Monday, September 17, 2007

Books of the Times
All That They Need to Know They Learned From Dickens

Recently catapulted from relative obscurity to the short list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, Lloyd Jones’s “Mister Pip” is an improbably palatable visit to a pedagogue’s paradise. Its central character is a teacher who is named Mr. Watts, but he is later ominously given the name of the title. He might also have been nicknamed Mister Metaphor for his way of teaching the children of a small tropical island to connect their own stories with that of “Great Expectations.”

By Lloyd Jones
256 pages. The Dial Press. $20.

Mr. Jones’s book seriously flirts with Pip Fatigue. It turns Pip, a k a Philip Pirrip, Charles Dickens’s beloved (especially by schoolteachers) orphan, into an all-purpose point of reference. The children of Bougainville, the island that Mr. Jones locates in the vicinity of Papua New Guinea, learn to treat Pip as a mixture of deity, best friend and rock star. The reader learns this from the book’s narrator, a 13-year-old girl named Matilda. Mr. Watts becomes a teacher, and Matilda one of his students, after encroaching war drives the island’s real teachers away.
It happens that Mr. Watts is Bougainville’s only white resident. It also happens — and let the whimsy-phobe beware — that he has often been seen wearing a clown’s red rubber nose and towing his wife, Grace, on a wagon behind him.

“Our parents looked away,” Matilda says with the frankness and local flavor that give “Mister Pip” much of its power to transcend heavy-handedness. “They would rather stare at a colony of ants moving over a rotting pawpaw.” There are readers who would make the same choice when confronted with a book that crams lessons from Dickens into every corner.

But “Mister Pip” moves easily, even comically, into its “Great Expectations” fetish. Since there is no formal education to be had, and this is the book that Mr. Watts knows best, he improvises the curriculum that comes most easily to him. In one of many convenient parallels to be found here, he doles out “Great Expectations” to the children chapter by chapter, just as Dickens’s first readers received the book in serial form.

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