“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players”
Jaques (As You Like It 2.7.138-39)
“We are so much alike, you and I [whore and player]. Both of us vendors of the art of the moment, the impermanent pleasure, the will’-o-the-wisp that lifts a man from the prison of time, and for just that moment sets him free.”
Istvan (Koja 55)
“. . . a puppet is only a tool, made of wood, and wool, and wire. As we are blood, and fancy, and bits of bone and dream.”
Narrator (Koja 187)
Puppets and puppet shows. For most of us, they probably conjure associations with the Muppets, Fraggle Rock, or maybe storytimes at the library. Kiddie stuff.
Puppets get a decidedly adult treatment in Under the Poppy. It is a love story set in an 1870s brothel, complete with love triangles, naughty puppets, puppeteers pulling the strings, espionage, political games and scheming, and musings on life as a play and being a puppet, all brought together by Koja’s gorgeous writing. Call it historical fiction, but, with the intriguing mix of elements in this story, the novel defies genre and convention.
This story does not pull its punches, from the first shocking chapter involving a nasty prank with a puppet and a whore to the multiple love triangles. The story begins at the brothel owned by Madame Decca and Mister Rupert, called Under the Poppy, where they stage shows and cater to fantasies. Decca loves Rupert, who loves Decca’s wayward puppeteer brother, Istvan, and Istvan loves Rupert. Maybe. Well, they used to be in love. Rupert and Istvan were orphans, childhood friends, and comrades, later to form their own traveling troupe and become lovers, with Decca doomed to be a distant third wheel. Circumstances, lies, and misunderstandings tore them apart, and they have gone their separate ways, until Istvan appears at the brothel with his puppets looking for Rupert and bringing changes in his wake.
Not just a love story waiting for its happy ending, it is a play about life and its myriad demands. War is the backdrop, the brothel is the stage, games are being played out, events come to a head, characters have their roles, but it is not always clear who is pulling the strings or who is the puppet, yet the show must go on, and, if the characters live, another act follows.
It seems quite fitting to call Koja the master puppeteer who pulls the strings in this story. The unconventional plot is matched by unconventional writing and style. Calling this work well written is an understatement, as Koja elevates writing to literary art. The prose is beautiful, dense, a bit theatrical, sometimes brutal, nuanced, something to be savored and re-read carefully, which may not make for a light read. A sexual current runs through the story but without stooping to raunchy smut. Even the generous use of F-bombs does not detract and actually reinforces the presence of the lower class in the arts and the thin line between the player and the whore.
Along with the prose, Koja challenges readers with multiple perspectives, flashbacks, events that happen simultaneously, dialogue that sometimes interjects into narrative, so it feels like moments occur naturally at their own rhythm and pace rather than events drily organized and recounted. Things do not happen in a simple cause and effect manner, and misunderstandings and partial understandings can further complicate situations. Metafictional and philosophical musings about the stage and the nature of puppets provide food for thought without becoming preachy. Rupert and Istvan’s love are the heart of this story. The relationship is not of two men in love but two people who love each other and are also both men. Koja sets their love story in a less tolerating era and presents a more mature, emotionally powerful, and intense relationship that is still prone to human weakness, misunderstandings, and jealousies, with both men recognizing that love motivates but does not conquer all.
Look for Under the Poppy on the VBPL Catalog. The sequel, Mercury Waltz, will be released sometime in 2012. See Koja's author's blog and the book's website for more information about writing, puppetry, the book's ideas, and the process of bringing the story to the stage. Under the Poppy is Koja's first adult novel since the 90s, but her teen works address difficult issues rather than follow the trend of fantasy, vampires, romance, and adventure that has become popular in teen fiction. Talk is about the theater and a teen boy who deals with coming out. For more beautiful writing and unconventional style, read Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique, a dystopian work about a one of a kind circus (see review).