Like many of you probably harboring social, professional and technological insecurities, I used to believe that the people who ran me over in intersections while speaking into their phones were justifiably distracted by great doings that required immediate conferencing and brainstorming – babies getting born, and corporations. The fact of their locutions being issued into devices and extensions and prostheses seemed central to some cultural urgency I would never know, then once I was finally able to muster any skepticism, the pendulum probably swung too far the other way.
All of a sudden I couldn’t help from noticing people declaiming enthusiastically about lettuce – iceberg! frisée! - and what they were wearing, and what street corner they were on, speaking, in other words, because they could rather than because they had to – sort of how I remember learning to smoke - and this seemed like not such an excellent reason to be running into things (like me), and ignoring things (like crying babies, and sunsets, and air conditioners falling out of the sky), no, instead it occurred to me that somebody needed to get around to constructing some vaulted, massive exchange where people could float and trade and short their disembodied musings, and not need to overly distract themselves with any voices on the other end.
The rest is history, and I am not a billionaire because of it. Hello? Is anyone listening? Just as well. If some of these sentences seem a little hit-or–miss, then the fact of your even happening upon them is also pretty random, right? Most of us do not receive our news anymore with a dependable thump against the front door before dawn, or a jingling of the mail slot, and though we are a very long way from feeling reassured against the perils of rain, or sleet, or gloom of night, that is conceivably a fair trade – or a necessary precondition - for all of the little revelations which nowadays tend to arrive unleashed and unvetted in our vicinity.
Everything’s cool, everything’s fine, chillaaaaax, as the kids will remind me, though allowing history to run its ineluctable course, and treasures to rise out of the muck, and prosperity to trickle down, and people to connect and understand one another, and civilizations to magically reinvent themselves without my personal input – well, none of this comes naturally, I’m afraid, and tends to require anecdotal validation where I can find it. Tell me your tales of serendipity then, and tell them well, and see if my eyes don’t mist over a little with optimism; tell it funny, and I might even believe you’re not trying to sell me something.
“Oh no!” says the titular potluck party hostess in Toni’s Topsy-Turvy Telephone Day, “I asked for a steak to kabob, not a snake and a snob!” Vera, a professional dog walker, is responsible for the steak, so maybe we should blame those noisy hounds for the miscommunication, or maybe AT&T. Otto, watching TV, ends up not providing a strawberry pie, but a stranger and a spy. And so on, yet the party turns out to be kind of a blast, in no small part owing to those unexpected guests, who presumably prove more diverting than the sort of potluck offerings that tend to elicit a fair amount of insipid conversation at these things.
Perhaps this is not entirely at odds with Toni’s best laid plans: “First there was the job of picking out a chic dress with shoes to match. She had to decide on jewelry and perfume. Then she had to paint her toenails and style her hair.” Who knows - maybe the spy liked her toenails. Laura Ljungkvist, the Swedish writer and illustrator here, is known for her Follow the Line books, in which various landscapes – a house, the world – are distilled into simple, brightly colored shapes and connected by a thin black line. The same is true here with all these multi-tasking characters – whether they are receiving their communications through cables, the ether, from satellites – and I think that’s a pretty nifty conceit. Before she wrote any children’s books, Ljungkvist was apparently also some kind of big shot for Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, The New Yorker, and I guess I cannot help myself here – I picture her striding chicly and Swedishly among the canyons of Seventh Avenue, dropping calls, and initiating concepts, and firing off inscrutable texts, and trailing blackcurrant perfume, yet somewhere in all of this riot of incomprehension, discovering the coincidence that will make it all sing.