Did we really need to see Peter Pan calling Tinkerbell a "slut"?

Reviewed: Peter Pan by Régis Loisel.

Peter Pan
Loisel
Soaring Penguin Press, £29.99

Despite being over-ripe with themes worth exploring, uncovering or twisting, Peter Pan has never really been subject to the same sort of re-imaginings that stories falling alongside it in the childhood canon have been. Pinocchio has become a killer puppet, the Little Mermaid is a littler goldfish, Grimms' Fairy Tales get grimmer with each remaining, and Peter Pan has little more than the godawful Hook.

It's not like there isn't a host of material to build on. The obsession with mothers, with never growing up, with love triangles between fairies and princesses; it's a psychosexual goldmine, ready for subversion.

Of course, part of the reason why is the unusual copyright status of the character. Donated by J.M. Barrie to Great Ormond Street Hospital, Peter Pan entered the public domain in 1987, but a special government bill gave a perpetual extension of some of the rights: the hospital will always be entitled to receive royalties for any adaptation of the play.

That's led to some artists taking the back route to a critical commentary, the most notable being Alan Moore, whose book Lost Girls depicts the pornographic adventures of Wendy Darling, Alice Liddell and Dorothy Gale (from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz). Wendy's story contains a magic-free telling of Peter's tale, with him and his sister Anna(tinker)bel recast as homeless children in Kensington Gardens; Captain Hook recruits Peter into prostitution and rapes Annabel. It's a take, of sorts; but it'd be stretching it somewhat to say it's just bringing out material implicit in the play.

Régis Loisel's six-volume Peter Pan takes a more direct approach. Starting with young Peter's life in Victorian London, it ends with him and the lost boys in Never-Never Land. Along the way, nearly every possible box is ticked: we find out why he took the name "Pan", learn how Captain Hook lost his hand, learn why the crocodile ticks, where Tinkerbell's name came from, why Tiger Lily loves Peter, who the lost boys are, who can fly and who can't… The whole effect is one of a piling-up of reference after reference, with little of the book existing for any other reason than it takes us to where J.M. Barrie's story begins.

The major exception is even odder. Starting around half-way through, the London scenes introduce Jack the Ripper as a character; Peter's mother is his first victim. Quite aside from the fact that the historical synchronicity isn't quite as spot-on as Loisel suggests – the Ripper murders occurring sixteen years before the first performance of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, although for a character who doesn't age that's less of an issue than it might otherwise be – the whole thing feels utterly unnecessary. It comes out of nowhere, barely interacts with the main plot, and although the deaths illustrate why London is a city Peter might want to leave, the lengthy detour into Ripperology (this Jack is a doctor acting during psychotic breaks, apparently) is just odd.

"Unnecessary" describes a lot of the book, in fact. Did we really need to see Peter calling Tinkerbell a "slut" after she stops him talking to his friends? Or hear Hook utter the strange non-idiom "you're pulling my cock again, with your stories"? Or a full explanation of why the crocodile ticks?

It would be perfectly possible to create a prequel to Peter Pan which justified its own existence. The world of Neverland lends itself perfectly to a sort of boys-own adventure tale, of pirates and indians and exploration and heroism, because that's what it is. Of course, any prequel would be subverted by the play itself showing that there's more to life, even for an adventurous boy, than having lots of fun all the time, but that could be worked with. Instead, we have the equivalent of Before Watchmen or the Star Wars prequels; and as with those, its hard to argue we're really better-off for it.

An illustrated Tinkerbell, from Régis Loisel's six-volume Peter Pan.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era