10/8/10

"Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now?"

Any number of Ted Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, books can be read as allegories. The Lorax has an obvious environmental theme, as does Bartholomew and the Oobleck. The Butter Battle Book echoes the arms race of the 1960s, while Yertle the Turtle deals with anti-fascism and anti-authoritarianism. Ask any schoolkid about "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" and although they won't express it as an anti-materialism polemic, they'll tell you "It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags."
More recently anti-abortion proponents have locked on to "Horton Hears a Who" as a clear argument for their side, although Wikipedia says Geisel wrote it as "an allegory for the American post-war occupation of Japan."
But what about some of Dr. Seuss' Early Reader books, do they have hidden meanings? For years I've believed that "The Cat In The Hat Comes Back" is an allegory for oil spills. This book has a theme similar to "Oobleck," but the Cat seems to rejoice in the technology used to clean up the pink bathtub ring. The fact that Geisel used to work for Standard Insurance, and probably had a twinge of conscience about that, adds to my opinion.
Which brings me to "Marvin K Mooney Will You Please Go Now?"
When my kids were young we'd read this story together, exploring all the ways for Marvin to go, as long as he did it "now." The text is simple and repetitive with only 78 unique words. A giant hand appears and repeatedly asks Marvin to go, and he finally does. On the ultimate pages, when Marvin goes, the question my kids always asked was "where did he go?"

After years of reading the book, I've had an epiphany: This book is a metaphor for death and dying.
Not suicide, mind you. Because Marvin decides to go in the end, this raises the question of whether Marvin decided to end it all, but I say it's simply that Marvin has acknowledged his mortality and come to the acceptance of death. Acceptance since at the end of the book, when his time has come, he has a smile on his face.
Framing the story this way explains many things. Why do we never see that face of the hands? Why do the hands decree "The time has come, and the time is now!" Because these are the hands of god, little 'g'. God wears the wristwatch to both symbolize the time that will come to all mortals, and also to portray the impersonality of the universe... a tick-tock god.
When I read the ways Marvin can go, by skis, in a crunk car, or in a bureau drawer, I hear in my head Leonard Cohen's "Who by fire?" Even the title of the book "...will you please go now?" evokes Robert Frost's "Do not go gentle into that good night."
What I like most about this book is the simplicity of the text, which can be a truism for any art: The simpler the story the more the reader must fill in the gaps with his or her own history. Admittedly, Dr. Seuss dealt with big issues in his later books, and his estate produced a handful of "teachable moment" stories posthumously, but those were only poorly edited half-ideas. It's only when you get down to a 240 word text that the gaps shine through. Take for example the opening line: "The time has come..." This could have been written by Dickens or Poe, or even Hemingway.
When I first had my insight I didn't realize "Marvin K Mooney" had already been used for another allegory: the downfall of Richard M Nixon via the Watergate scandal. After some research on the book I found that Art Buchwald had published a tweaked version of "Marvin K Mooney" in 1974 for the Washington Post. He substituted "Richard M Nixon" for "Marvin K Mooney."
The time has come.
The time has come.
The time is now.
Just go.
Go.
Go!
I don't care how.
You can go by foot.
You can go by cow.
Richard M. Nixon will you please go now!
and so on.
Is that the test of great art, that it reflects peoples lives and times without aging? In this case Richard M met the same fate as Marvin K, and they both went. Regardless, I'll also bring the personal memories of hours of time spent together with my kids reading this and other books. Maybe tonight we'll take a second look at Eric Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."
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