Puppets are creepy. It tells you something that they are at the heart of Freud's brilliant and occasionally absurd reflections about the feeling of the uncanny, in his reading of the automaton mistaken for a girl in E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 short story The Sandman.
The puppet nurtures those flickers of fear that the dead can come back to life, that inanimate things might suddenly spark with malign intent, and that the dummy might speak. The uncanny plunges you back into the magical thinking of childhood, part wondrous, part terrified.
The trope of the ventriloquist mastered by his or her doll has been a standard horror plot: there's nothing more haunting than Michael Redgrave's enslaved music hall performer in the film The Dead of Night (1945). More recently, the Chucky films were caught up in a moral panic when they were thought to have influenced the killers of James Bulger. Plots about puppets can make puppets out of people.
Kenneth Gross is interested in thingly life, the way the hands of the master puppeteer can animate virtually any object. His book drifts around the world, stopping at puppet theatres in Rome and Berlin and reflecting on different traditions, from Balinese and Japanese performances to vanishing European styles. He invokes some of the standard texts and essays on puppetry, such as the rather nasty original The Adventures of Pinocchio and Heinrich von Kleist's elegant paradoxes on the grace of marionettes, although he oddly avoids dealing with Freud.
Gross adds in reflections on some new texts, too: Philip Roth's 1995 novel Sabbath's Theater, and the brilliant physical theatre of Simon McBurney's troupe, Complicite, which can indeed create momentary magical lives for inanimate objects. Although Gross is right to suggest that puppet theatre has a tradition of popular and fugitive street performances, satirical and vicious, the choices of texts here tend to be resolutely high art.
In recent years, Gaby Wood's Living Dolls (2003) has offered an excellent history of dolls and automata and our queasy relationship to them, and Victoria Nelson produced the inventive and genuinely startling work, The Secret Life of Puppets (2003). Sadly, Gross cannot match these. I have grown rather wary of academic books subtitled as "essays": it is often a signal that they will offer ruminations rather than theories, sketches rather than systematic history or thought. So it proves here: "I have no final theories on the matter, or any overarching historical narrative of my own to propose." Why not? Why read on, then?
Instead, Gross offers sketchy insights distributed across a travelogue, spending a couple of pages describing the setting in Rome of the Galleria Don Chisciotte, for instance, before touching down in Jerusalem or London.
The Roman gallery's jumbled collection of antique puppets is clearly Gross' model for writing: "The very lack of system ... is part of its appeal, even its historical and aesthetic intelligence." At the heart of the book, Gross even presents a five-page creative writing exercise, a script for a puppet play.
Some readers may really like this fusion of associative drift, creative writing and travelogue, and it has certain charms, but the insights generated by this method didn't have enough payoff for me. I found myself wanting more structure and system and more engagement with the currently very exciting world of "thing theory", where object-oriented philosophy is precisely working away at the liveliness of apparently inert things. There are ways of cutting the strings of sometimes deadening academic language without losing rigour.
Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life
By Kenneth Gross. University of Chicago Press. 224pp, £16.00. ISBN 9780226309583 and 309606 (e-book). Published 15 October 2011