Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fictioneering #1: It Looked Like Spilt Milk

This is the book that made me a reader and a writer. Long before I learned to read, this was my favorite book and I knew it by heart. I'm going to spoil the shit out of it, so if you want to experience the finest picture book in the English language as it was meant to be experienced, hie thee to eBay, and don't read the rest of this post until you've enjoyed It Looked Like Spilt Milk in a pure, unsullied state.

So, let's talk spilt milk. The book, which I will describe in detail for those of you too Philistine or cash-strapped to follow my advice from the previous paragraph, is magnificent in its simplicity. On a uniform background of rich cyan blue appear white figures, alongside text that both identifies and unidentifies them: “Sometimes it looked like spilt milk. But it wasn't spilt milk.”

That's some proto-Magritte shit right there. If it looked like spilt milk, but it wasn't spilt milk, what the hell was it? A picture on the page, a shadow on the wall of the cave; ceci n'est pas un pipe (and, bearing in mind Freud's considerably greater credibility in literary theory than in psychoanalysis, does spilt milk not share the Freudian connotations of pipe?).

As the book progresses, the disorienting sense of deconstruction intensifies. The forms on the page shift – it looked like a rabbit, an ice cream cone, a great horned owl (my favorite, and my father still delights in mimicking my toddler's rendition of the words “great horned owl”) – but the unidentification remains constant: it wasn't, it wasn't, it wasn't, and before long the repetition, both verbal and visual, reduces all the forms to the abstract interplay of white on blue. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (Following Iser's concept of blanks in the text allowing for reader-author interplay, it's particularly significant that it's the changing forms that are the white of the blank page whereas the unchanging background is inked-in blue.)

The book also provides an excellent introduction to the Derridean concept of différance (sorry, this is just getting Frencher and Frencher). In Derridean semiotics, to oversimplify appallingly, meaning lies in the relationship between signifier and signified; just so, in It Looked Like Spilt Milk, the story lies in the relationship between the signified (whatever it is that is the subject of the book, the repeatedly un-/misidentified “it”) and the assorted signifiers that are applied and then immediately disavowed.

In fact, as well as demonstrating the gulf between signifier and signified – between language and reality – the book can also be read as an affirmation of larger ineffables. What is “like” many things, but is not actually any of those things? Why, any great indescribable of human existence. Pictures, texts, music, art, creativity, love, very God.

In this instance, “It” is revealed as – have you guessed it? (if so, you're not a toddler) – “just a cloud in the sky”. From such mundanities comes the sublime: from words come texts, from ink come pictures, from a cloud come all the forms in this book. Free association with other things “in the sky” (pie, castles, Lucy) causes me to read the cloud as a symbol for the human imagination, and so to see the story as open-ended, inviting the reader to keep mutating the cloud, and thence the story, into every form ey can think of.

Furthermore, the book's title offers another affirmation of the human power of imagination. “Spilt Milk”, as well as being titular, is the only form to be repeated in the book, appearing both times in places of prominence as the first and last incarnations of the cloud. The trite lesson of “things aren't always what they seem” is deepened by the proverbial implications of “spilt milk”: what may initially appear disastrous may, with imagination, be construed as any number of exciting possibilities, and thus shouldn't be cried over. This story affirms not only the power of creativity but also the uniquely human concept of crisitunity.

“Amusing intellecrobatics,” you are perhaps thinking, “but it's still just a frickin' PICTURE BOOK.” Not so: it's a text that has been imprinted in my mind since before my skull was fully formed, and you can't carry that around without powerful ramifications. This, I insist with my tongue still half-out my cheek, is the book that first made me a fictioneer.

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