MAY 10, 2021
I HAVE BEGUN to imagine the After, the coming back together, which looks like a giant barbecue with everyone I’ve ever known appearing from the trees at the edge of the meadow and waving hello as they trundle their coolers closer. Exciting, but then the old anxiety creeps back in. After a social reprieve, will I blank on people’s names, or laugh too hard, so hard they think I haven’t had enough laughs in my year of social distancing? These concerns are the stuff of life: What are other people for? What do we want from them?
In her 2003 short story “This Person,” Miranda July writes the perfect coming-together. All the people the eponymous protagonist has ever known gather in a park to celebrate, disinfecting the scene of all alienation and offering total validation. Regarding previous misunderstandings, they tell this person: “[I]t was all just a test, we were only kidding, real life is so much better than that.” They offer unconditional love, even the idiots and the jerks. But then this person leaves, the stress of being a human in the world growing too great. “Everyone was wrong,” this person thinks. “[T]his person is not who they thought this person was.”
According to psychologist Martin Hughes, we move from egocentrism to a place where we begin to grasp the untidy ways that we connect with others around the age of four. This is the prime age for picture books, and those of Jon Klassen deal directly with the innate sense of alienation children feel on realizing that theirs are not the only desires. In This Is Not My Hat (2011), a tiny fish steals a hat from a larger fish and is eaten in retribution; in the sequel, I Want My Hat Back (2012), a rabbit and a bear reenact the same scenario. Both books are allegories for our petty and spiteful ways. In We Found a Hat (2016), twin turtles covet the same hat, found out in the desert, and the dilemma becomes existential, a choice between friendship and the material desires of the individual.
This same battle plays out across all our lives. What is Instagram but an endless scroll of people with the hat we wish we had, playing together somewhere better than wherever we are, without us? “When do we get to see people again?” my five-year-old daughter has been asking since March 2020. She means really be with them — in some alternate universe where she can hug or take off her mask. Little rabbits in a world of towering bears, my kids want so badly to make friends, but are thwarted not just by distancing rules but by the awkwardness of other people.
Klassen’s new book, The Rock from the Sky, turns this eternal struggle — toward, and away from, other people — into an epic that I’m not ashamed, as an adult, to have studied for possible tips. A turtle, a snake, and an armadillo-mole sit on a plain, the three struggling to make it to the same place while, unbeknownst to them, a meteorite thunders toward Earth. Their dialogue captures what it feels like to relate imperfectly to others, the turtle yelling from one page at the armadillo-mole and snake on the other:
MY SPOT IS BETTER.
YOU ARE TOO FAR AWAY TO HEAR.
I AM COMING CLOSER.
WE STILL CANNOT HEAR YOU.
In each chapter, Klassen’s characters lie to and confuse each other. In chapter two, the turtle is upside down next to a fallen rock. “Did you fall off?” asks the armadillo-mole, entering the scene.
“No,” lies the turtle. He is offered help and declines it, teetering upturned on the apex of his shell.
Why are we like this?
The turtle wants to be with the others but is stranded in his own egotism, hobbled by the failure of words to make it intact over the distance, from recto to verso. His friends are calling him over, but he can’t hear them: “I see. I see how it is. Just enough room for two. Maybe I will go to the other spot by myself. Maybe I will never come back.” He raises his voice, “I SAID MAYBE I WILL NEVER COME BACK.”
Who among us has not sat on a rock forlornly, in clear view of the people we would like to know that we are sad? My daughter just discovered this genre of performance. But what is the power of acting very sad on a rock if no one is around to see it? What has our self-imposed exile meant in a year of social pause?
The problem with solitude is that, even at a distance, your sense of self is defined in relation to others. Moving through our daily lives involves a constant negotiation of who we are and who they are. As Erving Goffman writes in his classic 1956 study The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life:
When we allow that the individual projects a definition of the situation when he appears before others, we must also see that the others, however passive their role may seem to be, will themselves effectively project a definition of the situation by virtue of their response to the individual and by virtue of any lines of action they initiate to him.
Our social performance, when it finally resumes, will sound like a tractor left for a decade in a field struggling to turn over its engine.
In chapter three, the turtle joins the armadillo-mole on the fallen rock, and a shared imagining of what the friends call “The Future” materializes as an eye on spindly legs — the kind of thing a child might draw. “What is it?” asks the turtle. “We are in the future. I don’t know what it is,” replies the armadillo-mole. The Future then begins to glow and radiate a kind of terrible energy, before obliterating a flower with a blast of fire from its pupil. “AAAAAAAAAAAA!!” scream the friends. The Future wanders off. “I don’t want to imagine into the future with you anymore,” says the turtle, having dipped a toe just far enough into its friend’s mind. Such is the risk of human connection!
So, we have a turtle who is alone but in view of his would-be friends. The news is good. He eventually wanders over so they can hear him express his dejection, and thus misses obliteration by the falling meteorite by a mere inches. Social missteps can be forgiven. Jon Klassen, it seems, still holds out hope for us all.
Still, no one said it won’t be awkward.