In a toyshop just before Christmas, a clockwork mouse and his son are brought out of a box and placed on the counter. When wound, the father mouse dances in a circle, holding the hands of his son and lifting him in the air. And, at night, the mouse and his child discover that they can speak, and they get to know other toys in the shop. There’s a clockwork seal who balances a ball on her nose and a clockwork elephant who enjoys playing hostess to the dolls in the dollhouse.
The next day, the mice are taken away to live under a Christmas tree and then get packed away in a box until the next Christmas. But a toy’s life is unpredictable, and after four Christmases, a frightened cat sends the mouse and his child into the trash bin. And it is then that the adventures begin.
One of the most striking things about this 1967 book by Russel Hoban is the sense of longing imbued in its pages. The mouse and his child spend much of their life walking, walking, walking. They hope to find the elephant and the seal and the dollhouse, and they want to discover the secret of self-winding. Along the way, they make new friends who help them along, but circumstances intervene. And then there’s Manny the Rat, who enslaves and destroys windups and sees the mouse and his child as his chief quarry. And always they keep walking as long as they can, looking for their goal.
Whatever the windups might do, circumstances get in the way. They get stuck, sometimes for months at a time. Although there is a happy ending, and the child mouse has a lot of pluck, this is not exactly a book about pluck and good spirits winning the day. The father mouse’s perspective is the primary one, or at least it seemed so to me with my adult eyes, and the father mouse tends to worry about himself and about his son. And he’s far more conscious about the passing of time. The narrative makes a big deal about the constant passing of time, so you get passages like this one, describing the mice stuck underwater:
Water plants put out their roots and anchored to [the mouse child]; little colonies of algae settled on him, flourished, and increased; snails fed on the last scraps of his fur; catfish nibbled at his whiskers… The father, his eyes fixed always on his son, saw the words YOU WILL SUCCEED disappear as the good-luck coin turned green, then black. The child’s glass-bead eyes grew ever dimmer and more tired while the father watched helplessly, infinity at his back.
One thing about life that this book captures very well is of mix of sometimes tedious routine and sudden unexpected shake-up. It seems like the quest of the novel is actually to find a routine that is one of contentent, rather than of crushing tedium.
But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a wholly melancholy, contemplative book. It carries that one, but there’s also a lot of humor. There’s a particularly hilarious scene at the theatre, and there’s an eccentric muskrat who made me laugh.
It also was heartening how many of the animals and toys the mouse and his child met were happy to help them. They may not have been able to do much, and sometimes their help was no help at all, but there’s a lot of good-heartedness on display in this book. With the exception of the villainous Manny Rat, most of the characters are either helpful or just a little too caught up in their own thing to notice that help is needed. But, at heart, just about everyone is this book is fundamentally decent, even if they needed a push to get there. Somehow that gives me hope for the world.