“Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow,” Albert Einstein wrote in contemplating the fickleness of fame, “that is the fate of people whom — God knows why — the bored public has taken possession of.” And indeed the public itself often knows not why it has taken possession of those whom it inflates before deflating with the same rapaciousness and rapidity — such is the arbitrary and fleeting nature of popular favor in its gruesome modern guise of celebrity. “Success is the pageantry of genius,” Germaine de Staël wrote in her pioneering eighteenth-century treatise on happiness, but in the twenty-first century celebrity has become the simulacrum of success and visibility the simulacrum of genius.
An irreverent, insightful, and surprisingly touching parody of this vacant pageantry comes in Blob: The Ugliest Animal in the World (public library) by French writer-illustrator couple Joy Sorman and Olivier Tallec, translated by Sarah Klinger — the story of Blob the Fish, his unrelenting quest to win the world’s premier ugliness pageant, and his struggle to cope with the loneliness of celebrity and the suddenness with which fame courts and abandons its victims.
There is something charmingly subversive about the very premise, as paradoxical as the idea of trying to fail at failure. There is also something profound in the questions it raises about our civilizational fascination with beauty and its counterpoint — what does it really mean to be ugly, and was Emerson correct in asserting that “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting”? When ugliness itself becomes a point of interest, a point of contest, it begins to take on the superficialities reserved for the cult of beauty — a cult which, as Harvard cognitive scientist Nancy Etcoff has noted, is “entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit.”
With his unshapely flesh, Blob the Fish is decidedly unbeautiful. But he has spent his life trying to wrest from his ugliness a path to acceptance, even to adoration: Every year for many years, Blob has left his home in the deep coastal waters of Australia’s Pacific Ocean, boarded a boat to a train to a plane clad in a spy-like coat and brimmed hat “to avoid frightening the other passengers” with his ugliness, and journeyed to compete in the esteemed contest for the world’s ugliest animal.
Every year so far, Blob has lost.
The first time Blob entered the contest, he was upstaged by a frog from Lake Titicaca. The second time, he was beaten by a Kakapo parakeet — a bird so awkward and dumpy it couldn’t even fly. The third time, a Sea Pig won gold. And Blob, both proud and sensitive, was outraged at the injustice of it all.
It enraged Blob not to be recognized for his true worth. When a member of the jury called him “more darling and adorable than ugly and repulsive,” he felt even worse, and he almost blew his top at the judge’s offer to adopt him as a pet. How horrifying! How shameful!
The illustrations by Tallec, who has given us such immeasurably sympathetic treasures as Big Wolf & Little Wolf and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, lend the humorous story a lovely dimension of tenderness. Blob comes alive as a sensitive creature of contradictions — full of determination yet easily given to dejection, a living fable of ego and insecurity, easy to fault but also easy to love.
Wearied by his many near-misses, Blob resolves to win the pageant this year. When the announcer introduces “his formidably formless physique, and his sad and sheepish demeanor,” Blob can feel he is about to have his moment. And so he does — he beats out the Bald Ukari Monkey, the Naked Mole Rat, and the Vietnamese Leaf-Nosed Bat, earning the crown of the “Ugliest Animal in the World.”
Thunderous applause erupts. Rose petals and confetti rain down. A young boy approaches Blob with a crown of diamonds, which squeaks quietly against his scaly head.
Immediately, Blob is elevated to the status of global celebrity and plunged into an unimagined life. He becomes the spokesperson for ugly animals, walks red carpets between bodyguards, and indulges hoards of autograph-hunters. Fans rub his body for good luck. Famous designers dress him, famous rappers pose with him. He carries the torch at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The Queen of England invites him to tea.
In a wonderful stroke of cultural conscience, Sorman slips into the lighthearted fictional story a point of serious real-world significance:
Blob delivers a lengthy speech on climate change at the UN, arguing that it threatens humans as much as the world’s ugliest. He talks about the destruction of the seabed, where he makes his home.
But all of this attention begins to poison Blob’s character — he becomes a diva, makes outrageous demands for caviar and private jets, throws legendary tantrums. All the while, he is lonely and gnawed by the awareness that his fame is fleeting — since animals are allowed to compete only once, next year’s contest will confer the coveted title upon another, ejecting Blob from celebrity and returning him to his plain old self. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” the young Tolstoy wrote in his diary — questions Blob no longer knows how to answer, having lost the essence of his self in his ephemeral public persona.
Under Tallec’s subtle brush, we see a difficult realization dawn on Blob — privilege is bestowed largely by chance and little of actual substance separates the most fortunate from the least fortunate.
Blob sinks into a deep depression.
When the day of the next contest arrives, his reign comes to its expected end — the cameras descend upon another ugly creature as Blob, uncrowned and unregarded, heads home to the deep seabed, this time unshrouded by hat and overcoat on his voyage, hoping some remnant fan would recognize him.
Looking back on his improbable ascent to celebrity from the remove of 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, Blob — whose ugliness remains his own even without the world’s prized distinction — can suddenly see that the trappings of fame are “far from beautiful.”
Blob comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of such thoughtful and tender gems as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, and The Paper-Flower Tree.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books. Photographs by Maria Popova.