In the fourth century, the writer and mystic Saint Augustine diagnosed autobiography’s biggest problem: You don’t know what something truly is, he complained, until it’s over. You cannot see the shape, the placement of beginning, middle, and end. Perhaps God achieved omniscience by looking down from above on the outspread textile of eternity, but as far as the living were concerned, days passed in a fever of mutability, chaos, and strangeness. Where you’d progressed to on your own timeline, what the shapes around you might portend—it all blurred into nonsense. Augustine suggested that life is but a dream, at least during the interval of dreaming. Afterward, perhaps, you woke up into nothing and found out that it had been life after all.
But what if, dead person, from your God’s-eye perch above past, present, and future, you could go down? What if the lost could descend again into life and nonsense? It would be wonderful, this Underworld, or Underland. This Wonderland.
Enter Gregory Maguire’s new novel, After Alice.
On the railway line of fantastical destinations, Lewis Carroll’s crazypants kingdom lies a few stops past Oz, where Maguire made his name giving voice to the bad guys in Wicked. (After Alice seems sweeter than Wicked, however, which thrummed deliciously with an adult energy.) You’d think the place’s cupboards would be bare by now. Few stories have endured as much scholarship or appropriation as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its 1871 sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. At one point after the mass literacy explosion, pollsters found that Wonderland was the most commonly owned book in England, after the Bible.
But Maguire’s gently sepulchral take on the Carrollian dreamscape freshens it again. This is a place in which the Cheshire Cat confides to Ada, a child who has accidentally followed Alice into Wonderland: “They buried me under the Iffley yew. … It’s true cats have nine lives, you know. But cats can’t count. So I don’t know where I am.” Scoliosis has twisted Ada’s spine; she wears an iron corset to correct her posture, until it flies off of its own accord. (Wonderland, we’re to believe, is so warped and weird that in context a curved backbone becomes straight). As a heroine, Ada shares Alice’s seriousness in the face of balderdash. She is willing to follow grown-up-sounding plaits of logic to their absurd conclusions. “A door is not a door when it is ajar,” she tells the Walrus and the Carpenter. The contradictory, baffling, and often hypocritical mores of Victorian England have taught her well.
While Ada traipses around Wonderland meeting all manner of familiar characters (including, in one frumiously tense scene, the Jabberwock), her governess teams up with Alice’s older sister Lydia to find the lost children. Both women are enmeshed in a confusing set of social understandings and subjugations. They cannot, for instance, enter the Oxford gardens, where “a serene sort of male calm obtained.” Yet they can wander “past Park Town, where the university’s dons, forbidden marriage, were said to lodge their female companions.” Complicating matters further, an ailing scientist named Mr. Darwin has come to visit Alice’s father. Though he studies “the descent of man” in a morally neutral sense, to his religious contemporaries his theories augur a dustward tumble from grace. He has with him a handsome American abolitionist, Josiah Winter (whose “silvery blond” hair and “neat form” intrigue both Lydia and the governess) and an ex-slave named Siam. Siam knows all about the liberties the Underworld makes possible: He rode the Underground Railroad to freedom.
Is this modern-seeming consciousness to class, race, and gender a betrayal of the whimsical world Alice visited long ago and far away? Not at all. It’s only at first glance that the original Alice books seem to posit a fanciful antidote to the society from which they sprang. When you look closer, you see that Wonderland declares its own capricious rules and categories, and enforces them via homicidal scythe-wielding cards. For all the singsong and play, Carroll’s fantasia wasn’t so much an escape from reality as a distorted reflection of it. Maguire understands this; in the Lydia sections, his sensitivity to the moral whiplash of 19th-century social practice almost obviates the need for Wonderland at all. Mourning her dead mother, unsure of her station, half in love with Winter, and perplexed by Siam, Lydia, not Ada, proves the novel’s more interesting protagonist.
Then again, we are talking about Gregory Maguire, which means that the ideas and the language outshine the characters anyway. (So too with Carroll, who rather than aiming for psychological realism made cipher-like Alice a reactress to his verbal and imaginative hijinks.) Ada is a “gallootress.” Darwin wheezes “a pulmonary etude in a minor key.” And the allusions! Trust Maguire to know that Nabokov was hired to translate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into Russian in 1922. That must be why two characters argue over whether the heroine’s name is “Ada” or “ardor.”
After Alice is also aware, in some behind-the-scenes way, that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson had a stammer and took more than 3,000 photographs over the course of his lifetime. Inevitably, Lydia ends up meeting a shy, stuttering Oxford boy struggling with a camera in one of the university’s forbidden gardens. She ducks inside a cave of black fabric to operate the machine while he poses on the lawn. She notices his expression, “sweetly alert, and trembling.” She takes the picture. “Time seemed to stand still,” Maguire tells us. “He froze in his place.”
The meta-encounter unfolds years before Dodgson supposedly used his writing to fan the flames of his attraction to a young girl, Alice Liddell. Though Maguire never invokes the pedophilia accusations it has become fashionable to levy against Carroll, there is something in this moment of Saint Augustine, and the uncertainty about what shape a life will take. In a similar scene, Ada and Siam huddle under another spire of dark cloth: a cloak made of seaweed. Ada begins to see images on the sides of the cape, “glowing and insubstantial, as if thrown by a magic lantern,” fragments of her earlier adventures—talking roses, a quixotic White Knight, a singing pig, marionettes. “The difficulty,” writes Maguire, “was in assembling such contrary information into coherence. Whenever she thought she might have begun to manage it, the images slid and shifted. The material meant something different.”
Nonsense and incoherence, then, are a kind of innocence. They mean that you are free and undetermined—in the middle of your life. Along with the momentary aspect of the boy, Lydia’s photo captures “an imprecise glow … the look of a hastening creature not intended to be caught by such a tool.” It is a mercy that the White Rabbit escapes. It would be tragic if he were ever caught. But Maguire has come interestingly close.
After Alice by Gregory Maguire. HarperCollins.