Krazy Kat, a Novel

During his trip to Yemen, Gerard picked up a few lovely little Sadaam Hussein flashlights, and gave me one. Thanks Gerard! Even better, G. brought back an interpretation of Tom and Jerry. Apparently, it is believed back in the Middle East that Tom and Jerry are an allegory of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It actually works quite beautifully. Tom, the Arab cat, hunts after the wily and Machiavellian Jerry, Israeli mouse. Occasionally, in the cartoon Tom will corner Jerry but find himself at bay, interrupted by a large growling bulldog (America). It works except that the cartoon was originated in 1940, well before the founding of Israel. The theory is discussed on this Israeli website; though the tone of the commentary is quite bitchy, I think that is an anomaly because I, personally, have never met a rude or obnoxious Israeli and find the idea of such a person to be unthinkable. Still, despite time-line issues the allegory can work if one comes to understand how both the Arabs and Israelis model themselves on Tom and Jerry, acting with the political complexity of cartoons.

‘His doodle-doo grew stiff…’

A more interesting allegory is Krazy Kat, one of the source materials for Tom and Jerry. Krazy Kat was a cartoon strip by George Herriman that ran for 30 years in the Hearst newspapers. Set in the New Mexico county of Coconino, it’s about a love triangle between Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse and Offissa Pup. Typically, Ignatz schemes to hurl a brick at Krazy’s head which Krazy willingly receives as a token of his affection; Pup then arrests Ignatz. Honest and upfront about its erotic element, including the concept of triangluation, Krazy Kat is more ripe for adaptation than Tom and Jerry and a more accurate account of the Arab-Israeli affair, with both peoples masking a growing libidinal energy after every provoking act of aggression.

Jay Cantor’s novel Krazy Kat, a Novel is about an allegory attempting to become more ’rounded.’ It’s a truism of novel criticism that novels can absorb any genre, be it epic, tragedy, comedy or comic strip (though not musicals!), and make something new of it. Cantor’s premise is that Krazy Kat witnesses Oppenheimer’s test of the atomic bomb to find herself deeply traumatized by the explosion, imprinted with Oppenheimer’s image. Oppenheimer is Ignatz and Krazy’s first exposure to people who are ’round’ instead of 2-dimensional and flat. Afterwards she can no longer ‘receive Ignatz’s bricks’ without actually feeling pain — meaning, woefully, that their routine is no longer feasible. Krazy falls into a deep depression and refuses to leave her house. She ignores Ignatz’s pleas to return to work; pretends to disregard the copies of Variety he leaves for her to show her that the world of entertainment has passed them by while it remains ready for their come-back. Suffering her malaise, Krazy fantasizes about herself becoming more rounded, coming to realize that she and Ignatz share this same goal which binds them even more closely.

After violating Krazy’s trust by revealing that he and Pup had co-authored encouraging letters to her signing Oppenheimer’s name, Ignatz decides that psychotherapy will cure Krazy of her delusion that his bricks hurt. Upon convincing the town full of cartoon animals that they had each been molested by their parents, Ignatz realizes that they had only fantasized about being molested. In fact, he explains to Krazy that the bomb was just a large brick she wanted Oppenheimer to throw at her. Her resistance to this ‘fact’ is what causes his bricks to inflict harm on her. During this segment of the novel, Ignatz composes letters to Offissa Pup that rewrite the history of psychoanalysis. They are hilarious.

May 14, 19—
Dear Pup:
My wife is snubbed, as the spouse of the “little sex doctor.” Even Mock Duck feels free to make fun of me when the Mrs. brings in my dirty shirts. Well, I can live without the good opinion of morons. I’m used to it. This is the sort of country, you know, where someone like me can’t even go to one of their prep schools! So, let the gentiles think what they like so long as I have your encouragement. You have the roundness of a god, and your judgment justifies me.

Your admirer,
Ignatz
As the letters continue and his theories become more radical, Ignatz begins to throw off Pup’s influence, “I know that soon you’ll write to me to say that you can’t accept my theories on infant-style sex hunger. But what could I expect from a philistine like yourself?” The greater Krazy’s resistance to Pup’s theories, the more hostile Ignatz becomes towards Pup: “Your big mooonface continues to loom behind Krazy’s resistance to my world-historical theory.”

The novel is a tour of 20th Century intellectual history, veering into the Frankfurt School’s sadomasochistic version of mass culture when Ignatz decides that Krazy’s cure has taken effect. He invites a film producer to town; one obsessed with the topics of motherhood and whoredom. From him, Krazy, who can’t seem to curse without mangling curse words with her own Krazy-brand of dialect, learns to use “trust me” as a euphemism for “fuck you.” Brilliantly, in her own Krazy-way, she later starts to say “fuck you” when she actually means “trust me.”

Cantor clearly enjoyed writing the chapter entitled ‘The Possessed,’ which delves into Ignatz’s deepest alienation following the film producer’s abandonment of the town. A parody of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) group-think, Ignatz kidnaps Krazy to hold her hostage until William Randolph Hearst will give them control over their own copyright. Krazy is tortured by Mrs. Mouse and the other females in town as they lock her up and subject her to socialist brainwashing. “But aren’t avant-garde art colectors often boreshowsees?” asks Krazy. The answer is that nobody collects comic strips, “they belong to the masses.”

Cantor teaches at Tufts. When I went online to find reviews of the book I stumbled across a few of his student reviews. The general complaint is that as a professor he’s a wonderful performer, however over the course of the semester his schtick begins to repeat and is so irritating that he alienates his students (Oh no! Not the students!). While this novel is brilliant, I can see exactly that there is some truth to this student complaint but in this case it’s his choice of subject material. The same thing happens when I watch the dvd collection of Krazy Kat animations from the 60s. After a few episodes it feels as if my head is going to explode — Herriman hurled bricks at his readers through these characters.

After nearly two hundred pages of Krazy and Ignatz’s routine applied to one vein of intellectual history after another, I was pretty much done with the novel. Herriman, however, saves the best for last. Realizing that an understanding of sex and death, an acknowledgement of the power of fantasy, are necessary for ’roundness,’ Ignatz and Krazy return to analysis in the final chapter “Venus and Furs.” The trick this time is that it’s not an actual psychoanalysis of their pasts; rather they fictionalize a past as humans for one another. Ignatz must submit his self-image to Krazy for approval.

“Thank you,” Ignatz said softly, with the downcast eyes of a grateful supplicant. “And I’d like to have … to have a big… cock.”
“What?” Large? Loud? Doodle-doo?
“A big, you know, penis… a big cock.”
“What? Why?” What earthly difference did that make? Who would ever know? Oh well, if it was something he wanted. But then she saw that Ignatz’s form bent the light for her. The Producer’s lessons taught that Ignatz must truly be telling her something she wanted, too. Even if she hadn’t know she wanted it. Even if it wasn’t exactly nice. “Yes,” she said, as if from a trance, her own eyes downcast.
“Thank you.”
“Thank you,” she said.

Ignatz’s notes properly refer to this approval process as “introjection.” So what does Ignatz have to offer Krazy, who is only interested in his large doodle-doo because Ignatz himself wants her to want him to have one? “Dr. Ignatz explained… how the analyst could be Kate’s new, approving internal object, that we make our personalities out of such bits and pieces of others that we take inside ourselves. Introjects, they were called. Kate could introject the approving, feminine, maternal aspect of him.”

During their fantasy sessions as humans, they can finally engage in intercourse, “…fucking had been a bittersweet disappointment, not what he had imagined. The breast that had returned to the crib wasn’t precisely the one the child had had such delicious fantasies about while Mom was away. ” If sex doesn’t grant Krazy and Ignatz the roundness they crave, is it actually the more realistic disappointment that sex brings? Will they ever actually achieve ’roundness?’ Will Cantor’s schtick ever end? I leave it to you readers to find out, as this novel is worth reading so long as you read it over time in order to develop a tolerance for Cantor’s routines.

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4 Responses to “Krazy Kat, a Novel”

  1. Patrick O'Connor Says:

    I am so old! I read this book, which is indeed wonderful, when it came out in paperback twelve? fifteen? years ago.I am also old enough to remember, in syndication/reruns, a Krazy Kat cartoon series back in the late ’60s. It was pretty mediocre, but whoever did the voice of Krazy was great, threading through the mix of Yiddishisms/Brooklynese and semi-intellectual, mispronounced vocabulary, in a voice that now sounds to me like a first draft for Marj Simpson’s voice.great review, too, btw–

  2. darknessatnoon Says:

    You’re not old, Patrick. My review is just twelve or fifteen years late! I have the dvds of that cartoon. As I mentioned in the review, watching several episodes in a row gives me a blinding headache, as if a brick had rammed into my head. Every episode another one of Krazy’s international cousins shows up, and hijinks ensue. I’ve been meaning to collect all the Fantagraphic reprints of the original series, though.

  3. Tucker Stone Says:

    Huh. I didn’t realize that book had been around so long. I’d always meant to grab it and check it out. Thanks for the heads, and it’s good to see you up and running again.

  4. darknessatnoon Says:

    Hi, Tucker. Thanks for checking in. Your reviews crack me up, btw. Looks like the first edition of Krazy Kat, a Novel was released in 1987 which is farther back than I’d thought. –Sharif

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