If there's one thing that seems to make would-be adapters of Alice in Wonderland throw their figurative teacups, it's the book's lack of a plot. As a character, Alice is flat: she engages and disengages from each encounter with ease, neither changing nor changed by anyone she encounters. One could hardly expect realist plot development in a book that works by dream logic, after all. Alas, what works on the page often deflates with a bathetic whoosh when translated into dramatic form, which explains why adaptations keep trying to impose something in the immediate vicinity of a wisp of a plot onto the material. Not that novelists don't encounter the same problem. Of his own bleak appropriation of Alice in Wonderland, Aliss, Patrick Senécal has said that "[m]on livre devait être plus qu’une série de scènes flyées et c’était justement le risque le plus grand. Il fallait qu’il y ait un but à tout cela. Aliss ne devait pas être qu’une touriste qui se paie la traite pendant cinq cents pages. Il fallait qu’elle cherche quelque chose." Senecal's very practical acknowledgment of his narrative problem interests me precisely because Aliss' quest, which structures the novel, runs counter to the effectively plotless nature of life in Aliss' Wonderland, Daresbury. Or, rather, life in Daresbury aspires to not having a plot; characters who think in terms of plot, of development or self-discovery, wind up plotted out.
Aliss fantasizes that her personal quest is a Nietzchean one: she yearns first to become, then to encounter Superwoman, whom she believes to be Daresbury's ruler, the Red Queen. Given that Aliss has a rather faint grasp of Nietzche, as both her professor and Chess (the novel's Cheshire Cat) point out, it comes as no surprise that she misreads Nietzche's Ubermensch. Skimming Also Sprach Zarathustra, she joyously concludes that she has come to Daresbury "pour surmonter le petit, le misérable, le commun, le bien! Car tout ça est obstacle au surhomme...ou a la surfemme!"1 In other words, Aliss reads the Ubermensch primarily in terms of freedom, originality, and self-expression, without attending to his purposefulness or mission. As the Red Queen brutally informs her at the trial that concludes the novel's main action, this is a juvenile interpretation of the text. The Ubermensch seeks "un absolu," indeed, to improve all mankind (504), neither of which interests the Queen in the slightest; as far as she is concerned, "'[y] a pas de place pour le surhomme, ici! Y a pas de place pour cette nouvelle morale!'" (505) The only "quest" that interests the Queen is for her own absolute power (506)--for pure and absolute agency as such, without any justifying goal or end. So much for the developmental aspects of Nietzche's will to power.
Not only does Daresbury try to disavow development, but it also does the same with reciprocity. For lack of a better way of putting it, there is little-to-no sense of subjectivity in Daresbury, of other people as selves with their own independent interiority and moral life. Those characters with substantive friendships or romantic relationships in Daresbury appear to simply collapse into each other, as though they were aspects of the same person. Bone and Chair (Flesh), the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, are the most prominent example of this phenomenon: they share the same quest (of which more in a moment), live in the same house, engage in the same punning games (to everyone else's annoyance), and, as Aliss notices, speak in the same voice. Even when they're having sex with someone else, both of them are still involved. They appear separately exactly once, and even then, Chair turns out to be merely hanging about outside. Buddies Micha and Hugo (Tweedledee and Tweedledum) and sadomasochists Mickey and Minnie (!) prove to be similarly attached at the hip. But lose half the couple, as Aliss discovers to her cost with Mickey, and the other doesn't necessarily engage in the sort of mourning one might expect for a beloved, for another person entitled to "I." Any demand to be treated as an "I," or to treat another as an "I," eventually short-circuits--often fatally. Andromaque (the Duchess), the only woman in Daresbury to bear a child, is ultimately destroyed by both her belief in an obligation to her baby and her eventual rejection of it; Aliss' landlady, who wants thanks from the Red Queen, is killed instead; Aliss wrongly believes that saving Mickey from torture means that he will be appropriately grateful. In Carroll's Alice, the title character is always kept at an emotional distance from the weird figures she encounters, and vice-versa. But here, Alice's perpetual detachment returns as the quarter's governing rule: it's possible to function almost as a single "I," as in the case of Bone and Chair (practically an old married couple, after all--they've been together for over two decades), but it's not possible to be separate and relate in anything except the most superficial way. Even someone relatively friendly, like Verrue (the Caterpillar), is still not much of a friend.
In her fantasy that she has engaged the Red Queen's affections, Aliss exemplifies the faith in both plotting and subjectivity that makes her an object of contempt in Daresbury. But it is Bone and Chair's personal quest that embodies, I think, the novel's best-developed model (so to speak...) of an anti-plot. As Aliss discovers at the novel's terrifying mad tea party, Bone and Chair are doctors (who studied at McGill!) eternally in search of the soul. That is, the lack thereof, as Bone explains: "Mais pour dire que quelque chose n'existe pas, il faut ne l'avoir jamais trouvé [...] Comme le monstre du Loch Ness. Jusqu'a preuve du contraire, il n'existe pas puisqu'on ne l'a jamais déniché, vous voyez? Il doit en être de meme pour l'ame. Pour etre certain qu'elle n'existe pas, il faut ne pas la trouver" (313). Seeking not to find, Bone and Chair engage in repetitive (albeit...original) acts of torture that reduce their human subjects to corpses--corpses that, in turn, are repurposed as art objects of a distinctly unpleasant sort (the "sculpture," the Red Queen's little installations) or visual puns (as per the usual with Bone and Chair). Instead of treating humans as an end, Bone and Chair "playfully" think of them as a gory means to a journey that can have no end. Torture treated as one of the fine arts, as it were. The only punctuation to this gruesomely joyous quest comes from their own sexual arousal, which--perhaps in a silent pun--becomes indistinguishable from dealing death: after Aliss unwillingly witnesses them dismembering a man, she sees them staring at each other in a "[t]ranse animale, transe de plaisir, transe orgasmique, presque" (325), which shortly gives way to actual sex amongst the entrails (327). As we see much later on, transitioning from torture to enthusiastic sex is their usual (unappealing) routine. Clotilde Landais quite rightly argues that the novel defines Aliss' quest-romance in terms of its cascading failure; because Aliss can move from "test" to test only by dosing herself with Macros, Micros, and Royales, Landais suggests, she never makes any progress, and "elle n’est pas allée « au bout de tout » comme elle le souhaitait, dans la mesure où, fondamentalement, elle se faisait violence pour parvenir à imiter les autres."2 In effect, Aliss must somehow wrestle herself into a linear plot defined by a transcendent goal. By contrast, Bone's and Chair's quest-romance (which really is a very different sort of romance...) glories in its cyclical failure, even turns failure into erotic celebration. Aliss deceives herself into believing that she's progressing toward something new and different; Bone and Chair, whose entire project depends on no progress, no alteration in their self-perceptions or beliefs, deliriously and exultingly launch themselves towards nothing at all.
1 Patrick Senécal, Aliss (Québec, Canada: Alire, 2000), 162. (Please excuse any missing accents.)
2 Landais makes a similar point elsewhere: "La libération sexuelle de l’héroïne est donc achevée, tout comme l’explosion de son ancien corps qui résulte de cette frénésie sexuelle, mais cela n’a pu se faire que sous l’emprise de la drogue. Cette nécessité pour Aliss de se droguer afin de se libérer de ses inhibitions révèle un écart entre son moi réel et celui qu’elle souhaite projeter."