I have read only a very few graphic novels, but the ones I have read all seem to tread the same emotional ground. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and now I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. Their stories center on a sort of teenage emptiness that inspires a combination of pity and fascination in me. Visually, however, the three are quite distinct with Brown’s artwork being far more spare than the other two. Brown’s jagged panels placed asymmetrically on the page are surrounded by black, drawing the eye to his simple lines. (Unfortunately, later editions of the book have replaced the black pages with white.) His panels are devoid of details and instead focusing of the setting, the reader dwells on the characters, primarily young Chester himself. Brown’s picture of himself is both funny and sad, and while the book touches on his mother’s death, the focus is on his interaction with girls. He tells his friend Sky that he loves her but doesn’t know what to do next. His neighbor Carrie has a crush on him and they engage in this strange wrestling ritual as a stand in for actual communication. Girls are drawn to the odd, artistic boy but they are also repulsed by him. In the end, the book is about Brown’s inability to engage emotionally – with these girls, with his mother, with the rest of his family. It’s a poignant and quick read (it took me about an hour), but Brown’s dreamy artwork will stay with you.
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.“Illustrated book” – the term is as vague as it is precise. Most children’s books are illustrated, yet they are rarely lumped into this category. The same is true of graphic novels. So what’s left? Photography, graphic design, typography, illustrations, artist monographs, pop culture kitsch, collectibles, graffiti, architecture, courtroom sketches – really any book on any topic in which the illustrations outnumber the words, permitting the illustrations to tell the story.So begins a semi-regular “illustrated book” column here at The Millions. Most of the books covered – but not all of them – will be new releases; some installments will be a mishmash of titles, while others will be themed; there will no children’s books; there will be no graphic novels, though there will be illustrated fiction (more on what differentiates the two next time). I reserve the right to contradict what I have just written, though I promise all books discussed in this column will contain images. Like the best novels, poems and essays, the most intriguing illustrated books transcend their authors. I consider three such books below.1. Sites of Impact: Meteorite Craters Around the WorldSites of Impact not only takes us way beyond photographer Stan Gaz but also rockets us into outer space as we imagine the forceful trajectories of meteorites that have collided with Earth. Gaz’s stunning black-and-white aerial studies of these impact craters show us what millions of years look like and how these visible remnants of destruction and decay permit scientists to study and speculate about the planet’s geological and biological histories. These craters, in Gaz’s words, “are footprints of the stars… the circle of life, writ large; physically, environmentally, and metaphorically.” Complementing Gaz’s thoughts about the journeys he made for this tremendous project, impact-cratering expert Christian Koeberl outlines the history of scientific inquiry regarding these sites. And Robert Silberman situates Gaz’s work in the continuum of landscape photography and its efforts to capture the sublime. Their informative essays provide context for the work, but Gaz’s eye for conveying the magnitude of the unknown requires no explanation. These locations existed before language and will doubtless exist well beyond it. Getting lost in Gaz’s photographs is an intimidating experience, but they impart a greater respect for the natural world. They remind us of humanity’s status as a blip on geology’s timeline.2. Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I AmVery much rooted in language, Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I Am is actually two books in one, like Russian nesting dolls, albeit ones with onion heads. Sara Fanelli illustrates the themes of “Devils and Angels,” “Love,” “Colour” (which gets it own little book), “Mythology” and “the Absurd” as prompted and framed by artful adages from Wassily Kadinsky and Francis Bacon, Melville, Nabokov, Calvino, and others. Whereas Maira Kalman reacts to people and objects, Fanelli uses the words of artists and writers to create her worlds. The sketchbook aesthetic – a heavily trod illustrated book niche – succeeds here because of the intimacy and whimsy of Fanelli’s work. Writer Marina Warner likens Fanelli to Paul Klee, highlighting the work’s “unencumbered rhythm of the doodle.” In most of the selections text weaves, crouches and splatters, participating in the images, as in the illustrations of Stephaine Mallarmé’s poignant advice about writing poetry: “To write a weepy poem try onion juice.” The richness of Fanelli’s collage-like illustrations draw you back again and again to these pages, especially if you are in search of a timeless bit of inspiration, a la Lewis Carroll’s “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”3. Hundertwasser Complete Graphic Work 1951-1976Hundertwasser, one of Austria’s most famous twentieth century artists, would most certainly agree with Carroll’s sentiment. His Complete Graphic Work 1951-1976 is one of the most elegant (and amazingly affordable) gems of a book I’ve seen in a long time. The black linen case, foil stamping and six-color printing emulate the original edition of this catalogue, which the artist assembled on the occasion of a 1973 tour of museums in Australia and New Zealand. According to the book’s original publisher, Hundertwasser’s idea was to produce something “small enough to be carried in a handbag or jacket pocket like a much-loved treasure.” Apparently before the book went out of print in 1983 it had sold over 750,000 copies. It’s not hard to see why; more confounding is the question of why it fell out of print, which is never actually addressed here. Luckily, it is available again and the paintings and woodcuts pulse colorfully with the world’s myths and the patterns of the natural world. The spiraling circles in particular echo certain of the landscapes of Stan Gaz’s photographs. Faces with metallic eyes also figure heavily in this work, all of them in concert with the environment. Hundertwasser was “green” before it was a catchall spin word. He reveled in nature’s ability to nurture our spirits and this comes across in the writing paired with each painting as well as some of the biographical material.Future installments of this series will include a look at illustrated fiction and self-aware art movements. What else would be of interest to readers when it comes to illustrated books?
If in The Last Lover, Can Xue’s Best Translated Book Award-winning novel from 2014, characters seem to be wandering in and out of each other’s dreams, in Frontier, the author’s latest work to be published in English, experience has almost become detached from bodies entirely. It floats as if through the air of Pebble Town, a settlement of uncertain size on an unspecified, but presumably northern, Chinese border, attaching itself by turns to the town’s various human and animal inhabitants. Several unrelated characters share a memory of “standing on the ocean floor,” while others recognize their fathers or lovers in the form of geckoes and wagtails; mysterious shadows in one woman’s house are said to belong both to “invisible people” and to wolves. Just as the human effortlessly fades into the non-human, so do the boundaries between inner and outer life, between life and death themselves, lose their solidness. When one character is shocked by the beauty of a woman’s red skirt among a herd of sheep uttering “sorrowful cries,” Can Xue writes, “It was wondrous,” and indeed, all of Frontier is.
One of the best-known experimental writers in China, Can Xue (the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua) has found increasing success in the West for her strange but luminous work. Frontier, originally written in 2008 and now published in Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping’s translation, is perhaps the best and most beautiful of her novels yet to reach English readers. Plot never dominates Can Xue’s work; rather, her novels build upon images and affects that repeat, vary, and recombine, giving rise to patterns at once original and tinglingly familiar. While readers approaching Frontier as a cipher to be decoded are therefore likely to grow frustrated, those who allow themselves to be immersed in it as in music or painting will begin to perceive the novel’s complex harmonies. Something of Frontier’s lush and perilous landscape may resonate particularly with American readers, who will sense in it a counterpart to their own mythology of a sublime internal frontier.
“Where there is desire,” Can Xue wrote in The Last Lover, “there is a wilderness.” Frontier develops the equivalence even further, until Pebble Town’s magical terrain is just as much the manifestation of its inhabitants’ desires as it is the backdrop for them. Whether it is the vastness of the Gobi Desert (which Pebble Town is said to border) or the floating garden that sometimes appears miraculously in midair, the landscape of the frontier, as one character observes, exerts “tremendous pressure on people.” A man named Lee, who, gazing at the “scenery outside,” feels his heart, “long covered with dust, bubble over with joy,” has the following conversation with his wife:
“Nothing you see here is actually what it appears to be.”
Grace raised her left eyebrow, as if thinking of something.
“Do you think this is like our ailments?” she asked him.
“Do you mean the thing inside us and the thing outside us are the same thing?” Lee was perplexed.
“Lee, Lee, we’ve finally broken out!”
The ecstasy at this apparent unity of interior and exterior life implies that a threshold far beyond the geographical has been crossed. Pebble Town is repeatedly described as a utopia, but it may also be something like a utopian purgatory. Hardly anyone does much of anything—most of the town’s residents are employed by the enigmatic Design Institute, though no one ever works—yet they are all caught up in barely-articulable processes of metamorphosis, as if straining to break into another type of existence of which Pebble Town is the premonition. Moreover, some of them have a whiff of death about them: one man is told outright that he smells “a little” like a “dead person,” and another, plagued by dreams of being chased, blurts out, “The dead are struggling for territory against the living people.” The Design Institute itself is said to look like “a giant grave,” and its director’s adopted relative Ying, who wanders the grounds of the Institute like a “timekeeper,” recalls a god of death, counting down everyone’s seconds.
For all its supernatural suggestions, however, Pebble Town also belongs undeniably to contemporary China. There are allusions to a surveillance state (“Everyone’s movements are tracked!”) and an ominous reference to “execution reform.” A young man named Marco, whose identity is one of the least stable in the book (“in a split second he became a different person”), was adopted by a Dutch family as a child and later sent back. He longs to return to Holland (which Pebble Town also supposedly borders), and undertakes a dangerous journey across a river and through a desert attempting to reach his idealized Western past. Liujin, a woman characterized as a true “daughter of the frontier,” was born in Pebble Town because her parents fled “Smoke City” for the “clean” borderlands, “where no air pollution existed;” Liujin and her father, listening “to birds singing outside the window,” in or near the Gobi Desert, feel they are in a “utopia.” While Frontier is much more than a wistful social fantasy, this sense of injustice—surveillance and oppression, exploitative adoption practices, the destruction of the natural world—courses beneath the book’s brilliant landscapes like the mysterious waters said to flow under Pebble Town itself.
There are books that seem to expand ever outward, so that upon finishing them, readers see the world anew through the author’s eyes. Others expand inward, leaving behind a glow to be carried for days like a secret. Frontier’s “bright, shining,” shapeshifting town, “a paradise for vagrants,” lovers, and wolves, offers, like poetry, what Can Xue says each of her characters already possesses: “a pattern of freedom.”
Barry Slawter is a writer based in Philadelphia.Paul Theroux is often best known for his travel writing, so it can be surprising to learn that a recent collection of three novellas, The Elephanta Suite, is the American author’s 30th published work of fiction. All three stories are set in India, and I found it interesting to consider Theroux’s rendering of the Indian subcontinent in light of the success of Slumdog Millionaire, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture. That film set off protests in the streets of Mumbai in early February for what was perceived as a Western portrayal of life in its slums, and in Indian call centers.Slumdog was directed by Danny Boyle and adapted from a novel by Indian writer Vikas Swarup. Following the protests, Swarup told the Associated Press that his story is a “slice of Indian life” and that he “does not see India’s slums as a place of despair.”Regardless of whether you believe that the film’s Indian critics have a valid point, it is interesting to consider how the country is being portrayed by other, non-Indian writers based in the west. In the hands of a writer like Theroux, the “slums question” becomes one easy and obvious jumping off point for a more intricate discussion about India’s growing pains.As one might expect from a veteran travel writer, Theroux knows how to attack stereotypes, and the novellas in The Elephanta Suite address American views of India in particular. Whether it’s the recent Ivy League grads backpacking to an ashram in “The Elephant God”, or a rich American couple dangerously misreading political winds from the comfort of their luxury spa in “Monkey Hill”, each novella comes with a general sense of foreboding.In “The Gateway of India”, arguably the most forceful of the novellas, a business traveler with obvious “Ugly American” qualities goes from a distanced loathing of Mumbai to discovering personal freedom in the squalor of the slums. Regardless of believability, it’s a crazy ride that starts slow and builds to an echoing crescendo, speaking to both personal transformation and the state of globalization.Most importantly perhaps, these multidimensional stories capture the nuances of modern culture clash, even while often suggesting a grim upshot. Theroux depicts Americans newly encountering the modern, globalizing India in a way that ultimately is artful and literary, not just fictionalized – albeit skillful – travel writing. Theroux wants to affirm that the world of Kipling is long dead and buried – an anachronistic museum piece, now paved over to make way for the steel and glass of Bangalore’s call centers.Theroux has fun with it all, too, finding the inevitable humor in a vision of India as a crowded jumble of contradictions. “The Elephant God”‘s Alice talks about expecting to find “the world of Merchant Ivory films” but ends up teaching American dialect to call center reps, who need to learning phases like “let’s ramp up a solution.” Theroux ruminates about India being a land of “usable antiques,” a place where words like “utterance,” “thrice,” or “audacious” might easily get dropped into casual conversation.These were the words the East India Company had brought from England hundreds of years before, and they were still spoken and written, no matter how musty they seemed. Perhaps Indians used these words to give themselves dignity, power, or presence, but the effect was comic.Theroux, a master of language himself, sounds like he has that part just about nailed – both the linguistic observations and the sense of the chasm between cultures, addressing big themes like “modern versus traditional” and “East meets West.”It all made the Slumdog protests just a little more comprehensible, too. One of the protesters in a February Reuters report declared, “They have made a mockery of us, they have hurt our sentiments.” Thanks to Theroux, reading this quote left me pondering vocabulary, wondering whether the protester had been to call-center dialect class. A small shift in perspective that was one of this book’s many gifts.
Tragically, I had already arrived at the beach by the time my last essay went up (the one about a reading rut, for those of you who don’t keep a scrapbook). Like a fool, I had packed the William Vollmann, taking up space that could have been used for an economy-size block of cheese or some charming article of lounge wear. My beach day goes like this: Bud heavies and scads of potato chips. A crab encounter. Bocce injury, and several restoratives. A sand sandwich, and a sunburn. In this context, Europe Central was as useful, to use the bewildering colloquialism, as tits on a boar. Meanwhile, the wonderful suggestions piling up in the comment section of my post mocked me, in my bookless universe.
The beach rental, like a hostel, had a little library–a ragtag gang of abandoned holiday volumes. I found a Harry Potter, which was cold comfort, but easy to read while napping. Three hundred pages in, I realized I had already read it. Cedric’s death left me unmoved, again. The day before we departed the beach, I found and purloined, a water-swollen copy of A Perfect Spy. I love John Le Carre. Whenever I read one of his novels, I spend the whole time feeling as though I missed something crucial, but according to him in this marvelous article, that’s how the actual spies felt too. I had wasted five jobless days on warmed-over Potter, another week in the rut, While Edan was eating her frittata, I spent my holiday eating stale eggy-sandy from that restaurant with the yellow arches. Although I did develop the approximation of a tan.
When I got home, Nocturnes was sitting in my mailbox, a small package representing a great change in my fortunes. As I began reading, I felt the clouds breaking up above my trench. Nicole Krauss said a thing about Roberto Bolaño, a thing that I’ve seen so often on his dust jackets that it’s actually started to annoy me (like Updike on Nabokov writing ecstacially): purportedly, Bolaño made her believe “Everything is possible again.” I’ve made it clear before that a flame burns eternal in my bosom for Roberto Bolaño, but Krauss’ soundbite better describes how I feel about Kazuo Ishiguro.
It is a great thing to be surprised by a novelist. I don’t mean surprised like you feel surprised when Cedric dies, or when Lydia runs off with Wickham, or Piggy falls off the cliff. The surprise in a large part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work is that he changes the very quality of the world in some subtle but deeply alarming way; suddenly the sky is a gray shade, your own voice vibrates at a slightly different frequency, and an atonal humming sound wafts on the breeze. Imagine the Pevensie children entering a wardrobe that led to an ordinary dining room, on another planet. That’s an Ishiguro Narnia.
The ease with which he shifts between the heimlich and unheimlich, within his oeuvre as a whole (say, from Artist of the Floating World to Never Let Me Go), and within a given novel (When We Were Orphans, or The Unconsoled, or here, in Nocturnes), is phenomenal. Truly, Ishiguro makes me believe in the limitless possibilities of the written word. And the thing that I love about Kazuo Ishiguro is that, for someone who tampers with the way the world is made, he does not sacrifice the cherished conventions of English prose. This means that, for me, he does not sacrifice readability. Anyone can turn things weird when he or she decides that pronouns are unnecessary and the second person singular is preferred.
Nocturnes, comprising five medium-length, loosely-related stories, is not a giant work, but Ishiguro manages to suggest a lot, while saying not a lot. It is brief and lovely and achy, like smelling a long-forgotten smell, or hearing a snatch of song you recognize (to borrow one of its themes). Nonetheless, it retains the bizarre quality of which I am so fond. To me, the world of Nocturnes is not the world; the people, simulacra.
I realized I’ve said about Ishiguro generally, and very little about Nocturnes specifically, but I don’t have much else to say. Like telling someone else your dream, describing the stories in any detail would be sort of incoherent, and boring. And I think, had I not been in my reading rut, that I might have felt bereft at the end of the book. It is short, and while I sometimes confuse length with quality, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it’s a touch spare. But, given the listless summer I’ve had, Nocturnes was the perfect thing, a real rut-breaker. Acting upon me like an exquisite and prudently-sized hors d’oeuvre, it left me, finally, ravenous for reading and anxious to see what else is possible.
I’ve got a John Le Carre to finish.