More human than human?

Book Review: Winkie by Clifford Chase (Grove Press).

I have about as much patience for silliness as I do for writing commentary. That is to say, I rarely indulge, and if I do, it had better be good.

So when my mum told me I needed to read a book about a teddy bear who wills himself to life then is put on trial for terrorism, I duly rolled my eyes and said, “No thanks.” To make my opinion worse, the teddy bear and title of the book share my childhood nickname, a nickname that makes me cringe every time I hear it. Well, until now. Because now the name “Winkie” conjures thoughts of this charming masterpiece written by Clifford Chase, and I kick into high gear bookseller mode, ranting, “You’ve got to read this book!”

I’ll confess, I rarely read a book twice. I’m a slow reader and there are just too many damned books I want to read. So it’s been over two years since I read Winkie when it was first released in 2006. But it’s at the top of my list (right after Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish, no kidding) as a book I want to read a second time. Because despite its occasional silliness, Winkie is packed with symbolism and metaphor that still leaves me to ponder how a teddy bear can so perfectly embody human self-knowledge. I doubt Chase always knew exactly what he was doing as he wove together this tale (as with any good book, it is occasionally self-indulgent), but I’m sure I missed a few subtleties my first time through. And any contemporary novelist who can blow your mind and make you want to read the same warped shit a second or third time has something more than a wit with weird taglines!

So, all this to say, it’s been years since I’ve read this book. But it’s still the book I feel most compelled to review! (And with my endorsements out of the way, I can spend some time discussing the meat—or in this case, the stuffing—of the book.)

Like that of most contemporary writers, Clifford Chase’s writing style lacks the richness my palate usually craves. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer gritty details over vague simplicity when reading literature, and I wonder how seriously our obsession with photo-imagery has lazified our attempts to duplicate reality with words. (Look, I’m so lazy, I made a new word!) But to Chase’s credit, his goal with Winkie was not to duplicate reality, but to reflect upon the human condition. And unlike other contemporary authors, rather than distance us from truth and wallow in experiential torment, Chase brings us closer to a universal question: Can the individual find meaning in a world that often makes about as much sense as teddy bear terrorists? (Yes, commercialized, dumbed-down cuteness is killing our culture!)

Winkie, the teddy bear, has the personality of a child’s toy. He’s vacant, curious but lost, simple-minded, and overall, un-human. Yet, despite his whimsical, at times aimless wanderings, this odd little bear pulls at your heartstrings more than any one-dimensional Disney toon. Rarely have I cared as much about a fictional character as I did for this bear. As I read the book, almost everyday at work, I made some comment or another to fellow booksellers, worrying about Winkie, as if he were real, as if his trial were on the 6 o’clock news, and I wanted the world to rise up against the injustice of his incarceration! Well, except that I don’t watch the 6 o’clock news…

If you read other reviews of Winkie, many focus on the obvious allusions the book makes to civil rights abuses, especially in light of Bush-era policies. But Clifford Chase has written so much more than a quirky zeitgeist; Winkie embodies humanity, the “growing up” of the individual and of our culture, the struggle to “be alive” rather than simply go through the motions of living. Winkie’s journey was, for me, a journey of human consciousness and its desire to escape the trappings we’ve laid for it—cultural, political, or otherwise.

And for anyone else who hates Hollywood endings, contrived endings, or just plain bad authorship that rears its ugly head in the last 20-50 pages of most books, I was surprisingly pleased with the closing chapters of Winkie. When you think there’s nowhere else for the book to go, Chase avoids superficiality and exits on a thought-provoking note that will leave you pondering how something so silly can be so genius!

The answer, I believe, lies somewhere in exploring the intelligence of childlike curiosity, and in exposing the infancy of all those big, high-minded concepts like humanity, civilization, and (ahem) adulthood.

2 thoughts on “More human than human?

  1. Also one of my most memorable experiences with a book. I still wear my “Free Winkie” pin and get numerous comments on it, where I can then give my own glowing review and hopefully convince them to read it too. I think you nailed it with the comments about childlike curiosity and the search for meaning. Did you see Chase has a memoir out now?

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