Book Review: The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson

This book is one of the best I’ve ever read. My copy is heavily underlined and well-thumbed. There are few authors that connect the topics she does in the way she does it, and there are even fewer who do so with such insight. It’s a hard book to describe as it includes much: puppets and humanity, reality and imagination, philosophy and religion, film and fiction, high and low culture. It’s a fairly large book at around 300 pages of text and also there are useful notes in the back. Even though her ideas may be above the head of the average person, her writing style is easy to follow. If you’re a somewhat curious and minimally intelligent person, then what you’ll probaby enjoy about this book is learning new ideas and discovering new authors. I’m very well read and I came across a number of things I’d never heard of.

Two topics Victoria Nelson covers that are of particular interest to me are Gnosticism and Noir. If you like these topics, then another book you’d like is Eric G. Wilson’s The Melancholy Android: On the Psychology of Sacred Machines and Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film. Wilson is directly influenced by Nelson. There aren’t many books that look at the religious aspects of Noir, but another one is Thomas S. Hibbs Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption. Somewhat oddly, a major connection for these authors is that they all discuss Philip K. Dick who is a favorite author of mine. Dick was mainly a fiction writer, but also wrote non-fiction about what it is to be human in terms of philosophy, religion, and science (in particular the subjects of Gnosticism and androids). If you read Philip K. Dick’s non-fiction, it will give you a richer perspective on the meeting of high and low culture (which is an emphasis of Nelson and Wilson)and on the dark quest for redemption (which all of these authors touch upon). Two Philip K. Dick books I’d recommend are The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings and In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis. If you want a clear overview of Philip K. Dick’s philsophical and religion thoughts, then you should read Pink Beams of Light from the God in the Gutter: The Science-Fictional Religion of Philip K. Dickby Gabriel McKee.

Some of Nelson’s best insights revolve around the notions of imagination and reality, sanity and insanity (which are typical Philip K. Dick topics in both his fiction and non-fiction). This is where she discusses various genre writers (for example, Poe, Lovecraft, Schultz and Kafka) and where she explores the connection between psychology, spirituality and creativity. If you’re intellectually fascinated by imagination and creativity, then there are some truly awesome books out there that would give even greater context to the already large context that Victoria Nelson provides. I’d guess that much of the groundwork for Nelson’s thinking comes from the Jungian tradition of thinkers and she references Carl Jung a number of times (but she also discuses Freud). If you’re interested in further reading about the imagination, then check out these other books: Dream & the Underworld by James Hillman, Imagination Is Reality: Western Nirvana in Jung, Hillman, Barfield, and Cassirer by Roberts Avens, Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld by Patrick Harpur, and The Trickster and the Paranormal by George P. Hansen.

Besides my mentioning a number of related books, I’d consider The Secret Life of Puppets to be very unique. There are many books out there about these kinds of topics, but she brings it together in a very compelling way. These ideas easily could’ve become lost in abstract intellectuality if handled by a lesser writer.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson

  1. To my mind this is an excellent review of a book I’d not come across before. In fact, the review is so compelling that I’m going to buy the book! For anyone interested in the intersection between classical thought and contemporary culture from the perspective of myth and myth-making, I suggest reading Marina Warner’s “Six Myths of Our Time’ and other books she’s written.

  2. Hello Phil

    I own a few of Marina Warner’s books. I’ve only skimmed them so far, but have enjoyed what I’ve read. However, I don’t own “Six Myths of Our Time”. So, why do you like that one in particular?

    You’d probably be interested to know that Nelson mentions Warner in her book. Also Eric G. Wilson specifically stated that Nelson and Warner were direct influences on his book.

    Since you like Warner, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed by purchasing “The Secret Life of Puppets”. If you want to be sure, Amazon lets you look at some of the text for this book.

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