The 13 Clocks
There is a rare mastery of English and humor on display in most of James Thurber’s essays and short fiction. His abilities hit an unexpectedly high note, though, in a children’s book: The 13 Clocks. It is an absurdist fable written as poetry but formatted as prose. A prince attempts to rescue a maiden from an evil duke; then Thurber breaks the rules and the fourth wall, and every shred of coherence is washed away in a torrent of invention.
Language warps at Thurber’s command. The Duke allegedly “breaks up minstrels in his soup, like crackers”; one creature “moves about like monkeys and like shadows”. The absurdity of the writing is matched by that of the plot, which shambles forward via bizarre, seemingly random twists—whose details this writer will not spoil here. But the apparent abandon with which Thurber employs himself belies the tightness of his poetry. Every word is conspicuously in place.
The 13 Clocks was one of Thurber’s later works, written after his blindness. Perhaps this is why so much of it is visually unrepresentable. Although it was released with illustrations (this version is available online), it is arguably best read “blind”, as a text visualized by one’s imagination. In any form, though, The 13 Clocks is a classic not of children’s literature but of literature full stop. It deserved to have followed the children’s works of E. B. White, Thurber’s associate at The New Yorker, into the culture memory.
Still Eating Oranges