How do you solve a problem like the Lorax? For the uninitiated, this shortish, mustachioed fuzzball pops out of a tree stump attempting to spoil everybody’s industrial good times, and truth be told, he is a bit of a nag, still he is really only one of several supporting players in Dr. Seuss’s grandest, richest and riskiest literary experiment, a distinction too often obscured in its political fog.
To read this book now with many Olympic-size swimming pools full of goo pouring into the Gulf every hour is possibly not the best time to examine its narrative subtleties - or maybe it is. This story appears to skip right over us grown-ups, and saves the last of its Truffula seeds for a generation too young to have already unlearned the lesson, or tuned it out, or shoehorned it into an ideology. We may bicker over the specifics – and, lordy, we do bicker – but the tokens of environmental reckoning are everywhere littered across our recent history, and if you haven’t learned anything yet, and you are old enough to have children of your own, then I’m sorry, you are beyond help - from Dr. Seuss or anyone. So long! See you later! Good luck with Intelligent Design!
Like so many of Seuss’s creations, the exceedingly specific flora and fauna in this landscape seem to have jumped directly from a fever dream, but so here do the characters. The Once-ler? Referential as that sounds upon reflection, you hardly have time to reflect: from the first creepy glimpse of him lurking up high in his Lerkim, and grunting and whispering, “his teeth sounding gray,” to his younger go-go incarnation, arms all awhirl, knitting Thneeds (“A Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!”) and cutting deals and chopping trees….
Then back to the present, worried, regretful, and briefly (insanely?) euphoric. What more can you say about the old Once-ler except there is no more heartfelt mea culpa anywhere in literature, and no better, more promising place to deliver it? And while parents may worry a little about the jumbling of the tenses, in fact this is exactly what we do every time we sit down to read a book together – we enter the past through the present, then hope to emerge with some little glimpse of the future on the other side – and, make no mistake: the Once-ler here is us. Hidden for the most part like nakedness on TV, till finally all that’s left over are peeking eyes, and busy, building hands and epic rationalizations.
I started this column with a sense of foreboding about the sheer magnitude of everything that is right with this book, and the responsibility of accurately conveying it, though now I see this is impossible in the space of a couple of pages, and will need to revisit the individual aspects of this art-form approaching perfection: The tone shifts – in color and meter. The wordplay - freer though surer and finally less verbally onerous than Seuss in his cataloguing flights. And those Truffula Trees! – candy-colored, yes, though otherwise restrained, even dignified, by this artist’s standards, the better perhaps to remember their “sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk.”
Swomee-Swans (singing, then not). Humming-Fish (staggering away on their fins). The unannounced visits and possibly final disappearance of that mysterious Lorax (oh, barring a Second Coming). Really, what doesn’t this book have? A love interest maybe? A jive-talking sidekick? Well, anyway, more on that later.
Still, I’m relieved to have even begun. In exchange for free publicity here, I am often asked to provide lists of the five greatest books of the last year, the last decade, the last century, or I am asked to imagine myself and my children and their children on a desert island, or similarly apocalyptic circumstances; for the most part I just puff out my cheeks and pick the first few titles which pop into my head. Forget about trying to imagine tomorrow and the day after and the day after; it’s hard enough trying to remain objective about today. But if you’re very, very quiet, I have a secret….