It’s hard to truly describe the book. The plot is a fairy tale plot of a prince having to win the hand of a princess by doing an impossible task. But that not only doesn’t do the book justice, it completely fails to actually describe the book as well. Full of not just word play but rhythm play, the 13 Clocks doesn’t just play with the nature of fairy tales but language as well. The fairy tale is just the framework for Thurber’s wit and whimsy.
A friend of mine will tell Traveling Salesman jokes by skipping to the punch line since ‘you already know what happens up to that point’ Thurber relentlessly leaves out gobs of details about the setting and the characters because he knows we already understand them because we know how fairy tales work. And he does it so cleverly that he is letting us, the readers, behind the scenes with him.
I have to make special mention of the Golux (the only one in the world and not a mere device!) who serves as the device that resolves every problem in the book. He takes the role of a Puss in Boots magical problem solver but he is relentlessly eccentric and charming. And the villain of the story calls him out as a blatant Deus Ex Machina (Golux Ex Machina!)
I first heard of the book in Middle School or High School in an essay about Fantasy literature. And I put off reading it for literally decades in part because I didn’t think it could live up to the zany impression I had of it. And, you know, it turns out that it doesn’t. But it is still a very fun and amusing book. There’s not an ounce of cynicism in the book but a ton of whimsy.
I wouldn’t describe the 13 Clocks as a satire or a deconstruction of fairy tales. Instead, it is a playful celebration of the English language.