Cashing in: an extended review

April 8th, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,

This is the third in my brief series of capsule reviews of children’s fiction. See here and here first for background on the Arturo and Zoltan stories.

From Arturo To Zoltan: an Unhappy Okapi Encyclopedia, edited by Søren Tyggegummi. (Arbitrary Haus, 2008).

Perhaps no one is more surprised than Søren Tyggegummi at the absurd success of his Unhappy Okapi franchise, which now spans seventeen short books, a lucrative cross-merchandising arrangement with a national fast-food chain, countless plush toys and action figures, two albums of “Okapi Sing-Alongs,” and a trilogy of computer-animated films featuring the voice talents of Alex Winter, Ian McKellen, and Lorraine Bracco, scheduled to hit theaters starting in 2009. Tyggegummi’s personal story makes the tremendous popularity of his tales all the more remarkable: as recently as 2004, he was living in a shack in the slums outside Copenhagen, telling his stories to disaffected youths for spare kroner — now, he is an international celebrity at the head of a multimedia sensation and in no small part responsible for the unexpected resurgence of Arbitrary Haus as a major player in the juvenile literature market.

Unfortunately, this hastily-assembled tome provides clear evidence that the Unhappy Okapi canon suffers greatly when subjected to the “fan encyclopedia” treatment, which demands compromise and filler from even the most meticulously arranged imaginary universes. Few readers will have their enjoyment of the stories enhanced by the trivial, strange, and — in some cases — inconsistent details included here, such as the “fact” that Arturo never learned to write in cursive (unlikely, given his impressive display in The Unhappy Okapi Illuminates), or that safari parties are almost exclusively composed of Methodists. Some entries, like Gabor’s collection of jackdaw recipes, are simply morbid, and there are whole sections devoted to characters (like Kundry the Koala) who never appear in the books or other properties.

A casual observer might see such a thick book (the American edition is over 250 pages) and assume that the Arturo mythology is fully fleshed out; this buyer would do well to reconsider. In fact, only the first forty pages even plausibly relate to the well-known stories; the remainder of the book is dominated by a collection of public-domain material, including several complete entries from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica and a collection of baroque woodcuts of various fantastical creatures (e.g. manticore, cockatrice, and basilisk). The book also includes a sixty-page essay by Slavoj Žižek on the semiotics of wordplay as it relates to contemporary myth and empire. While there is perhaps a tenuous connection between Žižek’s piece and the increasingly wordplay-obsessed later works in the series, this addition is unlikely to be edifying to the target audience for the Unhappy Okapi stories. Recommended for completists only, and with extreme reservation.