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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 4 (1997)
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Mr. Templeton's Toyshop by Thomas Wiloch.

ISBN 1-877655-16-3, Jazz Police Books (David Memmott, Editor & Publisher, P.O. Box 3235, La Grande, OR 97850), 1995. 87 pages.

reviewed by Jeff Foster.
Copyright 1996 Jeff Foster

Do you ever get the feeling that you're nothing but a puppet created and controlled by a cruel and unusual god? Yeah? Well, then, I think you'd be interested in Thomas Wiloch's Mr. Templeton's Toyshop, a book of short fiction and prose poems which deals, in part, with the miserable state of human existence in the hands of a malevolent god. Sound like a funny book? It is.

In the title story, we meet Mr. Templeton, who is one part sick toybuilding bastard and one part sick magical/evil scientist. Let me give you an example of what kind of pervert we're dealing with. In one chapter, Templeton sells a toy boat to a young boy, who goes off with some friends to sail the boat in a river. As the boat floats away, it suddenly grows into a life-size sailboat. The boys run up the gangplank. Then, as suddenly as the vessel had grown, it shrinks back to its original size. The children, too, are reduced in size, like miniature sailors. Mr. Templeton then comes along, retrieves the boat, and brings it back to his toyshop, where he picks up one of the children with tweezers. With his free hand, Templeton rips the child's fingers off one by one. The child screams, which annoys the grumpy toymaker:

"Why must children be so loud? This was to be, he had hoped, a quiet evening of scientific study. He puts an end to the child's complaints with a well-placed pin."

This image of human beings as dolls (or puppets or mannikins) recurs throughout Wiloch's book. In "Puppets Holding Mirrors," Wiloch clearly associates human beings with puppets on a shelf:

"There are puppets and men in this world. The puppets sit on shelves with mirrors in their hands. Look in here, they seem to say. Look in the mirror. It is very easy to forget your face, your own name. The puppets and mirrors remind us of ourselves. They define our limited dimensions."

Puppets and mirrors are "versions" of ourselves. But which version is the true version? Are we merely reflections of external realities? To guard ourselves against being reminded that we may be only physical things with "limited dimensions," we try to avoid philosophizing. We try to avoid being reminded of our limits as human beings.

But Wiloch won't let us forget that our free will is limited, if not an outright illusion. In the simultaneously whimsical and depressing "A Week of Miniatures," Wiloch expresses the nature of our limited freedom:

"Performers are put into a plane flying high in the air. As the plane flies along on automatic, the performers stage scenes from famous plays of their own choosing, acting according to the dictates of their own free will. (Note: The plane has only a limited amount of fuel. Performance ends when all performers are dead.)"

Sure, we as performers can "choose" to some extent, but we have no control over the world around us, over existence itself. Our "play" can be performed only as long as the stage remains standing. But since we didn't build the stage, we are at the mercy of its builder. (How's the analogy holding up?) Once the stage collapses (and it will), the show's over. And we puppets will be out of work. At least, this is how Wiloch understands the limits of the human condition.

Regarding Wiloch's use of puppets and mirrors, I should point out here one of the few problems I had with his book. The puppet and mirror imagery was overworked. Perhaps this unfortunate situation was merely a circumstance of the collection, of the book itself. Whatever the reason, though, the repetition of the images weakened the force of the poetry. This is not to say that taken individually, the poems were not intellectually charged, emotionally stimulating, or creatively crafted. But the inclusion of so many puppets, mannikins, and dolls in the same volume caused the momentum of the narration to become bogged down in repetitive symbolism and imagery.

Finally, a few not-so-random comments about other parts of Wiloch's book:

  1. If you like Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," you'll like "House of Butterflies." Of the eighteen stanzas, only a couple are disappointing. The other sixteen are beautiful. Tortured and beautiful.
  2. Are you into into self-mutilation, burning flesh, and puncture wounds? Check out "Carving Symbols," "More Light," and "Martyr." Funny.
  3. "The City of K" is something of a sequel to, or at least an embellishment of, Shelley's "Ozymandias."
  4. There is one more writer whose influence I see in Wiloch.
That is the late Richard Brautigan, the last of the Beat writers. Like Brautigan, Wiloch weaves gentle language with images of horror and hopelessness. We are constantly reminded that we, as humans, are weak, fragile, and mortal. Yet, we should not despair. Instead, we should quietly accept our lot, not "rage against the dying of the light." We are human beings, limited in power and life. But let's find beauty where we can, as long as we can, in the moments which make up our lives.

Taking the cue from Wiloch's "A Week of Miniatures": His fiction and prose poems are like plays acted upon a stage in a burning dinner theater. Yeah, we know we're all going to die from smoke inhalation, but sit back, enjoy the show, and keep eating that pork tenderloin in front of you. Hey, waiter! Can I get some more corn relish over here?

The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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