By Jenny Allen, illustrations by Jules Feiffer
Pantheon Books, 2006, $16.95
We may grow past the stage when picture books amuse us, but do we ever really reach the place where we’ve got life all figured out? It’s the endless enigmas of adulthood that journalist/stand-up comedian and part-time Dutchess county resident Jenny Allen explores in her first work of fiction, The Long Chalkboard.
The book is a unique creation, perhaps a genre of its own; it’s part graphic novel and part picture book for adults. A collaboration with cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer, who is Allen’s partner in life as well as literature, the book consists of three stories illustrated with Feiffer’s trademark childlike simplicity but imbued with a very grown-up sense of the world.
What do we need? What makes us happy? Why does life make us circle when we’d really rather travel a nice straight line? It’s the small/enormous problems that interest Allen, the uninsulated gaps between what we have, what we want, and what we ultimately get.
The stories read like modern-day fables, fairy tales complicated by evil sprites that could be named Agenda, Peevish, and No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.
“Once there was a girl named Caroline,” the title story begins. “All she wanted was a husband and three children. When she grew up, she got them all.” Things take a turn for the all-too-real when Caroline puts a giant chalkboard in their playroom. “Here is some chalk,” she tells her children. “Write whatever you like.” And they do—scribbling curses, whines, and complaints. “They’re not creative!” she complains, and takes to her bed in despair. Soon, the family’s moved to New Jersey and the chalkboard’s wallpapered over, but it’s discovered by other families with completely different expectations.
The second tale is called “What Happened,” and its heroine is a children’s writer with a decided deficit in the childlike-spirit department. She’s infuriated by the discovery of another children’s book writer who seems to be stealing her themes. He’s never heard of her books, he says when she confronts him—and then he does something that utterly confounds her: He refuses to be angry back.
The most truly fairy-tale like fable is the third story, which features a woman named Judy who “had a way with chili.” She made the stuff frequently, to give to people who were sick, worried, or suffering any imaginable sort of life impairment. And it was good—so good that “people who didn’t usually like chili loved hers so much that it made them question what they had against chili in the first place.” But the chili was more than just flavorful. “People who were sick felt better. People who were very sick believed, even when it was against the odds, they would get well.”
The spoiler in this tale isn’t a nasty spell—it’s a completely contemporary affliction called Commerce. You should market this! Judy’s friends tell her. Chili shouldn’t have an agenda, she protests, but she’s tricked into making it on live TV. There’s a celebrity tasting panel on hand, and, one by one, they declare it vile.
Feiffer’s drawings are perfect complements to each story’s whimsical, offbeat charm. In classic Feifferesque fashion, they appear to have grown in the book rather than been scribbled there, with lines so mobile the characters seem capable of walking off the page. It’s a synchronistic marriage of art and words, with Feiffer’s images perfectly complementing Allen’s wry, insightful text.
The stories’ magical tokens are commonplace—a pot of chili, some origami cranes, a chalkboard—yet their effects on the characters are anything but. Allen’s endings, though upbeat, offer much to ponder. Intention is everything, they tell us, there’s enough for everyone, you can only do so much.
The Long Chalkboard is an original, an Aesop’s Fables for 21st-century souls. Will it be shelved with picture books? Adult fiction? Self-help? You may need to hunt for it in bookstores, but the search will be amply rewarded.