05 November 2007
I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean!
SPOILER ALERT: The Excelsior File got it right when he said, "Honestly, I feel it's a bit much to forewarn of a spoiler on a picture book, but when I picked this jolly little thing up I wasn't prepared for the twist and actually laughed. out. loud. If you would like a chance at the same ignore this review right now and go check it out for yourself."
So yeah, go read the book. You have been warned. Now, back to business.
[The following is a partial transcript from the presentation, "From the Belly of the Beast: The Metaphysical in Children's Literature". The presentation discussed Kevin Sherry's I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean and was part of the 28th Annual Conference on Comparative Children's Literature hosted by the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture. Per their request, the speakers' names have been removed from the record.]
Speaker 1: It is my contention that Sherry's Giant Squid represents a modernized heroic ideal. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it opens with a giant squid proudly proclaiming that he is, in fact, big. He then proceeds on a tour of the ocean, pointing out that he is bigger than clams, those fish, these fish, that shark, etc., etc. In a sudden twist of fate, the squid is swallowed up by a blue whale. Rather than be defeated by this unforeseen turn of events, the squid bravely exclaims, "I am the biggest thing in this whale!" We should all be so strong of character. This unwavering optimism in the face of overwhelming adversity is the only heroic response to the uncertainty of the human condition. To stare death, doubt, and obsurity in the eye and proclaim, "I am!" That is the modern definition of heroism.
Speaker 2: Pardon my French, but bulls--t! This is exactly the kind of wanderlusting and daydreamy wimpering that is watering down today's intellectual landscape. The giant squid is no hero, he is the anti-hero, indicative of all that is fundamentally wrong with the human condition. The story starts out innocently enough, with the squid asserting that he is "big". Okay, fine. Unfortunately, he is not content to leave it at that. He is compelled to go through the ocean lording his size over the other beings unfortunate enough to cross his path. The squid's need to demean others in order to assert his dominance highlights one of the tragic flaws of humanity. Our species-wide insecurity gives birth to the compulsive need to establish/impose social hierarchy, often through the use of force. This is why our historical record is no more than an unending parade of war and death. It is why the pursuit of any kind of utopian ideal is ultimately an exercise in futility.
Speaker 1: I believe my esteemed colleague is suffering from, what we in the business refer to as: The "Glass is Half Empty" Syndrome. [crowd laughter] Now if--
Speaker 2: The glass is not half empty! My whole point is that there is no glass! We have created the myth of a divine "glass" that holds existence together, but the sad truth is that there is nothing there. The glass is an illusion that we have created for ourselves so that we may go on with our sad and pathetic lives. We are afraid to face the fact that, without a glass, without divine reason, we are just a sad puddle of coincidence just waiting for someone to come by and clean up the mess.
Speaker 1: Are you quite finished? If you'll allow me to continue, ladies and gentlemen, [Speaker 2]'s brand of pessimistic logic is exactly why we need a hero like the Giant Squid. Once swallowed by the whale, the Squid does not surrender. He merely takes a moment to compose himself, makes the best of the situation, and maintains his triumphant spirit. If you, [Speaker 2] were faced with that same situation, perhaps you would lay down your arms, proclaim the futility of it all, and resign yourself to float, adrift in a cess pool of your lukewarm agnosticism and solipsistic self pity... but where is the heroism in that? No, the heroic response is to scream defiantly into the echo chamber of the heavens, if for no other reason than to hear the reaffirming sound of your own voice calling back to you. Optimism may be a grand illusion, but it is our best weapon against existential futility and tragic resignation.
Speaker 2: Do you really buy this junk? This squid is not a modern day hero, he is a modern day Don Quixote, a self-delusional, albeit endearing, nincompoop whose flawed logic only leads to his own destruction. For the sake of argument, let's assume that there is some universal order, some divine logic... then we must ask ourselves, WHY was the giant squid swallowed by the whale? What message is being sent through this turn of events? Simple: It was karmic retribution for his audacity and hubris. And how does our "hero" respond to this divine slice of humble pie? It barely phases him. He appears to be incapable of learning his lesson or any lesson for that matter. He merely readjusts the terms of success in order to suit his needs. This is the kind of slippery moral relativism that undermines the most sacred treasure of our humanity: our ability to distinguish right from wrong. In fact, you know who the squid reminds me of? One George--
Speaker 1: Oh please, let's not go down that road again...
Speaker 2: ...W. Bush! Like our misguided squid, George W. Bush follows his own path of perceived greatness, his self-proclaimed largesse dragging the country, nay the world, on his imperial march into the quagmire that is this neverending misadventure in Iraq. And faced with adversity, he merely changes the rules of the game as he goes along. First, we invaded because we had to get rid of WMDs. When those were nowhere to be found, he declared Iraq to be an exercise in sowing the seeds of democracy in the Middle East. When that turned out to be a failure, he lowers his bar for success yet again, redefining success as a decrease in the number of daily car bombs. Can't you see people?! I am the walrus, George Bush is the squid!
Speaker 1: On that note, I think we're just about out of time. I'd like to thank everyone for coming and--
Speaker 2: I'm not done yet! You can try to silence me, but you can't silence the truth! What are you afraid of, [Speaker 1]? What, were you a member of Skull and Bones in college with Bush? Were you in the same secret society?
Speaker 1: I think that's quite enough. Security, can you please help [Speaker 2] to his seat?
Speaker 2: The squid is the tragic figure of our times! We must learn from his mistakes! We are not the biggest thing in the ocean! Excuse me, what are you doing? Are you arresting me? What are you arresting me for? Is everybody watching this? Hey, get your hands off me, what are you doing? We are not the biggest thing in this whale! We are--what, are you arresting me?! What did I do? Help! Help! Help! Are you kidding? You're arresting me. I am the biggest thing at this convention! What did I do? Get away from me!
Speaker 1: Folks, Folks, I think if we all just calm down, this situation [unintelligible].
Speaker 2: Help! Help! What did I do? What did I do? I didn't do anything! Hey, don't tase me, bro! I am the biggest thing in the OWWWWWW!!!! OWWWWWWWW!!!! OWWWWWWW!!!! What did I do...? What did I do...?
--end of transcript--
[For a video clip of this presentation, click here. For a complete transcript of the discussion or any other forums during the 28th Annual Conference on Comparative Children's Literature, or to send presentation proposals for next year's conference, email firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Note: For the record, despite [Speaker 2]'s opinion, we at Bottom Shelf Books loved this book. In fact, we walked around the apartment shouting, "I'M THE BIGGEST THING IN THE OCEAN!" for about a month after reading it.