Peter Pan and Paisley

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By Elizabeth Hand,
whose eighth novel, "Generation Loss," will be published next spring
Thursday, August 10, 2006

KENSINGTON GARDENS

By Rodrigo Fresán

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Farrar Straus Giroux. 370 pp. $25

Is there a more sinister icon of children's literature than Peter Pan?

He's the boy who never grew up; the stealer of children who flies through the window at bedtime; the boy poised on the knife-edge between the waking world and endless night, crowing, "To die will be an awfully big adventure." Peter Pan embodies every parent's dread of losing a child to death or the metamorphoses of adolescence or the inevitable crossing into adult life.

The extraordinary boy was created by a single extraordinary man -- the Scots writer J.M. Barrie, the central figure in this extraordinary novel, Rodrigo Fresán's brilliant, maddening phantasmagoria, "Kensington Gardens." An Argentinean who now lives in Barcelona, Fresán is the author of 10 books. This is the first to appear in English, with Fresán's Nabokovian flights beautifully rendered in Natasha Wimmer's translation.

"Kensington Gardens" is a hallucinatory monologue, a madman's diatribe told during the course of one long night to a bound and gagged captive who is also, natch, a stand-in for the reader. The narrator is Peter Hook, a hugely successful, contemporary author of children's books featuring a hero named Jim Yang -- "Jim Yang and the Imaginary Friend," "Jim Yang and the Pyramid of the Cyborgs," "Jim Yang and the Brotherhood of Midnight" and so on. The madman's prisoner is Keiko Kai, the young actor selected to play the lead in "Jim Yang: The Movie."

Peter Hook (a self-conscious nom de plume) is, literally, a child of the 1960s -- he claims his parents were engaged the night of Dec. 31, 1959, and that "I was already there, floating." His aristocratic English parents were part of the mad whirl of Swinging London: his mother a sort of haut-groupie icon like the young Marianne Faithfull; his father, Sebastian "Darjeeling" Compton-Lowe, the frontman for a band with the unlikely moniker the Beaten, a.k.a. the Beaten Victorians, a.k.a. the Victorians. Peter's younger brother (who has an equally unlikely name, Baco) died tragically as a small child, inspiring the Beaten's unreleased masterpiece, the quadruple album "Lost Boy Baco's Broken-Hearted Requiem & Lysergic Funeral Parlor Inc."

Imaginary bands and their oeuvre are usually pretty dreadful to read about, and the tainted-acid atmospherics of "Kensington Gardens" aren't very good: Purple prose meets purple haze. But tucked inside Peter Hook's dizzy memoir is a remarkable shadow-biography of J.M. Barrie.

Peter is obsessed with Barrie -- his childhood (Barrie also lost an adored brother), his books and plays, and his obsessive relationship with the six Llewelyn Davies boys, who inspired "Peter Pan." Fresán's evocation of Barrie and his world, fictional and real, is a genuine, if genuinely eccentric, accomplishment reminiscent of Peter Ackroyd's "Dickens." Fresán's tour de force is even more impressive when one considers the reams of print and celluloid devoted to Barrie, and how difficult it is to find something new to say about the diminutive Scot's supremely strange, melancholy life.

Alas, Fresán's ambitious narrative ploy results in way too much authorial doodling. In an extremely long, self-indulgent afterword, he lists all the books he read to prepare for "Kensington Gardens," as well as his literary and musical influences -- the Beatles, John Cheever, Philip K. Dick, Bob Dylan, Herman Melville, Marcel Proust and Kurt Vonnegut. We are told that "this book -- like other books by me -- couldn't have been written if the Beatles' 'A Day in the Life' hadn't already existed." He admits to being unfamiliar with London, but he sometimes uses his book-knowledge of the place to ill effect. At one point, the novel's action stops for 14 pages while the narrator lists "Famous places in London that I remember having visited" and "Famous people I remember having seen." And Fresán quotes extensively from and refers to numerous books by and about Barrie.

But if you leave out the parts that readers skip, as Elmore Leonard puts it, there's a great story here, as well as some beautiful riffs on children's literature, the nature of memory, time. As "Kensington Gardens" spirals toward its climax, it grows increasingly nightmarish and powerful. Jim Yang's time-traveling chronocycle seems less like an arch literary device and instead evokes the stolen bicycle in another brilliant, odd, hard-to-categorize novel, Flann O'Brien's "The Third Policeman." The revelation in the final pages, while not completely unexpected, remains haunting and disturbing.

With "Kensington Gardens," Fresán may have set out to create the literary equivalent of "A Day in the Life." Instead, the novel is more like the drug-tinged, erudite excesses of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, back when they were penning such songs as "Careful With That Axe, Eugene." It's an overstuffed prog-rock epic, not something you can hum along with.

Still, a lot of us like that sort of thing. You know who you are. Visit "Kensington Gardens." Don't forget to bring an axe.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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