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Down the Rabbit Hole
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2013 Book Discussions > Down the Rabbit Hole - General Discussion, Spoilers Allowed (September 2013)

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Deborah | 983 comments This is the place to discuss it all. The month is long, and I'll suggest that it's all fair game, but until the second half the month, let's only discuss the first half of the book openly. Anything that would reveal the latter parts of the story let's put in spoiler tags until after the 15th when it's all game.


Peter Aronson (peteraronson) | 516 comments So, does anyone want to speculate about what the pygmy Liberian hippopotamus' represent? They are excessive and somewhat fantastical, rather like something from the zoos kept by actual royalty once upon a time. In that, they represent just how far Tochtli's life is from normality. Their death represents how the drug lord's touch kills everything innocent it comes in touch with (perhaps including his son's innocence?). And their eventual taxidermy and crowning is perhaps a bizarre version of "when life hands you lemons, make lemonade", once again showing a child's resilience under the most bizarre conditions, or perhaps just underlining just how unnatural Tochtli and his father's life style is.

But what about the names Tochtli gives the hippos?


message 3: by Deborah (last edited Sep 04, 2013 05:07PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Deborah | 983 comments In the no spoilers thread there's a lot of discussion about the Tochtli's voice. Bethany made some interesting points and comparisons. Likely, I should have posted my response there, but I wanted not to have to think about how the writing informs the story with regards to spoilers.

I think Villalobos presents us with a choice. (I feel) He uses a rather clumsy device to give us a child's point of view without being constrained by a child's use of language. Right on page one, we have to make a choice. We can suspend disbelief or we can go with it.

Since I'm moderating the discussion, finishing the book seemed optimal. I opted to go with it. If you take it as you find it, if you don't pick at it too much and just agree, alright, I'll buy your precocious seven year old with a huge vocabulary, this story works. But if you reject it, then this book cannot work. Right from the beginning the reader is required to participate or to refrain from judgment.

As for the hippo names, I'm not clear yet entirely. I think it says something about decadence. I think it also speaks to how precarious power is. (Maybe. I'm not sure I think that. But that's my first swipe at it.)


Peter Aronson (peteraronson) | 516 comments You clearly never met my children when they were 7! I hardly noticed that aspect -- it seemed perfectly normal.


message 5: by Daniel (last edited Sep 04, 2013 06:58PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Daniel For the hippo names, I saw it as tying in to his obsession with the guillotine. The taxidermy heads are also likely some representation of that as well. As for meaning, though, I can't say I have anything concrete just yet.


message 6: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Rowe (benwickens) | 89 comments One element of the book that I like is that it is open to multiple interpretations that each seem to hold up fairly well. For instance when the protagonist goes on his vow of silence this can be seen a childish game or it can be seen as a child traumatized into silence through the horrors he has witnessed - each hold up and with any unreliable narrator there is always plenty of wriggle room.


message 7: by Peter (last edited Sep 05, 2013 06:16PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Peter Aronson (peteraronson) | 516 comments This is a nice point, Ben. I mean, any first person narrator has to be potentially assumed to be an unreliable narrator, but a child is growing up in an unnatural environment must be doubly so! It is sometimes conventionally assumed that children, lacking adult hypocrisy, are inherently more honest than adults. But children typically have trouble separating the stories they tell themselves to help make sense of the world from objective reality.


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Lit Bug | 32 comments It's a pity I can't join reading the book as of now having my hands full, but I find this book very interesting from these threads - silently stalking the thread each day :)


Deborah | 983 comments When you get a chance, take a look. It's available on Kindle. It's a really short read at approximately 74 pages. Not dense pages either. Also, the folders remain on our page and we can revisit them in the future. They just get moved down when the month is over.


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Lit Bug | 32 comments I'll try my best to take it up as soon as I can - I've a deadline looming to submit my research proposal :)


Deborah | 983 comments No assignments. When the mood takes you, we'll all be here.


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Lit Bug | 32 comments :D In the meantime I'll keep on reading the posts - I don't mind spoilers.

I've digressed quite a bit. Will let the thread return to its original purpose :)


Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
The "voice" of the narrator reminded me in an odd way of the narrator in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, an autistic boy who sometimes talked about jokes without understanding why they were funny. At pages 40-41, Tochtli talks about jokes, including how many Spaniards it takes to screw in a light bulb. Tochtli seems to be trying to analyze or make sense of the jokes, without necessarily seeing the humor in them.


Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Casceil wrote: "The "voice" of the narrator reminded me in an odd way of the narrator in 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time'"

The same thought occurred to me.


message 15: by Lily (last edited Sep 09, 2013 11:37AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Don't know how to discuss this book. Since I'm currently reading Tolstoy's War and Peace and we have been talking a lot about knowing the mother of Pierre, a key character, one of the things I noticed in this tale was the lack of a mother figure, even a servant surrogate.

I'll probably go and see if I can find out more about the author. I find myself asking what does he want from me as a reader of this piece -- somewhat as I did for some of Daniel Woodrell's stories in The Outlaw Album: Stories. What led its publisher, And Other Stories, to apparently underwrite its translation? What gives it its power are all questions I am wrestling with the day (hours) after reading it.

Do others presume the title comes from Alice in Wonderland, or is there another allusion I am missing? Yes, of course, the meaning of Tochtli's name -- rabbit.


message 16: by Lily (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments I also went to see what others said. This one struck me as particularly worth sharing here:

From a review by Clara Boza: "The one review I saw, after reading the book, described it perfectly: 'So this is a novel about failing to understand the bigger picture, and in its absence we can see it more clearly.'"


Deborah | 983 comments My assumption was that yes, Alice is the reference.
I wondered where the mother had gone, but not why she wasn't replaced. It's an excellent question. You get the feeling that women provide some services, but they are in no way confederates. No mother needed. He's mas macho.


Daniel Lily, I would have never glommed onto the mother figure issue had you not raised it, yet now it seems of immense importance. Even as a statement on the social fabric of the drug culture, it's a pretty powerful indictment. Add to that the unending stream of macho ideals and homophobic slurs, and you have a recipe for...well, I'd like to call it disaster, but it's something much more insidious and fundamentally destructive. Nice catch!


message 19: by Lily (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Sometimes intertextual stuff does call things to our attention, and then we can go from there as to significance.


Deborah | 983 comments How literally do you interpret Totchli's use of mute ?


message 21: by Kai (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kai Coates (southernbohemian) | 24 comments I wasn't too skeptical of the "child's voice". My son is 7, has a big vocabulary and reads junior high level books. I noticed that Villalobos had Tochtli repeatedly use the same "big" words as a child does, so it did not seem hard for me to accept until he would throw in a word like "enigmatic". I wonder how much of that is translation vs. original.

I also took the hippos to be a symbol of doomed decadence. Also, how innocent and fanciful things shouldn't be contained in a cage, such as Tochtli's caged existence.


Deborah | 983 comments Kai, I completely agree with regards to the hippos.

With the vocabulary, no, no. The vocabulary, I liked. I just wondered about the choice to lead with the explanation. Almost as if he were apologizing.


message 23: by Kai (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kai Coates (southernbohemian) | 24 comments Deborah, I can see what you mean about apologizing at the beginning, but I think it was a good way to introduce his life. Third line: "Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic, and devastating." I think I would have rather he skipped the rest of the explanation about the dictionary, as we get a sense that he is well educated through other parts of the book.

Overall, I liked the book, but I thought it was more of a "nice start" than finished product.


Deborah | 983 comments That was a lovely line.


message 25: by Lily (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Ironically, I found this on an Elementary Art Room blog:

"...To the Egyptians who lived and travelled along the Nile river, hippos were considered to be the most dangerous animals in the world and presented a constant danger!..."

http://elementaryartroom.blogspot.com...


Deborah | 983 comments At the risk of upsetting anyone, I thought this read was not spectacular. I think this becomes more evident as the days since finishing pass and I find less to to say, rather than more.

I think as a social commentary it fails to inspire thought and debate. Rather it reports without revelation.

I think this sort of work should force you to question yourself. I didn't.


message 27: by Lily (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments Deborah wrote: "At the risk of upsetting anyone, I thought this read was not spectacular. I think this becomes more evident as the days since finishing pass and I find less to to say, rather than more. ..."

Deb (do you mind the nickname, I'll use Deborah in the future if you prefer) -- I have a guideline that if a book provides me one idea that I retain [forever?], it has been a worthwhile read. I rather suspect, in emotional impact if not intellectual, TtRH will meet that criterion.

But there may really not be a lot of discussion to be had about a 74 page book that would probably require a lot of judgmental statements difficult if not inappropriate to make on a discussion board.

When I told a friend last night about this book, one of her comments was reminding me that children are widely used in narcotics dealing because the laws applying to juveniles are more lenient. Just being introduced to the existence of narco-literature was a learning experience for us -- our book-reading worlds hadn't taken us there.

I don't know that every book of this type should force self-questioning. That feels a tougher criterion than I apply. Some such books may "merely" provide a [shocking?, disturbing?] window into a reality we ourselves may not have known, at least the way the author presents it to us, and even if the author uses fantasy and tall tales to convey that reality.


Deborah | 983 comments Deb is fine

I didn't feel that emotional investment.

I'm not sure why exactly. I didn't find him unsympathetic, but rather not compelling.


Daniel Deborah wrote: "At the risk of upsetting anyone, I thought this read was not spectacular. I think this becomes more evident as the days since finishing pass and I find less to to say, rather than more..."

Hopefully none of us are so easily upset or offended!

I thought it functioned rather well as a mild satire, a dark inversion of the standard coming-of-age stories that seem so ubiquitous nowadays. I also enjoyed the stark contrast of the decadence of Tochtli's life as compared to the abject poverty that no doubt surrounds the compound.


Deborah | 983 comments But Daniel, were you moved?

I enjoyed this novella. I did not think it was great It was only good.


Daniel Deborah wrote: "But Daniel, were you moved?

I enjoyed this novella. I did not think it was great It was only good."


Moved to a point, but not to the earth-shattering degree that would edge the book from good to great. Then again, I'm also quite content just to find a book with intelligent wit and biting humour. Perhaps I'm simply coming from a place of lowered expectations...


Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
It has been a week since I finished this book. I did not dislike it, but I do not have any strong feelings about it, one way or the other. I guess, as Deborah puts it, I was not moved. Partly it suffers by contrast to Life After Life, the other group read this month. Life after Life was very engaging and has sparked some of the liveliest discussions I've seen here in a long time. Although it is fantasy, it seemed much more real to me than Down the Rabbit Hole. There was some discussion earlier about how believable the child narrator was, with his large vocabulary. I had no problem with his vocabulary, since my kids talked like that from an early age. But I found the character not really believable for other reasons. I don't know what a child would be like if he had grown up in the circumstances this child did, but somehow I don't think he would be like this.


message 33: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Rowe (benwickens) | 89 comments I think Down the Rabbit Hole could be seen as a fantasy - I am in no way claiming it as a genre book but because we are seeing the world through the distorting prism of a very disturbed and spoiled 7 year old boy who in addition to challenges around his perception is a pretty unreliable narrator.

I am only 50 pages into Life after Life but that is very much using a fantastical tool to shine light on a world that is very real and realized.

Ultimately though it is a very short work and I think in that context to get 50+ comments about it show that it was a good choice for the month, particularly leading up to the October extravaganza for which there is much reading to be done.


message 34: by Lily (last edited Sep 12, 2013 07:19PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments For me, DtRL was a much more powerful book than LaL. But that is absolutely comparing mangoes versus grapes that have been harvested, fermented, and corked as a fine wine. LaL is the latter, DtRL is a mango slightly gone to turpentine. One can enjoy being drunk night after night, but will never break 90 points. The other ... well, we all know that turpentine tastes awful, but is flammable.

Not particularly good analogies, but the best that come to me without more work than this head can do tonight. KA's LaL just wasn't standing up to War and Peace, Remains of the Day, and The Forsythe Saga, its concurrent comparisons on my book stand. I also had a bias for KA to overcome. And, yes, she is good, just somehow too loose, despite all the careful plotting LaL had to have taken. But I'll give DtRH a fighting chance alongside a couple of the short stories in Daniel Woodrell's The Outlaw Album.


Daniel This post is in relation to Terry's comments about us being more aware than the narrator (message 17 in the non-spoiler thread), but I wanted to add what would probably be considered a spoiler. One of my favourite aspects of the book, believe it or not, was Tochtli's use of "orifices" to describe bullet holes. It's a word choice that does double duty, showing how he doesn't truly understand his vocabulary or the moral/ethical/social implications of irresponsible gun use. His attempts at being grown-up are well-intentioned and endearing, but ultimately laughable. Or perhaps scary, because everyone is playing along with him and not bothering to correct his misperceptions.

In any event, I found this novella worthwhile just to see how effective word selection can be, and how the right (or wrong) word at a well-appointed time can convey so many messages.


Deborah | 983 comments One of the things that fascinated me was the use of Liberia. There's this parallel of violence and tearing your own country apart. The school wall. The names.


Daniel Deborah wrote: "One of the things that fascinated me was the use of Liberia. There's this parallel of violence and tearing your own country apart. The school wall. The names."

Also the fact that the country was named for freedom and modeled after the United States. It's an amazingly apt metaphor, and I was terribly impressed that the captive hippos would have to be captured from this "free" country. So many juicy analogies and parallels there. It was probably my second favourite element of the book.


message 38: by Lily (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments My head has been playing with 'why the hats?' No answers, just thoughts -- wealth to support indulgences, keep a kid quiet, many unreal roles here -- but the most interesting stream of consciousness for me was Dr. Suess's The Cat in the Hat , the contrast between a kid that might possibly still be enjoying such a story and this kid, with his perverted life that most of us would askew providing a child -- to misuse an adverb.


message 39: by Lily (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2471 comments I just went looking for what narco-literature is, i.e., other examples. I immediately came across this piece by our author:

http://www.englishpen.org/against-nar...


Daniel Lily wrote: "I just went looking for what narco-literature is, i.e., other examples. I immediately came across this piece by our author:

http://www.englishpen.org/against-nar..."


Great link, Lily. It almost sets up a dialectic between the artist's need to say, and the foreknowledge that it will be taken the wrong way. I found it fascinating.


Terry Pearce Ditto about the orifices. I loved that, and loved that it was foreshadowed in a discussion before being used in actual description.

Overall, I felt torn between admiration of much of it, and a certain sense of nonplussedness (a word? it is now.) when it was over. I feel more could have been made of it, that this could have been a novel, that we could have seen things come to a sticky end, or seen him shifted out of his innocence more permanently. It was very well done as far as it went, but I wanted more.


Rachel W (razzle97) | 7 comments Hi all! I'm new to the group and was eager to jump in on this book. I finished it last night, and while it wasn't a perfect novel, I thought there were some aspects that were very well done. I read the glossary after I finished, and really enjoyed the naming convention employed by Villalobos. The names were clearly symbolic and indicative of the personality of the character, almost like an Aesop's Fable. I have been mulling them over today quite a bit.


Deborah | 983 comments I came across his site today. I found it charming, if brief.

http://www.juanpablovillalobos.com/in...


message 44: by Ben (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ben Rowe (benwickens) | 89 comments http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013... review of his next book in the Guardian today - looks also worth checking out.


Jenny (Reading Envy) (readingenvy) I sat and read this finally but don't have a lot to say. I am wondering about the people in the boy's life who he thinks are mute. Surely they can't all be. Are they afraid?


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