Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

In the Realms of the Unreal

Saw "In the Realms of the Unreal" today. It's a documentary about Henry Darger, a janitor from Chicago who lived in almost total isolation his entire life, and who - over a 60 year period up until just before his death in 1972 - wrote and illustrated a 15,000 page novel of the same name as the movie.

Darger's story is a fascinating one. He's clearly a profoundly damaged and troubled man. At a young age his mother died, and his sister was given away for adoption. He lived with his disabled tailor father for a few years, until his father could no longer work to support them and Henry was moved to an orphanage. Judged "feeble-minded" because of behavioral problems, he was sent to boy's home in Nebraska. At 17 he escaped the home, returned (halfway on foot!) to Chicago, and took work as a janitor, which - other than writing and illustrating his novel and an autobiography - was pretty much all he did until his death at 80.

The novel, in many ways an even stranger piece of work than Darger himself, reflects the obsessions of a man whose trials seem to have left him largely unable to cope in the adult world. It's heroes are seven pre-adolescent girls, the Vivian sisters, who lead a revolt of the child slaves against their masters the Glandelinians, and Darger himself, in the form of a dashing warrior and defender of children who helps lead the Christian armies of Abbiennia in their war of liberation against Glandelinia. Christianity plays a substantial role in the book, which seems to reflect the mind of Darger, a devout (three Masses a day, that's how devout) Catholic whose troubled life and unanswered prayers (to be able to adopt a child, to recover a lost photograph of a murdered girl over whom Darger became obsessed) left him periodically spiteful with his Maker. The Realms of the Unreal are a world of blood and danger, but also of beauty and heroism. And I haven't even mentioned the illustrations. They really have to be seen to be believed.