Piggy Swine: Maurice Sendak’s terrifying new book

[image nicked from http://mixingreality.com/2011/04/bumble-ardy-maurice-sendaks-first-book-in-30-years/%5D

The great Maurice Sendak has just published his first new picture book in thirty years, Bumble-Ardy.

It’s very disturbing.  Bumble-Ardy is a young pig who has never celebrated a birthday.  Initially because his parents “frowned on fun,” then because they just forgot, then because they were all fattened up and eaten: “forged and gained weight/ and got ate.”  That pigs are raised to be eaten is a major subtext of the book– Sendak does not let you forget this.

After the slaughter of his parents, Bumble-Ardy goes to live with his nice aunt Adeline, who is planning a 9th birthday celebration for the two of them.  While she’s at work, however, Bumble-Ardy puts the word out to all his buddies, who show up for a big party; in Sorcerer’s Apprentice-esque scenes that take up much of the book, these “piggy swine” “broke down the door and guzzled brine / And hogged sweet cakes and oinked loud grunts / And pulled all kinds of dirty stunts.”  These scenes recall Where The Wild Things Are, but it feels less like a wild rumpus, more like a scary and out-of-control house party — you see one pig sucking the “brine” directly from a hose — that’s threatening to devolve into an orgy (what are these “dirty stunts” precisely?).  Note, in the image above, the pig holding the vaguely apocalyptic sign, “Where Do We Go From Here?”

The WSJ reviewer describes the scene well: “As soon as Aunt Adeline leaves for work, a masked and costumed mob descends on her house. We see a pig in clown clothes carrying a ventriloquist’s dummy, a pig carrying the mask of a stubble-chinned man, a pig disguised as a yellow-eyed squaw, and a pig wearing a piratical skull and walking on chicken’s legs.”  Many of the figures look like gangsters with their molls.

There’s something distinctly malevolent and decadent about the images of masked pigs bent on mayhem — their dull, glazed eyes staring blankly — which put me to mind of Eyes Wide Shut.

It gets worse, though, when Aunt Adeline gets home.  Given how downright creepy Bumble-Ardy’s party has become, we assume that she will shoo everyone away and restore order.  She does, but in doing so, she becomes the most disturbing figure in the tale.  In a frightening series of images, her face darkens, twists, and metamorphoses into what is in effect another horrible carnival mask, as she pulls out a large cleaver and tells the guests that if they don’t leave immediately “I’LL SLICE YOU TO HAM!”  Her comment makes you realize that when these “piggy swine” have been “swilling brine,” they may simply have been pickling themselves in preparation for slaughter.

Bumble-Ardy now, terrified, blubbers to his aunt that he promises he will never turn ten– a comment that feels over-determined considering that his entire immediate family was recently killed.  There’s a more cheerful final scene of reconciliation, but as far as I was concerned, it was too little, too late for this fable to seem anything other than sheer vindictive nightmare.  We all know that the ovens in In the Night Kitchen hinted at concentration camps, but there the child’s fear of being devoured was buried a bit deeper, and transformed by a spirit of play and joy; here the fear that those one loves will be eaten, or will eat you, is right there on the surface (like the mother-figure’s rage).

The book is pitched to kids ages 4-7.  Holy moly, if my kids read this when they were 4 they would’ve had nightmares for months.

All respect to Sendak, a genius, and for the most part I’m with him that children’s lit could use a lot more Grimm, but I’d consider this one an envelope-pushing experiment in the genre more than something you’d actually want to read to your little tots before bed.

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3 Responses

  1. Yikes! Our 3-year-old found The Cat in the Hat too scary because of the mess and chaos he brings, so there’s no way he’d be ready for something like this in a year!

    Soo

    • I recall with amusement the time our kids (perhaps at age 3?) got terrified by an episode of Dora the Explorer featuring a troll under a bridge… They’re toughies now, we’ve been watching the Harry Potter movies and all the Death-Eaters, etc don’t seem to bother them.

  2. p.s. I highly recommend the Sendak interview on Fresh Air. Very intense and moving. It’s clear that he wrote this book while depressed and feeling haunted by the deaths of various loved ones.

    http://www.npr.org/2011/09/20/140435330/this-pig-wants-to-party-maurice-sendaks-latest

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