Through the Looking-Glass


In a middling funk last fall, searching for a little prose pick-me-up, I located my printout of Lee Tandy Schwartzman’s Crippled Detectives, or The War of the Red Romer, a novella in 25 chapters, published in 1978. It did the trick. I read it straight through, laughing, at points nearly howling with joy. This is how it goes with Crippled Detectives, a breakneck, brilliantly bizarre book packed with globe-trotting set pieces (South Dakota—Paris—the “hot Congo”), stories-inside-stories, fourth-wall demolition, and some of the most impossibly absurd dialogue legally available. (In the pièce de résistance, someone starts speaking in shapes.) There are shadowy sorrows, too, once we learn to read between the lines—but I’m getting ahead of the story.

As much as any book I know, Crippled Detectives transcribes the dream state, not just in its flights of fancy and logic-jumping juxtapositions, but in the mutating narrative tactics, the topsy-turvy focus (the climax is over in a flash, whereas digressions distend to marvelous effect), and especially the inconsistent point of view: “They” and “we” trade places, and a character named Lee is also sometimes “I.” Thick with incident but ever on the verge of oblivion, the story contains its own negation. Things happen, but don’t. For example, the titular heroes are only nominally crippled (hit by a falling tree or paralyzed by jellyfish poison, they’re ambulatory again in no time) and engage in minimal sleuthing. “After they got better they were not well,” runs a typical line. Yet contradiction becomes a heady virtue, and Crippled Detectives is a wonderfully sustained performance, a triumph of authorial impulse that never bores or confuses even as it runs circles around the helpless, happy reader.

I forgot to mention that Lee Tandy Schwartzman was all of seven years old when she wrote it.

Crippled Detectives appeared, with illustrations by the author, as the entire November-December 1978 issue of Stone Soup, a magazine devoted to children’s writing and artwork. (The entire book can be read at Gerry Mandel, the magazine’s co-founding editor, visited Lee at home in Seattle in May of that year to prepare the text. Mandel told me recently:

Lee was quiet at first, with her head buried in a book. She was a beautiful little girl, delicate, graceful, with big blue eyes and a big vocabulary. When I met her, age 9, her passion was horses. She had a collection of plastic horses, and made lots of drawings of horses. She gave me her latest story to read, “The Dogs of Ireland,” which she said was the best thing she ever wrote. . . . She had lots and lots of drawings, including a set of characters, such as the Countess of Penselvania [sic] and the Mayor of China.

After my first jaw-dropping exposure to Crippled Detectives in 2002, I asked Mandel if she knew what the author was doing now. She had long since lost touch with the family, but recalled that Lee’s mother, Gwen Head, was a poet. Last November, eager to learn more about Lee, I looked up her work.

We want our writers mad—or think we do. The publisher’s description of Head’s most recent book, Fire Shadows (Louisiana State University, 2001), was heartbreaking: In 1989, it said, her “only daughter” checked into McLean, the famous psychiatric clinic near Boston (illustrious alums include Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell). She was almost 21, and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, or manic depression. She stayed at McLean for over a year, a fraught period that inspired Fire Shadows. Strangely, the name of Head’s daughter wasn’t Lee. Maybe Mandel had misidentified Lee’s mother. Maybe the prodigiously gifted little girl who had dreamt up Crippled Detectives had passed into adulthood unscathed.

“Poe invented the detective story that he might not go mad,” Joseph Wood Krutch wrote. Ratiocination defeats demons on the page; does it dispel them in the mind as well? Crippled Detectives isn’t a traditional mystery, but in its textures and tensions it points to large forces, perhaps even conflicts in the writer’s psyche.

With only occasional nods to the “rules” of fiction, stories written by children can reveal fantastically fertile mental terrain. It’s a place at once familiar (from our own childhoods) and thrillingly original—a province of outsider art, crisscrossed by streams of consciousness. Who is the Red Romer? Why are the children invisibly “crippled”? Schwartzman’s creation offers enough riches for an annotated edition.

Like all superior stories, it begins in medias res: ” ‘Oh!’ said Sylvia suddenly. ‘What?’ said Lee alarmed. ‘Oh I have to go out with you to get firewood,’ replied Sylvia. ‘Oh now I remember,’ said Lee . . . ” Literally fueling up, the story hits the ground running. At its core is a showdown between five siblings—the “elders” Sylvia and Lee (both age 15), Anne (five), Ben (four), and Lisette (three)—and the one-handed arch-villain known as the Red Romer. Our young author pulls no punches. Red Romer threatens to blow up Europe, which would result in “9,000,000,000,000 dead people including you,” and he engineers the plane crash that orphans the kids.

Abundant humor and wild imagination leaven the sanguinary saga. Much attention is paid to Red Romer’s courting of Susan Simmer, so called because she “simmers poison into drugs and drugs into food.” The chapter titles alone are worth the price of admission: “We Fail,” “Our Trouble!!!,” the poignant, almost mystical “Four Alone.” Schwartzman is the best sort of show-off, entertaining us with exhaustive lists—of vegetation, nighttime activities, the floridly multicultural names of maids—and deploying an arsenal of verbs whenever possible. Her elastic prose bounces from goofy hip-speak (Red Romer calls Susan a “great chick”) to austere, even Austenian sagacity (“Like any girl or boy in the world knows, it is not very pleasant to wait unless you have something to amuse yourself”).

After the children gird for the big battle, Schwartzman delays payoff, inserting two myth-tinged stories about their ancestors (including a Pegasus-riding boy whose speech can usher things into being) and, in the penultimate chapter, a furiously perfunctory school scene. It’s as if Schwartzman, feeling a late-inning twinge of responsibility, decided to pay lip service to the more proper theme of education. Five p.m. rolls around—schooltime in Paris, or so we’re told. The four sisters (Ben has died) immediately spend seven hours . . . building a school. The elder sisters conduct comically simple lessons—how to spell cat and dog, the stumpers 1 + 1 and 2 + 1. Then it’s time for lunch.

Schwartzman upends this peaceful scene with a war cry. Her hypnotic drawing shows a weapon-heaped wagon—these kids mean business. The ensuing calculation of casualties is like a cruel parody of the recent math class: In an hour, Lee and Sylvia kill 20 men, while Anne and Lisette, whose cumulative age is under 10, dispatch five. The sisters triumph (Henry Darger’s butt-kicking Vivian Girls come to mind), and “everyone bad died”—but the story ends ominously: “[S]omehow Lee knew that Black Romer [Red Romer’s son] was still roaming looking for evil to do.”

Lewis Carroll’s Alice was Lee Tandy Schwartzman’s age when she ventured through the looking-glass in 1871. Intriguingly, the crippled detectives’ main weapon against the Red Romer is a large mirror, inherited from their grandfather, which they find under their house. Any assault gets reflected back. And the name “Red Romer” conjures the “Redrum” revelation in Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining. Is he so afraid of the children’s mirror because it shows him to be a murderer? Mirrorlike, the book overflows with repetitions, twinning (Lee and Sylvia are the same age), echoes.

But along with this doubling comes uncanny divisions. The rollicking chapter “A Happy Day Without Worrying”—love-filled dreams, seven-course breakfast, and birthday presents—is followed by one in which Lee’s good-mood song sets off an intense woe in Sylvia: “I’m gonna cry forever.” Is there such a thing as a bipolar text?

Drawn again to the story’s genius, I contacted Gwen Head last month at her home in Berkeley, where she lives with her second husband, Bernard Taper, the noted Balanchine biographer. Head confirmed that her “only daughter” and the Crippled Detectives mastermind were one and the same, explaining that Lee had changed both her first and last name before entering college. (A poem in Fire Shadows indicates the school: “Harvard Yard, Fall, 1986.”) In awe of “both her creativity and courage,” Head spoke candidly of her daughter’s crippling struggle with mental illness—no surprise, as Fire Shadows wrestles with it, sensitively and ferociously—and noted that she has been doing better for several years. (Head asked that I not use Lee’s current name in this piece.)

Head affectionately recalled that Lee was “a great bedtime staller,” always asking for more stories. A “somewhat withdrawn kid,” she was happiest when writing or drawing. Head sent Lee’s epic to Stone Soup after learning about the magazine from her friend, the poet Sandra McPherson, whose daughter had already begun contributing. (Lee’s father, Allan, said that Lee began concocting Crippled Detectives during free time at her Montessori school; he also described her upbringing as “middle class or higher.”) Lee’s parents divorced not long after Crippled Detectives appeared. She began showing signs of bipolar disorder soon after: “You turn the pubescent corner, and there it is,” as her mother put it.

Head’s The Ten Thousandth Night (University of Pittsburgh, 1979), published on the cusp of her divorce and a yearlong teaching gig at Iowa, has a poem in which parts of speech attain a sinister edge (“The adverbs are especially menacing”). But in the wake of Lee’s institutionalization, Fire Shadows has no time for such abstractions. The poet is terrified by the moment “when words start to detonate: bingeing,/purging, bulimia, tactophobia, spend-/ing disorder, schizo-affective, masochistic.” Free verse gradually cedes to stricter vehicles: the sonnet “Barbies” (with its palindromic—abcddcba—start); “Writing the Theme About Tess,” a relentless villanelle; “Pantoum of the Suicides”; and the rigorous, harrowing “Triple Sestina: Her Dream.” In “Zebra,” the poet addresses her daughter: “There are two yous . . . to tease apart.” The title describes Lee’s disintegrating dye job (two-tone hair emblematic of the self-splitting war within), a pattern subtly mirrored in the poem’s bipolarity of single-rhymed (“smart,” “art,” etc.) and unrhymed lines. It’s as if Head sought repetition and constraint to impose order on the mental messiness.

The poems don’t mention Crippled Detectives. Yet just as Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a symbiosis of poetry and prose (John Shade’s verse sparking Charles Kinbote’s commentary), the dream version of this article would be a small book: the whole of Crippled Detectives footnoted with Head’s poems, or Fire Shadows illuminated by Lee’s prose. Once you read both, it’s impossible to think of one without the other.

Head ambitiously puts Lee’s illness, which has a hereditary basis (think of the inherited mirror-weapon), into a family context: “I have what my father had,” Gwen-as-Lee writes. Head doesn’t shy away from the litany of medications, the psychotic breaks and bouts of cutting. In the triple sestina, Lee dreams: “I see the dangerous/smile of my double: My Self, whose friendly expression/of greeting drips nitroglycerine, set to explode.” This Self “doubtless still carried explosives,/firearms, daggers, and poisons.” For Crippled Detectives‘ violent finale, a seven-year-old girl imagined guns, swords, and dynamite. The Black Romer, as feared, has returned to wreak havoc.

“Fire shadows” refer to traces that flames can leave on pottery. Suddenly the start of Crippled Detectives seems chillingly apt. It’s firewood that Lee and Sylvia—the author and her other self—set out to find. (Oh now I remember, Lee says.) The real-life Lee no longer writes creatively, according to her parents. But peace, after such glowing promise and nightmare suffering, is gift enough. Head’s book closes: “It was to make fire shadows/I laid down my writer’s brush and took up clay.”

If ever a book deserved to be published in a facsimile autograph edition, Crippled Detectives is it. Reading Schwartzman’s manuscript is like walking into a sheet of sheer concrete poetry. Punctuation has gone AWOL, and the lettering generally leaves as much breathing room as a sequence of DNA. “This has got to be great,” William Rubel, Stone Soup‘s other founding editor, recalled thinking, upon seeing the MS. “You can’t even read it!”

Rubel and Mandel started Stone Soup in 1973. The idea was to encourage young writers to find inspiration in the work of their peers, but in explaining the magazine’s mission, Rubel invoked the interwar novels of Joyce and Faulkner. Radical new ways of writing (Benjy’s section in The Sound and the Fury, Molly’s torrent at the close of Ulysses) jibed with the public’s taste for books by children, such as Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters. These were examples of “direct, pure, untrained artistic expression, where somehow the soul is speaking with minimal technical artifice.”

Thus in editing a work like Crippled Detectives, Rubel said, it’s crucial to ask: “Are you furthering the story through correcting, or not correcting? If the person doesn’t know how to spell, so what?” Schwartzman’s unpublished “The Dogs of Ireland,” which Mandel recently unearthed for me from the Stone Soup vaults, hardly reads like a Crippled sequel, alas. Aside from a baffling mention of The Lord of the Rings, it’s an epic avant-garde account of canine husbandry (in the extant six chapters, at least), with various pooches wandering about, carrying food. It’s a challenging read, but by the end I felt like I had experienced, for about the right amount of time, the way a dog thinks. It ends:

the ivory spine finly [sic] carved ribs the fine hard skull the joints rippled the legs daintily took fine tiptoed strides the joy of ireland pride of the irish the monarch of Red and Irish Star with a light spring and

That solipsistic rhythm, that last word in haunting free fall, the Emerald Isle setting: Isn’t it a bit like Finnegans Wake?

At one point in Crippled Detectives, Sylvia—the fictional Lee’s twin—reads Naked Is the Best Disguise. The book, subtitled The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, is real. In Naked, published in 1974, Samuel Rosenberg asserted that in his famous tales, Arthur Conan Doyle “left clues to his personal allegory for some Sherlockian reader to find and interpret sympathetically.”

Could Schwartzman have read this learned (if giddy) volume at such a tender age? I’ve adopted its spirit in an attempt to flesh out the author, one of the more bewitching phantoms in my book-lined mind. But at a certain point, Lee Tandy Schwartzman eludes us all over again. Startlingly, the final drawing in the MS (not included in the magazine) is of a girl, winking at us.

We find her and lose her in the all-dialogue chapters (18 through 21), those dangerously funny echo chambers. The girls’ speech regresses to nonsense repetitions (“Dumb dumb”) and repeated phrases (“She’s young you know”), and the threat of infinite regress looms (“Aren’t we saying the same things over again?” Lee wonders). In chapter 20, “A Funny Conversation,” the book attains its woozy apotheosis. “No don’t,” uttered in turn by Lisette, Anne, and Lee two chapters earlier, becomes totally unmoored here—a daffy non sequitur response (“Aren’t they funny?” “No don’t”) to be flung about until Lee (perhaps privileged as the “real” author) wrests the correct conversational trigger from the ether.

Lee: No don’t.

Sylvia: Don’t what?

Lee: Stupid Sylvia, I’m supposed to say you want me to put corn up your nose and . . .

Sylvia: No don’t.

Lee: Now you’re getting it.

The script-like quality of the proceedings has led to the derailment of time itself. Language is next. Quite out of nowhere, Anne boasts that she knows her ABC’s. Challenged, she issues a circle, square, triangle, and hexagon—reproduced on the page as such. Lisette, thinking she can do better, produces the numbers 1 through 24. Next Anne, claiming to know her colors, instead recites the alphabet. Lisette tries—but then it’s back to shapes. It’s an extraordinary, gasp-inducing linguistic free-for-all, in which our bedrock symbols lose all meaning, the whole world a synonym. (“It’s all one word,” as Rubel wryly noted of Schwartzman’s scrawl.) We barely es-cape the chapter’s playful destructions intact.

Or we can read it as an act of creation—the ultimate synesthesia, an apt metaphor for Schwartzman’s prodigious tale-telling powers. As Lisette demands earlier in the book: “Storytime. Tell us some of those mystery ones.”

Ed Park is the editor of the VLS.