The title of Jenny Boully’s new book—Not Merely Because of the Unknown That Was Stalking Towards Them—gets its name from a section of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Wendy: “Of course she should have roused the children at once; not merely because of the unknown that was stalking towards them, but because it was no longer good for them to sleep on a rock grown chilly." This new book—classified by its publisher, Tarpaulin Sky Press, as fiction/lyric essay/poetry—is much anticipated; Boully, whose previous books include The Book of Beginnings and Endings (Sarabande, 2007), [one love affair]* (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2006),and The Body (Essay Press, 2007), is consistently admired for her explorations of lyric, narrative, and form—and to this end, Not Merely Because does not disappoint.
The character Peter Pan first appeared in a section of The Little White Bird, a 1902 novel by J.M. Barrie, where he is a child seven days old, floating around with the fairies, taking up residence in Kensington Gardens. He reappears in the play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, which debuted in 1904 and was later reinvented as a novel, Peter Pan and Wendy.
But Boully’s Peter is never so much an infant as much as he is an object of women’s affections. Who is Boully’s Peter? He appears on the first page as recollection, a warning: “Peter who will forget you, whose eyes are the color of vague memories, the color not of sky, but rather of the semblance of sky, the color of brittle-mindedness, of corpse dressings, of forgetting.” Peter will leave you, Peter won’t grow up, Peter must forget his own adventures to stay childlike; this is what scientists now characterize as extended neoteny; our ability to drink milk into adulthood, to maintain baby faces. In the story of Peter Pan and Wendy, this extended neoteny is not just a metaphor. Peter has his deciduous teeth for years and years beyond their expectancy. He can’t remember anything because to do so would be to become an adult, something he despises.
The story of Peter Pan, as reimagined by Boully, is the story of a woman who falls in love with someone who never wants to grow up, where perhaps growing up means maturely loving the other. This is a book about, among other things, unrequited love (Wendy’s) and desire. Boully’s narrator moves inside and outside the characters—Wendy, Peter, Tinkerbell; Peter is the unattainable and the women long for him: they stay at home darning socks, keeping the window open in case he comes back for them. Unlike Peter, they must die. Peter is afraid of nothing except mothers.
Peter and Wendy is a classic story-within-a-story, and Boully picks up this conversation of nested stories, as well as a continuation of her own experiments with form (see, for instance, The Body, which contains a scroll of footnotes at the bottom of each otherwise blank page). Each page is divided into two parts: the first is one story, seemingly titled with the name of the book. The second, titled "The Home Underground" (the name of Peter’s home in the Peter Pan tale), appears, like footnotes, at the bottom of the pages; this continues throughout the book, progressively taking up more and more space on the page. Through it, we learn that there is an above-ground house, a world of growing up and up and wearing ties; the two planes occur at once: the below-ground, the above-ground.
In the below-ground home, Wendy is Mrs. Darling, roving forward and backward in time. Mrs. Darling remembers “a certain Peter Pan. She remembered but she didn’t quite want to say.” What brings Wendy back from Neverland, from Peter’s world, is her sense of responsibility, or at least it seems so on the surface. She worries about her siblings. But also, Wendy has fallen in love with Peter and asks him what kind of feelings he has for her. Peter says he is her faithful son.
So, what can Wendy do? She marries another. But in the home underground—which, in the Peter and Wendy story is Peter’s home but in Boully’s story seems to be more of a metaphorical underground of any space—Wendy marries a man but “wears the pink sash for Peter.” Here we can empathize with the inevitable tragedy of first love: “the end, after all, is something that, since the beginning, has been hovering.” There is much play here, as witnessed by the internal rhythm and repetition of the words: “The little cake—it is poisonous. The little cake—it is gorgeous”; “…partake of the little cake.”
However, this books isn’t exactly an easy read. An acquaintance with Peter Pan may provide scaffolding and humor that a reader unfamiliar with the tale might miss. In addition, there is slippage. As each page contains two rows of text, a home above ground and a home below ground, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold both narratives in mind: should we hold them as one story or keep them separate? In this way, the narratives slip as one reads; the narrator becomes a chorus of characters, mashing and mixing together.
Stalking towards all of us, and them, that largest unknown, is it death? Love is present, this longing for the youthful magical boy. Perhaps we long for the humans we wish we were, as Wendy longs for her own forever-ness; Peter's presence is a reminder of the human characters' deathes and what they cannot attain—Peter himself as well as immortality: “That’s the way it will end: it will end simply because someone forgets…” Peter thinks that to die will be an awfully big adventure.
This book is a delightful extension of what readers already know about Peter and Wendy, but it's also much more than an extension. The work pushes form, language, narrative, theme, and point of view. The cover of the book is also a curious contribution to the book’s meaning: a multi-layered sketch of two children looking towards something that has been torn from sight. They cannot see it, nor can we.
TaraShea Nesbit’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Quarterly West, Hayden’s Ferry Review,the Laurel Review, Horseless Review, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She lives and works in Denver.
Not Merely Because of the Unknown that Was Stalking Toward Them
Tarpaulin Sky Press: 2011
$12 paperback, ISBN: 0982541678