I was 11 years old and visiting Europe with my parents when I first encountered and rejected the reality of my own strangeness. While climbing on a concrete play structure in Stockholm, an undulating biomorphic sculpture that was matronly, grey, and curved in such a way as to encourage a boy to touch, I was approached by a native. A Swedish boy, perhaps a year or two younger than I , tapped me on the shoulder and started in, quite naturally and without any pause, speaking in Swedish.
I was mystified, of course, but I did manage to communicate my lack of comprehension by confidently speaking to him in English as if he ought to know my words. And after a time we came to the only sort of understanding that an 11 year old boy in blue jeans and Ked sneakers and a eight year old Swede wearing proper leather shoes and shorts with suspenders might plausibly come to. We, both of us, climbed on the play structure, the castle thing that seemed to have emerged from a grey lava lamp, and as we played our conversation grew louder and louder. We climbed, laughed, skidded back down, and all the while understood that nothing like communication was possible.
I like to think that we became friends.
Still, my recollection is that I took it for granted that it was he, and not I, who was alien. I was a stranger maybe, but what was really happening was that I was in a strange land. The realization of my own strangeness in this other boy’s eyes did not convince me that I was odd, and instead of wondering if what I took to be solid was just a seeming, if what I took to be necessary might be contingent, I looked to my parents and felt confirmed in my position as their son. I felt proud to be an American and somehow managed to perceive the scene from some imaginary cloud, or as if it was all happening on television. I smiled at how indecipherable and strange the Swedish boy, with his ruddy cheeks and woolen pants, had turned out to be. Sweden was a funny place and this explained why God didn’t usually watch this channel.
That same summer I spent many hours reading books that I’d brought with me on the plane. For instance, I recall reading the Secret Garden and The Mouse and the Motorcycle during that trip. However, what I don’t remember reading, but what I’ll bring up now regardless, is a picture book put out by Golden Books and the Letters PB and S back in 1971. What I didn’t read that summer was the classic: There is a Monster at the End of this Book. Still, it is this book starring lovable old Grover that holds the key to what went wrong on that playground in Sweden, and Grover also holds the key to understanding what went too well. In The Monster at the End of this Book Grover reads the title page, is frightened by the promise of a monster, and sets about trying to stop the book he’s in from being read.
Again, I didn’t read this book during my first European vacation, but I associate Grover’s terror, the drawings of him stacking cartoon bricks in order to stop the reader from turning pages, with the Swedish boy and that concrete, egg shaped, play structure. This Sesame Street picture book proves that breaking the fourth wall just propels the plot forward. That is, even though Grover can see that he’s in a text, even though he knows that he’s being read by a stranger and that his future is set in advance, he nonetheless struggles as if he believes he’s free. Even as he admits his fictional status, Grover becomes more and more afraid, more and more convinced of his own existence, and more committed to the initial premise in the title.
The ending, the moment when Grover realizes that he himself is the Monster mentioned, is deflationary. What had scared the little muppet no longer frightens because he assumes that being Grover is the most normal thing in the world.
Grover says, “Well, look at that! This is the end of the book and the only one here is…ME. I lovable, furry old Grover, am the Monster at the end of this book.” Grover should be overwhelmed by his own fictional status. He should be devastated to realize his own monstrous strangeness, but instead he remains lovable and furry.
Visiting Sweden, reading the title of the book we’re in, hearing the words we speak as a foreign language, stopping the pages from turning, these forms of alienation are apparently not quite strong enough to propel us out of the ideology or story we’re stuck in.