The Cat in the Hat Comes Back: In Which Cleaning is Weaponized

Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat Comes Back is a strange kind of sequel. Sequel is a broad categorization.  The most common use of the term is for those texts which serve as building blocks in a larger narrative arc featuring the same world and/or protagonist, as in Harry Potter. A more abstract version of this is the continuation of an arc external to the world of the individual texts included in the series, as in Sendak’s trilogy.  The most common type of sequel for picture books, though, are the simple “further adventure” texts which feature a popular character or character sans series-arc, as in Angelina Ballerina or Maisy.

The reasons for this are likely three-fold.  One, capitalism: it’s efficient to sell what’s already sold well in a slightly different package. Two, less nefariously, the targeted age for picture books is not generally considered to be invested in a series-long arc. (In fact, Sendak’s picture books are meant to be read at different developmental stages.) Three, affective ties: there is legitimate emotional attachment by children to little worlds that are presented in repetition with small variations, a fact with far-reaching pedagogic implications.  There is significant interaction between these three factors, and no one is better at leveraging reason 3 in the pursuit of reason 1 than Disney.  (See Sofia the First, a commercial thinly-veiled as a television program about a princess who has an amulet that allows her interact with the other Disney Princesses; see also Palace Pets.)

So what kind of sequel is The Cat in the Hat Comes Back?  At first glance, it seems firmly in the “further adventure” category, maybe even edging close to a Disney 3-for-1.  While the first book was historically important, metaphorically rich, and narratively satisfying, complexity drops off sharply in the sequel.  The characters don’t change in personality or position, the gag is repetitive, and the resolution is unsatisfying.  The story goes: a red spot is transferred throughout the house and then outside, where attempts to clean it multiply.  (But why does the outside need to be cleaned—or is this a Lady MacBeth situation?)

At the level of form, last week’s The Cat in the Hat made a remarkable network: pleasing in its fit to the content and in its own form, the aesthetically balanced kite.

As a network, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back would not fly.

The bottom of what used to be a kite is clearly overloaded by the multiplication of Cat’s accomplices to include the entire alphabet.  More imbalance results from the fact that H and V-Z don’t speak.  Had they spoken, the network would have at least had some symmetry in its imbalance.

I wonder, though, if the networks could make a larger arc.  The most anomalous thing in the sequel is that cleaning has a certain darkness, and this darkness doesn’t have a clear purpose (as it does in, say, The Three Little Pigs or the author’s own 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins).  Getting rid of the spots is a violent enterprise; the cats are armed with guns and, unusually for the
genre, the word “kill” is repeated several times.  The spots are finally disappeared by an ominous Voom—“so hard to get” “you never saw anything like it”—a cloud which “cleans up anything.”

Reading the violence with the networks gives us something like this: in the first book, equilibrium between opposing forces reinforces the status quo.  In the sequel, disequilibrium threatens it to such an extent that a poorly understood but very powerful weapon is needed to kill the results of one party’s labours.

The Cat in the Hat Comes Back is not as good a book—by almost all measures—as its predecessor or Green Eggs and Ham or The Sneetches or On Beyond Zebra.  But it is weirder, and looking at the networks and the cloud that disappears the little Cats A-Z, somewhat unsettling.  Which isn’t nothing.

Social Network Sunday features books made into networks.  Characters become nodes connected by specific interactions, which, here, is direct speech; a line between characters is called an edge.  How many edges a character has indicates her importance to the stability of the network, a structural centrality that doesn’t always match thematic centrality.  The purpose of this feature is less interpretation than experimentation.  For more on method, please see the first essay in this series.

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