This book does for Winnie the Pooh what The Magicians did for Narnia

Illustration for article titled This book does for Winnie the Pooh what emThe Magicians/em did for Narnia

Billy Moon, the first novel by famed zinester, short story writer and podcaster Douglas Lain, is an exceedingly weird tale about Christopher Milne — the guy whose father A.A. Milne immortalized him as Christopher Robin, the boy companion of Winnie the Pooh.

And in this book, Lain puts an adult, somewhat anhedonic spin on Winnie, sort of how Lev Grossman did Narnia for grownups in The Magicians. In Lain's novel, Christopher Robin is all grown up — in fact, he's middle aged, with a wife and son, and he's a veteran of World War II — and he gets caught up in the madness of Paris' student uprising of 1968.

As Lain's novel starts, Christopher's famous dad has just died, forcing him to revisit his complicated, mixed feelings about being the boy "straight man" in one of the most famous chidren's fantasies of all time. (And there's a hilarious, bizarre sequence where a member of the Rolling Stones is buying Christopher's childhood home, and kicks a statue of Christopher as a boy, in front of the real Christopher.)


But meanwhile, it appears that stuffed animals are still coming to life around Christopher — there's a pet dog that keeps turning back into a stuffed toy, even though everybody sometimes sees it as a real dog named Hodge. Other odd reality-warping things happen, too: Like, a Pooh-inspired poster from the 1968 protests turns up in Christopher's small bookstore in the early 1960s, years before the poster is actually printed.

So when Christopher gets invited to Paris by Gerrard, one of those idealistic student rebels, he has no choice but to find out what's going on. And what follows is a very French, theory-driven exploration of the notion of "derailing" a text. In Gerrard's view, Christopher is a living agent of derailment, because he has the ability to make fictional things real and vice versa, and it's up to Christopher to make the student revolution succeed by taking everybody to the Hundred Acre Wood from the Winnie the Pooh books.

At no point does any of this ever become childlike or simple or even particularly optimistic — if anything, the more Lain ventures into the heart of the Winnie the Pooh story, as filtered through 1960s French leftist ideology, the more weird and joyless the whole thing becomes. Until a somewhat surprising ending, where Christopher meets up with an actual bear and he takes a bunch of students to find the North Pole.


Lain is dealing with questions of fame here, and what it would do to a person to be fictionalized and idealized the way Christopher Robin was. But also just the problem of growing up and losing your childish innocence and wonder. In one telling passage, he writes:

Christopher had received scores of fan letters since he'd opened the bookshop. Six-year-olds wrote to him to ask about his bear. Adults who'd read his father's books when they were young wrote to ask the same questions. Everyone wanted pretty much the same thing, and Christopher couldn't give any answers. He didn't know how to find the Hundred Acre Wood, and he didn't know where childhood went to over the years, or why it was so difficult to feel real joy. He threw almost all of these letters away because they weren't for him at all, but were really addressed to a boy Christopher's father had made up.

His father had written Christopher to serve as a comic foil for animals that were defined by their faults. He played straight man to an empty-headed bear, a pessimistic donkey, a self-aggrandizing rabbit, but as a foil Christopher always shared commonalities with the characters he played against.

Christopher Robin the character was a great success, but the real Christopher was not. It wasn't so much that Chris had disappointed or failed to live up to expectations, but his existence undermined the world his father had built around himself, the artificial world of his reputation and his stories. As a reminder of A.A. Milne's lost youth and worse, a reminder of the unpredictable and unknowable outside world that the older Milne had worked so hard to avoid, Christopher was an embarrassment.


The choice to combine an older, somewhat depressed Christopher Robin with a young, somewhat depressed group of French dissident intellectuals is an odd one — it's not so much that the French student rebels reinspire Christopher Robin to rediscover his love of whimsy and wonder — it's more that both Christopher Robin and the students are misunderstood, and they need to find the secret of hacking reality and turning governing narratives on their heads.

In the end, Billy Moon doesn't offer much hope that you can escape from the ways other people choose to see you, or that you can rebel successfully against the oppressive world. The most you can hope for, it seems, is to find your own private dreamtime and sometimes drag others, kicking and screaming, into it with you.


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The choice to combine an older, somewhat depressed Christopher Robin with a young, somewhat depressed group of French dissident intellectuals is an odd one

So how depressing is this novel, compared to The Magicians or Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails? I've got a soft spot for failure porn, but there's comedic Venture Bros level failure, and then there's just plain depressing.