Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life by Kenneth Gross - review by Steven Connor

Steven Connor

String Theories

Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life


University of Chicago Press 224pp £16 order from our bookshop

Kenneth Gross lets us know at the beginning of this intriguing, inquisitive and erudite book that he has no overarching narrative of the evolution and meaning of puppets to unfold, nor any clinching theory to enforce. Where Victoria Nelson, for example, in her The Secret Life of Puppets (Harvard University Press, 2001), which is generously acknowledged here, made a systematic case for puppets as the repositories of a secret and continuing tradition of magical thinking within rationality, Gross offers instead a cluster of different viewpoints on the question of the puppet, each one of which takes us quickly into the wooden heart of things. Yet these attitudes do not tessellate into a complete pattern. There are chapters on the metamorphic powers of puppets, on the distortions they effect, on the strange, autonomous life of the hand, on violence and hunger, on shadows, and on innocence and the infantile; but the fact that the final chapter is entitled ‘Everything Else’ is a wry acknowledgement of the agreeably crook-backed construction of the book itself. 

Puppet is as geographically as it is intellectually itinerant, drawing on experiences of different kinds of puppet entertainment in Rome, Israel, South Africa, Berlin, Russia, the shadow theatre of Bali and the Bunraku tradition of Japan. It profits as much from conversations with puppet-makers and puppeteers, and personal

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