- "If You Read This Last Sentence, It Won't Tell You Anything":Postmodernism, Self-Referentiality, and The Stinky Cheese Man
Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith's The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1992) is the classic postmodern picture book. Its self-referential irony, in both text and illustration, descends from visual as well as written traditions; the multivalence of its meanings is enhanced by the multiplicity of levels required of children's literature. It exemplifies the picture book as genuine literary innovator while remaining attuned to its child audience.
Traditions of self-referentiality occur, of course, prior to postmodernism, Tristram Shandy being the obvious early example. Authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass, among others, have made this technique into a defining norm of postmodern literature. But while The Stinky Cheese Man shares many of the characteristics of adult postmodern literature, such as its parodic and playful text, its embrace of the random and arbitrary, and its questioning of ultimate meaning, these elements appear not because of Jon Scieszka's dedicated study of adult literature but because of the prevalence of these impulses in postmodern culture, particularly popular culture, generally. Literarily, in fact, The Stinky Cheese Man owes more to comic pastiches such as The Monty Python Papperbok, with its printed fingerprint smudges on the cover, and its ilk than to postmodern adult writers. While Nabokov's Pale Fire shares The Stinky Cheese Man's attitude to texts, Monty Python shares its attitude to books.
The Stinky Cheese Man places itself more obviously in a tradition by choosing folklore as its playground. Fairy tales have a long history of bearing more than their own weight, as with George Cruikshank's temperance Cinderella and James Thurber's gun-toting Red Riding Hood. The strongest examples of manipulation and irony in children's literature have been folktale variants, including, as Marilyn Fain Apseloff has observed, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf (1989), Scieszka and Smith's previous book (135-37).
There are several reasons for this use: fairy tales are both legally and emotionally in the public domain, and their history of variance provides an opportunity to make that variation expected and acceptable as well as an implicit subject for every new version. Some of the better-known Grimm and Perrault tales would seem to belong to what John Barth called, in his 1967 article of the same name, "The Literature of Exhaustion," stories whose nonparodic possibilities may be used up. This possibility is supported by the trend in the last few years for major publishers to bring out greater numbers of folklore picture books that treat lesser-known and non-European tales, rather than another nonparodic edition of, say, Snow White. The indisputable vigor of folklore narrative under pressure and manipulation adds to its usefulness; the audience is likely to recognize or at least follow the structure despite substantial alteration. This durability has enabled such tales not only to form the core of editions and retellings aimed at children but also to prompt works for adults ranging from Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber to Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods.
Rather than elevating such fairy-tale creatures to the mythic, The Stinky Cheese Man reduces them to chess-pieces falling randomly about a previously apparently orderly board. There is no character development—why should there be? Characters might walk off at any moment, as Little Red Running Shorts does, or have their stories crowded out of the book, as happens to The Boy Who Cried Cow Patty. And if, as Jerry Aline Flieger suggests, "the postmodern comic text often adopts the task of exposing all the possible versions or meanings underlying a single narrative, all the while demonstrating the failure of such an exhaustive project," then folktales, with their versions upon versions, are the perfect source material (51). The title of this article, "If you read this last sentence, it won't tell you anything," comes from the last sentence of The Stinky Cheese Man' s introduction. None of the book "tells you anything"; at least this sentence in the introduction is candid enough to say...