Sometimes my friends and I joke that we need clones — one for work and one for home, perhaps? Wouldn’t it be great, some days, to have someone else to help raise the kids — someone who wouldn’t be bored by the endless play with Legos, who would miraculously make healthy meals they’ll eat, who would come up with rainy day activities that are fun for the whole family? Of course on bad days at work I want the clone to sit at the computer while the “real me” goes off to play with the kids. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (2002; now a film directed by Henry Selick) imagines not just a single parental clone, but also a whole alternate home life for its eponymous heroine. At first, it seems like a dream come true. Coraline’s parents work mostly at home, “doing things on computers,” and they are mostly too busy for Coraline, who is old enough to entertain herself. Her mother takes her shopping and then doesn’t listen to what she wants. Her father hands her a piece of paper and a pen when she interrupts him, looking for entertainment: “Explore the flat,” he suggests. “Count all the doors and windows. List everything blue. Mount an expedition to the water tank. And leave me alone to work” (7).
Now that’s familiar — almost depressingly so. When Nick was little (younger than Coraline), he stood by me as I typed, trying desperately to get my attention. “When I’m big,” he announced, “I will be the mommy, and I will press all the buttons.”
It’s not actually pleasant to see one’s life reflected to oneself like that.
As a matter of fact, there’s plenty for Coraline to explore. The flat she lives in is one of several in a large old house. One flat is empty, and the other two are occupied by an assortment of odd folk — two retired actresses live downstairs, and upstairs she finds a “crazy old man” who claims to be training mice for a circus. Coraline visits the neighbors, but — like her parents — they don’t really pay attention to her. They mispronounce her name (“Caroline”), and tell her stories of past successes and future plans that have nothing to do with her, or so she thinks.
And here’s where the novel takes its turn. Gaiman’s a master at blending the mundane and familiar with the uncanny (his latest novel for children, The Graveyard Book, is a family story set in, you guessed it, a graveyard), and in Coraline he pulls it off with one of the creepier conceits in recent children’s fiction.
Coraline makes her way into the empty flat and discovers there a replica of her own life. Somewhat like Alice when she travels through the looking-glass, she finds a flat and even a house that seem to mirror her own, populated with people who closely resemble, but are not, the people she left behind. Not only are the aged actresses and the “crazy old man” there, so are her parents. Sort of.
Actually, they’re better. They’re just like my imaginary clones, in fact. They’re not busy, for one thing, so they can play with her. And they cook things she likes. When she first enters the other house, it’s lunchtime, and they have a lovely meal all prepared.
It was the best chicken that Coraline had ever tasted. Her mother sometimes made chicken, but it was always out of packets or frozen, and was very dry, and it never tasted of anything. When Coraline’s father cooked chicken he bought real chicken, but he did strange things to it, like stewing it in wine, or stuffing it with prunes, or baking it in pastry, and Coraline would always refuse to touch it on principle.
She took some more chicken.(29)
These sort-of parents — who introduce themselves as Coraline’s Other Mother and Other Father — are nearly perfect. Except for the button eyes. Big, black, shiny buttons replace their eyes, and her Other Mother wants to sew some on her, as well. Coraline likes the food, and loves the colorful clothes and interesting toys she finds in the house, but she balks at the button eyes and the sharp needle the Other Mother wants to use to sew them on.
Coraline’s Other Mother — the true power behind the other house — turns out to be a close relative, it seems to me, of Hansel & Gretel’s witch in the gingerbread house, or Rapunzel’s witch foster-mother, or any number of other witch-women in literature who promise your heart’s desire, and even provide it, but at great cost. She’s terrifying because she knows exactly what Coraline wants, but in providing it fails to provide her what she needs.
Like the fairy tales it resembles, Coraline ends happily — though Coraline, unlike many fairy tale heroines, relies almost exclusively on her own resources (and the help of a surprising cat). But along the way it reveals some of our darkest fears — that our desires are unworthy of us, that we are unworthy of our own best fortune. Or, perhaps, that buttons may cover our eyes one day. (One of the better trailers for the film version of Coraline features Neil Gaiman talking about koumpounophobia — the fear of buttons.) Coraline fights off her fears and, eventually, returns to her familiar, mundane life. Her father still makes recipes she doesn’t really want to eat, and her mother is still too busy for her; happy endings don’t have to be unrealistic, after all, they just have to be true. Coraline suggests that our children don’t want clones of us, don’t want replicas, don’t even want what they say they want: they want us, in all our imperfection.