Kompaneyests, Marc. The Squishiness of Things. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. (Print)
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is a common saying and one I’ve done well to ignore on many occasions. This is one of them. As I wandered through the bookstore, looking for a book for my son, Jack, I saw this one laying off to the side. Before I even picked it up I knew I’d love it. Please excuse the quality of my scans, I did the best I could with what I have. However, it is of note that the entire book has a sort of semi-sepia tone about it. So it’s not that the yellow hue in my scans are too high, rather the book has an “aged” feel about it.
The book centers around the misadventures of the learned Hieronymus, who is no ordinary genius, and has created a measuring and classification system for everything. He becomes so knowledgeable about everything, has read, tested, experimented, and learned everything, that there’s just nothing left for him to know. He’s even become an authority on the “bounciness of sausage.”
He then finds a single hair on his desk that he cannot identify. And for a man with 36 million specimens of hair in his collection, you would think there would be a match. Alas, the identity of the hair eludes him and he sets out in search of its identity across strange lands, strange peoples, in a Voyages Extraordinaires in much the same vein as Baron Munchausen. Each land he travels to ends up driving him out, with his question unanswered.
The artwork is beautiful, but that should be evident from the scans. It has a rich timelessness about it, and each page is either a full work of art, or a miniature accompanying illuminated-style text surrounded by a fantastic border appropriate to the situation. Though there are mildly threatening situations as Hieronymus flees each situation, there is no outright violence, or any inappropriate language.
The writing is clever, and fun, but not superb. The author is obviously telling a very tongue-in-cheek tour de farce about the irony of a world full of know-it-all who don’t know anything at all. Each land Hieronymus visits is a blatant social commentary as well. The Bobnatoabobs are people who think they know everything because they can speak in the loudest voice (shock jocks, politicians, musicians, Fox News). The Pabnayabishlanders refuse to believe anything but their own truth despite evidence to the contrary, and insist the world was basically created yesterday (creationists, school boards, Fox News). The Myeggadeggeans are a fear-mongering people who live every day in fear of everything, spreading fear, and proclaiming they will all perish at any minute, and are loaded to the teeth with weapons ready to shoot, stab, chop, and otherwise kill anything that scares them, which is pretty much everything (rednecks, elderly, Fox News). And of course, there’s Hieronymus himself who, despite knowing almost everything there is to know, doesn’t find out the very obvious until his lazy assistant, Pieter, who does nothing but lay around the house all day sleeping (artists, authors, stoners), solves the most obvious mystery of all, and then upstages the genius of geniuses by publishing the pinnacle of works.
The book is exactly the sort of book I’d have thought was dead-on about 10 years ago, when I could identify more with Pieter than anyone else. But the truth of it is that life is far more complex than caricatures. It’s far too easy for us to dismiss the thoughts and beliefs of others as being silly and wrong, because everyone, without fail, thinks that their own thoughts and beliefs are correct and that everyone else is wrong. Except for the people who think like they do, and even then there’s usually a fair amount of disparity. I’m no fan of Fox News, but even I must admit that even their extreme right-wing viewpoint provides a different perspective on events that is, sadly, as necessary as it is for MSNBC to give the far left-wing perspective. The truth exists in neither side, but somewhere in the middle. Sometimes. And sometimes everyone is wrong. But after working full time jobs for 15 years, being married, taking care of a house, and raising a boy, I can tell you the one person who is probably the farthest from understanding any sort of universal truth is the lazy bum who sits sleeping in the corner all day.
That said, I did like the book. As far as steam goes, it’s hard to place it. The main character wear goggles, has an inventors workshop, and travels the world in an extraordinary voyage, but at the same time the story has many elements that seem more Renaissance than Victorian. On the other hand, not everyone dressed like Americans and British during the Victorian Age, and the character names hardly seem to be either. So its steam rating is “plausible.” The illustrations are fantastic, the style of print and borders and tone of the entire book is delightfully antique feeling. However, it failed to capture the interest of my son, the writing tends to encourage xenophobia, and the actual hero of the story is a lazy bum who doesn’t even bother to comment until someone else did all the work, much like myself in this review. Overall, I give the work a 180 out of 300psi on the Steam-O-Meter. It’s worth buying, if nothing else, because of the artwork and the relative scarcity of Steampunk children’s books, if not for the actual message of the book itself.