Thursday, 30 January 2014

Maurice Sendak, In The Night Kitchen (1970)

Some good discussion in seminar today about Where The Wild Things Are, and about picture-books more generally: repetition; Fort-Da; shifts of scale; the place of beasts. But not much love for In The Night Kitchen. Weird, they said. Just random, they said. The nudity in it is most offputting they said. Freaky and inappropriate, they said. (They're not alone in that last one: 'In the Night Kitchen proved controversial on its release, as several well-meaning librarians and teachers reacted to Mickey’s nudity by removing the book from the shelves and/or covering the child’s offending genitalia with marker, tape, or other method of obscuring it. The book continues to appear on lists of banned or challenged books, somewhat to the consternation of those who can find nothing disturbing or “sexual” in the nudity of such a young child as Mickey appears to be'). What do we make of Mickey's Little Nemo-like dream-adventure?

The sensation of falling is commonly associated with going to sleep (see also: Alice). In other news Hypnic Jerk will be the name of the villain in my soon-to-be-written groovy interplanetary spy-adventure novel.

Yes, the nakedness. Several of my students expressed unease at the images; but it is surely a version of nudity entirely lacking in erotic charge. Little kids get naked all the time, after all.

The Oliver Hardy chefs are a little incongruous, I suppose; except that (a) Hardy looks so gorgeously podgy and jolly and well-fed, that he fits a story about the delights of rich, sweet foodstuffs; and (b) the Laurel and Hardy schtick is grown-adults-acting-like-young-kids, which also chimes well here.

So Mickey ends up with a suit of clothes made of pastry; and also with a pastry-plane. A propeller-driven plane, as you can see. Perhaps modelled on the Fokkcake Dr.I, as flown in the Great War by The Bread Baron. No, wait: of course not! The Dr.1 was a triplane ... and anyway look at the star on its wing! It's clearly a completely different American dessert-themed aircraft. Perhaps the Mousse-tang P51. Or maybe an A-36 Apacheesecake.)

Alright, alright. No more pudding-themed aircraft puns. Yes: I'll stop.

So Mickey falls in the milkie, dissolving away his pastry suit.

The chefs are pleased (the final roundel of the book declares: 'And That's Why Thanks To Mickey We Have Cake Every Morning'). Mickey himself is pleased too; so pleased he makes a noise like a euphemism for male member:

And then he slips back into his bed. There are affinities with Wild Things, of course; the child transported away to a fantastical, hyperbolic land where he is allowed to indulge his appetites (anger and boisterousness in Wild Things; hunger and thirst in Night Kitchen). But the seminar groups that looked at it today thought that, where Wild Things possessed a powerful narrative through-line and a unity of affect, this was a random assortment of jumbled nonsense. Nor does it, they insisted, pack the sort of satisfying Fort-Da wallop they insisted was to be found in Wild Things.


I must say, it seems to me an even more maternally-oriented, leave-mum-return-to-mum Fort-Dada specie of book. Mickey leaves his womb-bed and falls into the world. Once there he is dressed, and provided with a private plane in which to explore the wild outside. But then, halfway, the story takes a reverse turn. Into the milk goes Mickey:

I'm in the milk and the milk's in me! God bless milk and God bless me! It's the maternal-nutritive principle; the source of nourishment and comfort combined, in a sort of visual pun, with the amniosis of womb-existence (the amniosis-gnosis). The Da in Fort-Da doesn't get more Ma than this.


  1. In other news Hypnic Jerk will be the name of the villain in my soon-to-be-written groovy interplanetary spy-adventure novel.

    I realize this is a joke, but now "groovy interplanetary spy-adventure novel by Adam Roberts with a villain named Hypnic Jerk" is a thing I intensely, unjokingly desire.

  2. Hmm. It does sound like it might be fun to write ...