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.

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit