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.
In Horacio Castellanos Moya’s new novel, Erasmo Aragón, a writer in exile from El Salvador, seems to have a good answer to the question of why he is planning on going back to a country that has been fighting an incredibly bloody civil war for 20 years. “Peace,” he says, “could be glimpsed on the not-too-distant horizon.” Also, if he could get healthy, and stop drinking, he might find a girl with a sweet ass, like his wife.
Castellanos Moya is a master of creating narrators who say things so wrong you can’t pick out the worst thing in them. But there is one particularly bizarre delusion in this weird equivalence between politics and posteriors fueling our hero’s many crazy capers in The Dream of My Return. The opportunities available after the conclusion of a 20-year civil war — which was indeed brought to a close in 1992 with a treaty between rebel guerrillas and the national government — just aren’t the same as the opportunity to “radically change my life,” as Erasmo also grandiloquently puts it. But, as in so many of Moya’s novels, politics is taken so personally that peace can’t be thought of any other way. And so these contradictions don’t stop Erasmo from trying his damnedest to push them to their limits in the turns and returns of his screwy psyche.
In fact, his awareness of his bizarre situation only seems to spur him on, and the sheer fun of this novel is in seeing him juggle all this hyperconscious bad faith — Castellanos Moya all the while continuing to pile it on. To begin with, it doesn’t seem to bother Erasmo that peace actually can be glimpsed in the here and now in Mexico City where he lives, with a job at a paper, a wife and a kid, and friends in the community of refugees. He doesn’t mind that in all likelihood he would be alone in a country that, even today, after the peace, is a corrupt, violent den of gangs and killers. Or rather, he does mind, in fact, he throws fits. But his predilection to see his future in the language of self-help, merely makes him the first to admit he’s a self-deluding idiot, a liar, a cheat, an all-around asshole, so that he can continue chasing his dream. Not to mention leave out (to the reader too, often) anything that might disturb his comfortable culpability. You can imagine how bad this gets when, after seeing a doctor for liver problems, he begins to undergo first steps of therapy.
This self-help rhetoric is, of course, not so much the pastime of therapists as of neoliberal North Americans and, since the 1990s, that of many of the reforming governments to the south, too. What Castellanos Moya ruthlessly savages in Erasmo’s use of it is that as much as it talks improvement it remains silent on anything resisting a narrative of change, radical change. There’s a point in the story — it’s after he finds out his wife is cheating on him and has decided the baby she’s having isn’t his, but before he starts making plans to liquidate the two-bit actor with an ex-guerrilla arms-supplier he drinks Bloody Ceasars with who calls himself The Rabbit — that Erasmo drives his wife to get an abortion, and laments the whole time how barbaric it is that Mexico hasn’t made the operation legal. The dark, dark joke here is that El Salvador even today continues to have one of the most backwards abortion laws of any country, and it points to what his doctor tells him: “You refuse to remember almost anything.” The words the doctor uses — conveyed in yet another vivacious translation by Katherine Silver — are as suggestive about the power of his improving monologue as they are precise about the extent of his blindness: anything can come before his vision of the present and future and be forgotten, perhaps not everything but definitely any one thing. “Only the devil himself knows the pathways taken by our self-esteem,” Erasmo admits, and he’s perhaps more right than he thinks he is. He’s trying to leave his life behind, because he is haunted by a past wholly traumatic. It’s because he is improving that he is digging his own grave — and, if he had his stupid way, that of others.
As in his disturbingly hilarious Senselessness, Castellanos Moya doesn’t deny that this past may have actually been traumatic for Erasmo and for many others who lived through the ugly, brutal civil wars. Erasmo’s is indeed a world of violence, one where parents have been shot, relatives cut to pieces; where the Rabbit uses Erasmo’s truck to stash an arms cache that will make its way down to the rebels; where it really is unclear whether Erasmo’s doctor, himself taking a trip down to San Salvador for a few days for a funeral, may not be calling him back because he’s been disappeared. But Castellanos Moya revels in showing that the untraumatic future, the “peace” of which Erasmo speaks, is actually always and forever just “on the horizon,” always just right around the corner, always just far enough away to make it seem like if we want it enough, want it personally, then it will happen. Freedom from violence and the past isn’t the same thing as freedom from our many individual torments, if only because our lives teach us structural problems can’t be ignored. The political isn’t always personal; reform is reform for other people too.
Of course the problem with this is that personally, let alone politically, living and legislating beyond dreams of peace, with the possibility of violence continuing, doesn’t make us any smarter than the people eager for war and continuing violence. As he nears his trip to the airport, Erasmo thinks of a cousin Albertico, who returned to the country during the war in 1980 to fight. When asked why, he responds “because I’m an ass.” The difficult thought for Erasmo, and for us, might be that we may not need any more ass, since we’re all asses already. But then, difficult thoughts aren’t easy to entertain, especially where asses are involved. When he gets to the airport, Erasmo spies a real hottie, a real stunner, a “thoroughbred filly,” and returns to dreaming of “a paradise of sweet asses awaiting me,” as he says, “at my destination.”
Castellanos Moya’s own exile began when he wrote, in the voice of a crusty Thomas Bernhard figure in his 1997 novel El Asco, that “returning to San Salvador always seemed the worst nightmare,” and received death threats which forced him out of the country. For this reason, he has long been a sexy figure for North American readers — who love their Latin American authors sexy, rebellious, engaged with the violence in the region, as he himself recently pointed out about the reception of his friend Roberto Bolaño. But with The Dream of My Return he shows he deserves to be considered one of the most politically instructive of many politically engaged Latin American authors. That he has so explored so many of the problems when a nightmare becomes a mere foolish dream is the true triumph of storytelling over circumstance here, and it is of a kind Erasmo can only dream about.
T.C. Boyle is in a groove. He’s that rare combination of a bold writer who is consistently fun and seemingly, he’s becoming more prolific. His last novel, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired bestseller The Women, was released in 2009 and now, quick on its heels comes his 13th novel, When the Killing’s Done, a colorful, quick-witted and entirely plausible account of environmental activism and bureaucratic bumbling in and around California’s Channel Islands. Topically it might remind you of the cerulean warbler section of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but whereas Franzen’s foray into wildlife issues felt so tangential and agonized into being that there was a temptation to skim through that meandering West Virginia bird sanctuary section, When the Killing’s Done is thoroughly engaging and cohesive. There isn’t a dull moment in it.
It’s always been Boyle’s great gift to take the reader somewhere (Alaska, the Hudson River Valley 300 years ago, Kinsey’s inner circle, a pot farm in Northern California) and completely convince you of the accuracy of the surroundings he gives you. Not just geographically, but politically, socially and culturally. Bits of Boyle stick with me; In the early 90s, new to California, I read his hilariously picaresque Budding Prospects, the pot farm novel, in which a character describes a San Francisco burrito as the shape and size of a skein of yarn (with considerably more heft). I have thought with pleasure of this description virtually every time I have lifted a burrito since. Which is to say, roughly a thousand times.
I became even fonder of Boyle after reading his 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain, which I interpreted, rather desperately, as a small validation of my newspaper career. In the early 90s, I worked for the Ventura County edition of the Los Angeles Times. Resume-wise, you’d have called this a stepping stone, but I recall it more as rowing in the newspaper equivalent of a slave ship. The paper was making a “push” into the county, a dreary no-man’s land between the busy San Fernando Valley, where porn was made, and the relative paradise of Santa Barbara, where there were art-house movies, good bookstores and a taqueria Julia Child was known to frequent. Our local readership was perilously small, but we published two zoned editions of this local section. No story was too small to cover. Any idle musing that struck an editor during his or her commute could and would be turned into a story by we eager minions. That was how I once came to write a profile of Highway 101. I am referring to an inert stretch of tar.
This was all educational, but miserable, and the concern that barely anyone was reading what we were writing loomed large. Then along came The Tortilla Curtain, a witty, fast moving study in contrasts between the entitled residents of gated communities on the edges of the Santa Monica Mountains and the poor Latino immigrants who have the temerity to make them nervous. Boyle, who lives in Montecito – for most of the last two decades, in a Frank Lloyd Wright home, lucky man – knew so much about the politics of pettiness and fear that ran rampant through what we often called “suburban enclaves” that I was certain he was reading our zoned edition of the Los Angeles Times. Someone was paying attention. And unlike us, he had a true sense of the big picture.
Many years later and many miles away from Ventura County, my realization that Boyle had written a novel about the Channel Islands nearly made my heart skip a beat. This is precisely the book I always wanted to read. From Ventura, the Channel Islands loom like magical temptations out there on the Western horizon, mostly just the long low ridge of Anacapa (technically, three small islands) and the green hills of Santa Cruz Island. Santa Rosa is hidden behind the hulk of Santa Cruz, and San Miguel is farther north, off Santa Barbara, but reportedly, nothing happened there. I visited Anacapa and Santa Cruz, a good boat ride’s distance away, whenever there was the thinnest journalistic excuse to do so. There were bureaucratic control issues — the Nature Conservancy owned most of Santa Cruz but the National Park Service had a say in what happened on part of that vast island (four times the size of Manhattan, Boyle tells us), as well as all of Anacapa and even in the 1990s there were the same ecological issues that Boyle focuses on. The islands are beautiful, mysterious and though largely deserted, rich with history (once they had belonged to people, actual people, mostly ranchers, who got to live there). They exist as time capsules of what California might have looked like 200 years ago. On these blissful days reporting out on the islands, you could count on a day of freedom from yet another editorial whipping. Even more alluring, you could imagine all the histories that might have been.
Boyle has done just that, but put it on the page, interweaving true facts and scenarios with a group of fictional modern day characters with warring interests in the ecological future of the islands. National Park Service biologist Alma Boyd Takesue is leading the fight against the invasive species overrunning the native populations of the islands, in the case of Anacapa, black rats who landed there via shipwreck in 1853 (true story) and on Santa Cruz, feral pigs descended from the pigs left there by ranchers. Alma’s grandmother survived a 1946 shipwreck (fiction) that killed her grandfather and spent three weeks shooing away black rats in a fisherman’s shack before being rescued. Now Alma wants to eradicate those rats. And when they’re gone, she plans to move onto Santa Cruz’s pigs, which are destroying the habit of the native island fox (a smaller breed than is found on the mainland).
Her main opponent is the Santa Barbara-based leader of a group called For the Protection of Animals (FPA), Dave LaJoy, a wealthy, vitriolic middle-aged vegetarian whose favorite recreational activity is to pilot his big motor boat out to the Channel Islands and enjoy nature while swilling beer and eating hummus sandwiches. LaJoy is an animal lover – he believes even a black rat has as much right on Anacapa as some native bird – and a people hater, with the possible exception of his girlfriend Anise, a beautiful folksinger. Anise had the unusual pleasure of having spent most of her childhood in the 1970s on Santa Cruz; her mother Rita worked as a cook for a sheep rancher who leased a sizeable chunk of the land (the section of the book involving Rita’s days on Santa Cruz is wonderfully evocative). In a neat twist, the pigs brought there by earlier ranchers lead to the ruin of that exhausting but rewarding ranch life, and yet still, Anise wants to save them.
The book flies by – LaJoy, with his “rusty dreadlocks” and fits of rage, is horrible yet hilariously entertaining, a man driven by arrogance and conviction in equal parts – but it’s not just a good yarn; Boyle has a real point to make, about population control of all beasts (and mankind). Alma is the protagonist certainly, but that doesn’t make her right in all circumstances. What for instance, would ground zero truly be for the Channel Islands, in terms of ecology? To truly erase all signs of man’s past interference with the natural habitat requires fresh interference by man. If the pigs are removed, what will become prey for the eagles that were drawn to the island by the ready food source the pigs presented? The island fox, as it turns out. So the raptors now have to be caught and removed. The minute Alma gets rid of one invasive species, it seems she has another to deal with. Who, or what, is meant to have ownership of and residency on these islands? The question isn’t really answerable, and Boyle plays with that ambiguity to great effect. The basic facts of what he’s telling, through told through fictional characters, really happened. And I finally have actual proof that Boyle reads the paper, having found this on his website: “…I still preserve a yellowing newspaper headline from six or seven years ago (it’s pinned beneath a magnet on the refrigerator door), which reads: EAGLES ARRIVE AS PIGS ARE KILLED, a reference to the reintroduction of the bald eagle and the eradication of the feral pig.”
Boyle has a joyful willingness to go over the top, trips he almost always negotiates with uncanny expertise. There’s a wildly harrowing scene involving LaJoy dragging a group of idealistic college kids up into the canyons of Santa Cruz Island during a powerful rain storm. He makes you see them slogging through the mud, soaked and shivering but propelled forward by this bombastic, charismatic jerk and we see how LaJoy clings to his sense of rightness even when it has become terribly apparent he’s made a huge mistake. In terms of the narrative, this would have satisfied as LaJoy’s comeuppance, but Boyle has another, less successful and surprisingly harsh final set piece in mind for the founding members of FPA.
But because of all he gets right, because of his fine sense of the big picture and his ability to convey it using characters that always come alive, I can forgive him it. I can even forgive him the character Toni Walsh, an utterly unappealing, rather dim seeming reporter from the local paper. She’s disdained and distrusted by both Alma and LaJoy. Although she’s covering environmental issues, Toni Walsh appears to have no interest in nature. She spends most of her expeditions to the islands fishing in her purse for cigarettes and never wears suitable clothing. Here Toni is in a torrential downpour on Santa Cruz. LaJoy has brought her there looking for pig corpses to photograph, images he hopes will outrage the community. Her lone concession to the weather is an Easter egg pink slicker, a concession cancelled out by her unwise decision to wear matching sandals. LaJoy wants to know whether she can keep hiking. “Hunched, pale, a streak of yellowish mud painted across her cheek like a tribal cicatrice, she just shrugs. ‘I don’t know,’ she says after a moment, and here’s that stab of a smile again – a good sign, a very good sign – ‘I’m afraid I’m more of a city girl. But anything for a story, right?'” I swear I never would have worn pink sandals to Santa Cruz. But this joyful skewering suggests that Boyle has met a few of my brethren.
In the summer of 2006, on a small stage in downtown Toronto, the Emperor Napoleon was facing off in a game of chess against the “Mechanical Turk.” It was 1809, continental Europe, and Malzel, who recently purchased the legendary chess-playing automaton, was transporting this curious contraption from town to town to square off against the dubious and the delighted.The automaton was an historical oddity – a contraption consisting of a carefully-constructed cabinet, out of which emerged the fabricated, human-like, upper-half of an exotically decked-out Ottoman chess master. It was a hoax, of course, the cabinet being designed in such a manner as to conceal an actual human – small in stature, but large in chess-playing talent. Magnets, a pantograph, and an elaborate, clockwork-like mechanism enabled the Turk’s hands and arms to grip and move chess pieces, eyes to roll, head to nod.The play, “Napoleon vs The Turk,” written by Tom Robertson and staged by Luke Davies as part of the 2006 Toronto Fringe Festival, was my introduction to this famous hoax.Robert Lohr’s engrossing debut novel, The Chess Machine, goes back a bit further, to 1770 and the workshop of the Turk’s actual inventor: Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Baron with connections in the court of Vienna. A work of historical fiction, The Chess Machine also introduces us to Jakob, a fictional character who Lohr imagines as Kempelen’s valuable assistant and cabinet-maker.Above all, though, The Chess Machine tells the fictional tale of Tibor, an Italian chess-playing dwarf, recruited by Kempelen to be part of the grand deception, to spend countless stifling hours inside the automaton, monitoring the opponents’ moves, and responding accordingly.In one wonderfully gripping episode, the dwarf, concealed in the automaton for an outdoor match and deprived of the candle that normally helps him see what he’s doing, is forced to move his chessmen simply by anticipating his opponent’s moves, by the sound and feel of the game being played above his head.Tibor is the heart and soul of the automaton, and also the story. Rescued from a Venetian prison by Kempelen, who knew of his talents and was searching for the missing piece to his scheme, Tibor reluctantly agrees to go with Kempelen back to his workshop is Pressburg (now Bratislava). He must remain hidden from public view, on occasion venturing out incognito with Jakob for a late-night prowl around town. The tale is a captivating one, full of dreams, schemes and spies, deception and murder, lusty, clandestine encounters with women of various levels of repute, a jealous inventor, an affronted nobleman, and at least one seriously insane sculptor.A glance, too, at audiences of the day, and their willingness to suspend disbelief. As Tibor inquires of his master: “Are they going to believe in this?” To which Kempelen responds “The world wants to be deceived. They’ll believe in it because they’ll want to believe in it.”
First the good: there’s lots of neat info in this book about antique map collecting and about the history of maps in general. Anyone with a passing interest in maps will find that the The Island of Lost Maps contains a number of absorbing digressions about adventurous mapmakers from centuries ago. Miles Harvey’s book also, however, bills itself as an account of the crimes and ultimate downfall of map thief Gilbert Bland. As Harvey writes early on in the book, Bland never agreed to talk to him, and the crimes themselves, while interesting, are not compelling enough to carry the 400-some pages that it takes Harvey to tell the story. The book is a 15 page magazine article enveloped in hundreds of pages of discursions and asides about various cartographic topics as well as a great deal of melodramatic meta-narration about Harvey’s efforts to tell Bland’s story:I was trying to map the life of a man – an anonymous and elusive man, a man I did not know, and a man who demonstrated no desire to meet me. And even all that might not have been so bad if I had somehow been able to find a way inside his head, to put myself in his shoes. But Bland and I were very different people. Other than a few shared superficialities – both of us white males, both right-handers, both map lovers – our common frames of reference were few.It’s as though Harvey, realizing that he is devoting a tremendous amount of writerly energy to what is, in the end, a rather straightforward crime committed by an uninteresting man, feels the need to overexplain himself. Over and over he tells the reader how fascinating this crime is and obsessed he has become with telling Bland’s story, and after a while it seems that Harvey has forgotten about his readers and is simply trying to convince himself. The best creative nonfiction seems effortless (John McPhee’s books, for example), but Maps reads like it was a tremendous effort to write.