfected at the turn of the last century by Gustave Verbeek in The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo, in which the newspaper artist turned a six-panel comic strip into 12 by having readers turn the page over halfway through; each title character then metamorphosed into the other. Johnson uses this approach marvelously, having Mauk wake up and begin running as soon as the Master calls, following him as he speeds through hallways, up and down staircases, and along corridors that do not seem quite right, rushing past people who react angrily, and eventually ending up with the furious Master, who has not noticed that Mauk has slightly changed the angle of the Master’s architectural plans from time to time…resulting in the Master creating a topsy-turvy design. Mauk, fearing the Master’s anger, runs away, going down where he previously went up, left where he previously went right, passing people who now seem to cheer instead of being angry, and eventually ending up right where he started, lying in bed with his boots on the floor….unless it is the ceiling. Palazzo Inverso is a delightful story, a wonderfully clever use of Escher’s mind-boggling techniques in a narrative context, and a perfect confirmation of Escher’s own words, quoted at the start of the book: “I don’t grow up. In me is the small child of my early days.” Parents who take those words to heart will enjoy both Palazzo Inverso and Mimi’s Dada Catifesto at least as much as their children will.

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