American

JESUS’ SON BY DENIS JOHNSON

The longer you live the more you seem surrounded by people who are in the process of losing themselves. That’s what I’ve noticed. When I was a kid things were scary; and everything connected to that fear seemed permanent. From my late teens onwards my life moved into different territory, one that resembled a graveyard but which was actually a kind of halfway house. Everyone drifting, moving out of your reach, like you’re a cat trying to catch a light-spot on a wall that shifts each time you pounce. People like Tom, who we tried to help, but only ever in small scale ways that involved taking him for a drink, hoping he’d see in that gesture some kind of empathy, or assurance, because we were more afraid of facing his problems than he was. And then one day he was gone. He was no longer losing, he’d lost.

We still had J, and he was an alcoholic, although no one ever acknowledged that. Alcoholics are a riot, much more fun that drug addicts. J had plenty of cash, and was always treating us at the best bars, buying cigars and brandy. I remember him once coming up to me at the end of the night and hugging me aggressively and saying take me home and fuck me! No one has ever seen a man run so fast; I could have broken records. Not in this lifetime, J. And then there was the time he fell asleep in the backseat of a car and the driver didn’t realise he was there and took him halfway to Milton Keynes. We didn’t know the guy; the driver, I mean. J had broken into the car, somehow, in search of a bed. That was brilliant. Or so we thought. Or didn’t think. Just enjoyed it. It’s easy to reminisce about those times, because the pleasant or funny incidents push back the horrible stuff lurking at the periphery of each memory.

“Sometimes what I wouldn’t give to have us sitting in a bar again at 9:00 a.m. telling lies to one another, far from God.”

Jesus’ Son is referred to as a short story collection, but is more a series of connected episodes featuring a lot of the same people and places. The narrator, nicknamed Fuckhead [I hate that, by the way], is the one constant, and each episode is like a little adventure, something [something usually unpleasant] that he had been involved in or witnessed. The first story, which involves a guy catching a ride with a family, was one of my favourites. The car crashes and Fuckhead [I still can’t write that name out without cringing] ends up walking the road with a baby in his arms. There was something weirdly beautiful about it, something like what Ballard nailed in the best parts of Crash, which is to say those parts that don’t involve mucus. The structure is idiosyncratic – the timeline confused, the narration jumpy – so that one isn’t sure how much of what is being relayed to you is real. A kind of gritty surrealism. I thought that worked amazingly well; and Johnson’s writing is just great, full of heart and eye-catching imagery. I was pretty much convinced that I’d unearthed a masterpiece at this stage.

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But then I ran head-first into the second story, Two Men, and that is, to be frank, a fucking mess. In it a guy [we assume Fuckhead again] is at a party or gig or something and he has a gun, and he kisses and touches up this girl who has a boyfriend. Then he leaves and gets into his car with a couple of friends, and there’s this other guy in the backseat who he doesn’t know. This guy is a mute or pretending to be one; they drive him around a bit, to different houses, and the narrator sounds off about the boyfriend of the girl he was kissing and how he’s expecting some retribution. They somehow manage to lose the mute guy; but they spot this dealer who the narrator says sold him some dud stuff, so he waves the gun at him.

He drives off and they follow him in their car to his house. They push their way into the house and the narrator threatens the wife with the gun, insisting she give up her husband. But he has jumped out of the window and the climax of the story is a suggestion that they might, well, rape the wife. There’s so much wrong with all this that it’s hard to know where to start with critiquing it, but I was most irritated by the fact that Johnson didn’t seem to have any idea where he wanted the story to go. It’s simply an aimless night-crawl, a bunch of naff and random incidents. Even Tarantino would have turned up his nose. And, yeah, I know what the defence will be, that you can’t trust the narrator, that he might be lying or exaggerating or just too high to determine what is real and what is not. But I don’t care. Unreliable narrator or not, a story is still meant to be entertaining, and this one isn’t.

“And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.”

After the second story I was going to ditch the book, it irritated me that much. I didn’t though, obviously, mostly due to the good will engendered by the one preceding it. The rest of Jesus’ Son thankfully does not plumb the depths of Two Men, nor, for the most part, reach the heights of the first episode; no, it settles down to a consistent good or very good. However, there is one real stand-out, the best of the bunch, which is called Emergency. In terms of plot, Fuckhead and Georgie work at the hospital, and a guy comes in with a knife through his eye. I won’t say any more than that as I don’t want to spoil it for first time readers, but for those who have read it: baby rabbits. Oh, and the graveyard. Johnson’s writing is wonderful in this one, full of humour and pathos; and the structure of the thing, with the pay-off of that last line, is perfect.

I’ve mentioned Johnson’s writing style more than once now, but it probably deserves even further discussion. I really liked it, in the main. It’s tough, but sentimental and sometimes beautiful, which, if you think about it, is kind of what it’s like to be out of your head on certain substances. However, I do think his writing is also occasionally too obvious or predictable. What I mean by that is that it often gives you exactly what you think you’re going to get from this sort of thing, which is to say a ‘classic’ American novel about lowlifes. It’s also sloppy in places, especially in terms of the imagery which sometimes doesn’t work; and the whole thing creaks a bit, like you can’t always lose yourself in it. At times, I was too aware that I was reading a book, that someone sat down and wrote this out on a typewriter or on paper, that it came from someone’s brain; for example, the end of Two Men, which is deliberately provocative, and the main character’s name [it just doesn’t feel authentic].

BLACK HOLE BY CHARLES BURNS

What do I remember about that period of my life? It was intense, you know. I was intense. Thing is, I was never a little boy; I skipped childhood and went straight to the awkward, brooding teenage years. I was a teenager at six or seven, if you know what I mean. So those feelings weren’t new to me; but yeah I guess they were kind of heightened around that time, at like seventeen or something; all the negativity about myself and the world. The drugs didn’t help, and the girls made it even worse. I discovered girls late, I guess. Like I really had to discover them; they weren’t always there, you know. I didn’t take drugs to feel good or have a nice time. I took them because…shit, who knows. Because I didn’t understand myself, I guess, and so couldn’t accept myself. But I don’t really want to talk about any of that; about me, I mean; this isn’t about me, for once.

So who then? Not Tom. I can hardly even picture him now, which is probably something he’d approve of. He’s lost to my memory like he was lost to the world. But the others are there, crowding my brain like a prison. I’d go to the same club every week and every week I’d make new friends. Friends that weren’t really friends, you know. Or maybe were more my friends than anyone else I’ve ever known. People you fucked in the toilets; people you bought drugs from; people you gave drugs to; people you fought with, like physically, but still said hi to later that night; people who stumbled into your life, often for mere moments, but who somehow left an impression on you greater than those you now see every day. Gareth, for example, who was gay as fuck but couldn’t admit it to himself; and so he drank all the time. And Sherry, who I gave a Love is All badge to and then never saw again. Beautiful Sherry who thought she was just a ‘typical ugly Asian girl in England.’ And Rick, and Mark, and Ally and Jemma; and so many more. Every one of them struggling with something, some terrible thing inside that beat so hard against the surface of their skins that it contorted their faces and their bodies. I’d have given them all a badge if I could.

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I guess I’m trying to say something about Black Hole; about how this comic book moved me; about the associations, you know. But it didn’t start off that way; moving me, I mean. At first I was kind of irritated by it. The way the characters speak to each other, for example. It reads like the dialogue from a crappy teen tv drama, like Dawson’s Creek or something. Like one guy says I love you and the girl says ‘don’t say that unless you mean it.’ Shit like that. Then there are the vaginas. Not real vaginas, but the suggestion of vaginas. It’s not at all subtle. The title, don’t forget. And also the open belly of the frog, and the wound on the girl’s foot and on her back, and so on. Like, I get it; I immediately got it. Horny teenagers; hormones; that feeling of sex being everywhere, all around you. Vaginas, dude. I should probably mention the bug too; the disease that the characters pass to each other and that causes the mutations; well, that’s an STI. So, anyway, initially I was a bit pissed about all that stuff; it struck me as unsophisticated, if you know what I mean.

But soon enough the whole vagina thing sort of faded into the background. And, yeah, the dialogue was still corny in places but I started thinking that maybe it’s intentional, you know; like maybe Burns was going for that. I’ve seen it written that he was aiming for a B-movie type feel or something; and the artwork backs that up, with it being black and white and blocky, and so on. I mean, as an allegory I still think the book kind of sucks, B-movie or not. I don’t like allegories much. Animal Farm and all that. Like how the mutants are the unpopular, ostracised kids, you know. Kids who wear the wrong clothes and laugh too loud at the wrong things, or something like that. Or maybe you could say the mutants are like society’s cast offs; the drug addicts, the homeless, the alcoholics; the ones who really fell off; the ones who really got lost. I don’t know, I guess that pretence stuff just makes me cringe too. Like it wants to dupe you – the reader – into thinking you’re smart because you figured all this out, when actually it’s so obvious and in-your-face that a boneheaded child couldn’t miss it.        burns_c_blackhole4.jpgI’m sure it seems like I’m being super hard on the book. Like I’m not finding much to say that’s positive. But I am coming to that. I just don’t know how to structure something like this; a review, I mean. I want to say only nice things, but I keep getting sidetracked. Of all the allegorical stuff I guess I most appreciated how Burns worked in the body horror theme. Like obviously a lot of adolescents feel that way; like they hate their bodies, are disgusted or embarrassed by their bodies. So, for example, Chris, who’s a girl, goes swimming; and she’s got the bug and she doesn’t know it yet, or doesn’t know that it’s showing; and all her friends or whatever see the open wound on her back and snigger and gossip about it. Or that other girl, who has webbed hands and wears gloves; that girl worries that her boyfriend is disgusted and embarrassed by her hands. And because of all that, I couldn’t help thinking of the girls I’ve known who wouldn’t let me see them naked; all those girls who thought their sex was gross, you know. Vaginas again, dude. Associations.

Yet, ultimately, what really got to me was something else. I felt like after a while Burns got as sick of the allegory as I did. At some point I realised that he had just kind of let it go; like he stopped trying to find clever ways to say stuff and decided to just say it; like he stopped trying to hit you over the head with the Gen X thing; and Black Hole then became emotional, warm, sympathetic and all that. It became sincere, I guess is what I’m trying to say; and that really woke up Sherry and Mark and Rick, and the rest. Like how Chris loses her way when she loses her guy. Just that; that one moment, that one incident, and she goes down and finds it tough to get back up. I’ve seen it happen, you know. People who can’t cope with the rough and tumble of life; maybe forever, maybe for only a period of time. Chris drops out and becomes pathetic. I’ve seen it happen. That she has the bug or is a mutant or whatever doesn’t matter. Or Eliza. I don’t know, I think Eliza got to me the most. Drugged up and zoned out and all. When she fucks that kid with the sideburns she says something about how nice it is to fuck someone you like for a change. And my heart nearly broke. Her tail is neither here nor there. I’d have given her a badge if I could.

THE LONELY DOLL BY DARE WRIGHT

I did not read children’s books as a child and do not remember ever having them read to me. We did not, in fact, have any in the house, and I knew instinctively that, being poor, I should never ask for anything. The only books we owned were a large leather bound collection my dad had bought when he and my mother married. These included poetry anthologies, the complete Shakespeare, and so on. Occasionally, I opened them. They smelled of damp and appeared to be written in a foreign language. At the age of around six or seven I did attempt to steal an adventure book from my primary school teacher, but I was caught and ordered to give it back. I was told that if I wanted to borrow something I should say so. I stared into his beard and remained silent. It was impossible; he didn’t understand.

I have never wanted to recapture my childhood and do not consider myself to have an inner child. Whatever is inside me is not playful and innocent and I don’t feel as though it ever was. In this way, perhaps The Lonely Doll would have been then, and is now, the perfect children’s book for me, the perfect evocation of what childhood meant, and means, to me. It is the story of a lonely doll, of course, who ‘had everything she needed except somebody to play with.’ The girl, who is called Edith, prays every day for some friends and eventually gets her wish when two bears appear at her door and move in with her. However, if that sounds cute or magical, the reality, the presentation, of the story is anything but. It is, in fact, deeply odd and at times genuinely unnerving.

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The first thing you notice is the photographs. There is some narration, but most of The Lonely Doll is made up of large black and white photographs staged and taken by the author using an actual doll and teddy bears. There are people who are frightened of dolls, and although I am not one of them, I imagine that the reason is that they strongly resemble the human, but are not human; which is to say that they look real, and alive, whilst being of course not real and not alive. They cannot move spontaneously and they have a fixed facial expression; and yet, at the same time, they can be manipulated and made to be anything you want them to be. In Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties the old men wanted to be with the sleeping women precisely because they had these doll-like qualities.

In this way, presuming that Dare Wright did want to create something touching and magical, the doll was a strange choice. Firstly, one is always aware that the author, the photographer, had to put Edith in those positions; one cannot look at the pictures without imagining an adult playing with a doll; or even, if you are able to believe in Edith, without seeing her as being somewhat in bondage to Wright. Secondly, because of her fixed expression, Edith cannot convey a range of emotions; and the expression that she does have is, with her sideways glance, one of unease. This works in the early stages, when she is alone, but becomes disquieting when Wright puts her in situations where she is meant to be mischievous or having fun, such as when she is at the beach or trying on adult clothes and make up. The same problem applies to the bears. The bigger bear, Mr. Bear, always looks angry, and the smaller one, Little Bear, looks positively despairing.

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There is one, almost now infamous, photograph in The Lonely Doll, which shows Edith being spanked by Mr. Bear for being naughty. It is this photograph that readers tend to [or claim to] find the most disturbing; and to some extent I can understand that, although I feel as though it has more to do with a kind of prurience than anything else. Certainly, for me there are other images that are much more problematic. For example, on one page, when the bears first arrive, Little Bear whispers to the doll that she should see what kind of fun they are going to have. This alone is a little menacing, but the accompanying image – which can be found further up this page – shows her with her arms outspread and the two bears – one on each arm – giving the impression of holding her down. When the idea of having fun is later referenced again the photograph shows the doll running away from the bears. It does not, on any level, look like fun. Indeed, in this context her unease seems more like outright fear.

I would guess that the photographs are black and white because it was cheaper to reproduce them, but this too lends a kind of gloomy air to every image. However, not all of the weirdness is confined to the images and the author’s choice of toys. For example, when the bears arrive Mr. Bear calls Edith by her name, and nothing is ever said about how he knew it. After the introductions, they then simply move in. Where did they come from? Why is Mr. Bear, who one can only assume is an adult, moving in with a child? Why, for that matter, is the child living alone in the first place? What, finally, is the relationship between the two bears? Little Bear [is he a child? or just a small bear?] calls the larger bear Mr. Bear, not dad or father, or uncle or anything of that sort, which suggests that they are not related. In short, on every level, on every page, visually and within the story itself, The Lonely Doll is baffling, peculiar, and disconcerting.

THE FRANK BOOK BY JIM WOODRING

For years I have been searching. Yet it is only recently that my plan, my mission, has crystallised; only recently that my goal has become clearer to me. I have long sought an escape, a way of avoiding the world, a world that seems, not incomprehensible, but vulgar and tedious and grotesque. I want to avoid you, and myself too; myself most of all. This is why I read books, why I have always read books. To be apart from, to find some refuge from, you and from me. So, for years I have read, and for a while I was happy in that space that wasn’t quite ours. But I’ve found that ultimately it isn’t enough. I can still see you, lurking in the corners. The closer I look, the more distinct your figure becomes. I am there too, of course. The drone of my voice; my filter, my thoughts. Recently, my nausea has been reaching intolerable levels. A life spent hiding in books, but I haven’t escaped. I have climbed the fence and found that my trouserleg is caught on barbed wire.

To my surprise, The Frank Book feels like an important step towards my end point, my goal, the thing I have been searching for all along. Certainly it is the closest I have come to comfort and excitement in my reading for a while. Jim Woodring’s work is almost completely wordless, and that was initially the biggest draw. I could ‘read’ it, I thought, without my narrating voice, without having to listen to, and engage with, myself. This turned out to be not strictly the case. I was there, for I am unfortunately that through which all information, all words and images pass, but I felt somewhat muffled, at least. Moreover, the geography of The Frank Book is unlike ours. There are trees and so on, so it isn’t completely alien, but it doesn’t look much like earth [the place is, in fact, called Unifactor]. The characters too – including Frank and his sidekicks, friends and enemies – hint at the familiar, but are not human nor really the animals, creatures or objects that they resemble.

Real shapes and real patterns are things you would observe in nature, like the marks on the back of a cobra’s hood or the markings on a fish or a lizard. Imaginary shapes are just that, symbols that come to a person in dreams or reveries and are charged with meaning. – Jim Woodring.

Frank is a cat-like creature, who walks on two legs. He is drawn in an uncomplicated, almost crude, fashion, and looks much like Felix the cat or something from one of the earliest Disney cartoons. The simplicity of his form is mirrored in his personality also. He has a limited number of expressions and therefore emotions; or visible emotions, anyway. During his adventures he appears to be a happy-go-lucky sort. When he is invited to a party of the dead, he goes; when, in another story, he sees something that looks like a kind of toffee apple, he takes it. At various points he comes across holes and he invariably sticks his head in them. There is something child-like about Frank, whilst being obviously not at all like a child. He isn’t, all told, particularly likeable or charming or interesting, which is a pattern I have noticed with many prominent cartoon characters; that it is, in fact, their enemies who are more sympathetic and developed, such as, for example, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse or Tom and Jerry.

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Frank’s nemesis is Manhog, and he is drawn with much greater precision [as is the devil-like Whim], to the extent that he and Frank do not look as though they exist within the same world. Manhog is avaricious, mean, self-serving; and, unlike Frank, he mostly crawls along on four legs, intimating his lowly position. And yet he is, in fact, the only character whose motivations make sense to the reader, or to me, in any case. In my favourite, and the most shocking, episode he steals a dead tadpole [i.e. child] from its parents, eats it, and then writes a ransom note. Manhog is bad, yes, but he has a notable personality and is, more importantly, flawed and judged, and that is something relatable. Indeed, throughout Woodring’s tales he is beaten, made fun of, and generally persecuted [deservedly so, you might say]. His principle facial expression is a grimace of despair. Due to this he is the emotional heart of the book and, for me, the one inhabitant of Unifactor to whom I could warm, against my better judgement. I wanted to escape you and I completely, and yet I found us regardless, in this horrible pig.

Recently, I read Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clewes. It is often described as nightmarish or surreal, but its weirdnesses are but small breaches in the fabric of normality, of the recognisable and familiar. Clewes’ world is a world that, for want of a better phrase, largely makes sense. It is still our world. It is populated mostly by human beings, who do human stuff, who communicate with each other, and as such with the reader, in a human fashion. In The Frank Book, however, it isn’t always clear what the characters are doing, never mind why. Even something like time, which so dominates our existence, does not appear to exist in Unifactor. The reader can, and should, make of Woodring’s drawings and stories what he wants; he can, for the most part, create his own meaning or – more attractively – not look for meaning at all. It is clear when reading the book that you are somewhere else, where our laws, our ideas, ourselves are largely irrelevant.

LIKE A VELVET GLOVE CAST IN IRON BY DANIEL CLOWES

I started to draw my response to this. I completed only four panels. A man walks up to me. I’m sitting reading. He asks me what I’m reading. I tell him: it’s Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron by Daniel Clowes. He then asks me what it’s about. The fourth and final panel shows my sad, frustrated face. I dream in words, rather than images. It has only recently occurred to me that this is strange. Clay Loudermilk enters what appears to be a pornographic cinema. He watches a film called Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. I see nothing, darkness, blackness, void, but I hear words. Or I sense them. The content of the film is a kind of fetishised violence. In the fifth panel, the man waits, a look of concern or perhaps impatience on his face. I am not adept at drawing facial expressions. Clay Loudermilk becomes intent on finding out more about the film. He borrows a car, sets off on a road trip. My waking life is more like a dream than anything I experience while asleep. I try to explain to the man that Clay Loudermilk goes off in search of information about the film. Like a Velvet Glove, I tell him, gives the impression of being a kind of quest. I speak to myself more often than I speak to other people. The man wants to know what I mean by ‘gives the impression.’ I tell him: the film really isn’t that important.

[a quote from the text]

The man, I have forgotten to mention, has an overly large head. It is as though his head isn’t really his head, but a false head, a joke head that he has placed over his own, ordinary-sized, head. This is most likely due to my artistic limitations. There are hints at a wider, overriding significance to the individual events. The tease of being able to pull it all together and arrive at an explanation, a satisfactory resolution. Mr. Jones, for example. As the story progresses there is the sense that you are getting closer to the truth. Mr. Jones is, I should explain, the face that is carved on Clay’s foot by the policeman. The image, henceforth, crops up multiple times. Like a Velvet Glove gives the impression of being something like a detective novel. There are clues, which may not be clues, if you understand what I mean by that. In panel number twelve the man is crying. I do not know what I have done to upset him. Perhaps it wasn’t me, however; perhaps the man is having some trouble at home; perhaps this is why he, without any encouragement, has approached a stranger and engaged him in conversation. The man is angry because he feels as though I am making fun of him with my explanation.

[an image which gives some indication as to the content and tone of the book]

It is with earnestness that I describe the plot of Like a Velvet Glove. I slowly count and recount the panels. The plot isn’t really a plot, although it gives the impression of being one. If I cared less I would say that Like a Velvet Glove is weird or surreal or something of that sort. My dreams are not my waking life. My waking life is a nightmare. He cries, terribly; his face is contorted. It is with great conviction that I state that I am not sure at all about what I am saying. I draw in the tears, which, as I am using a black biro pen, look like large ants, or bullets. There are so many striking images, I tell him. Paul, Clay’s friend, with crustaceans in his eyes, for example. These things are accepted in Clowes’ world without so much as a raised eyebrow. They are part of the ordinary fabric of this world, I tell him. The dog with no orifices. These things are, I tell him, strange only to the likes of you – I cough – and me. Even Tina, the odd fish-like young woman who lays eggs when sexually aroused, is accepted. It is possible that I am mistaken and the man is neither crying nor angry, but is, in fact, laughing. My eyesight, I have until now forgotten to disclose, is very poor.

[sometimes there is a second image here]

It may be, in fact, a woman whom Clay is seeking, an actress. Daniel Clowes did once state that Like a Velvet Glove was inspired by his dreams. Yet, while there are peculiar, and unsettling, and unexpected events, the action does move forward in a linear fashion. Accusations of meaninglessness are, I tell the man, wide of the mark. Clay has a purpose. Billings has one too. What is absent is a relatable cause. In panel thirteen or fourteen I assure the man that our lives are random and unpredictable, in both large and small scale ways. One might argue that Clay’s quest is itself a search for meaning. In one of the panels, perhaps the last panel, the truly last, I am glumly smoking a cigarette. I hold up one finger, the first finger on my left hand, and then plunge it into the hole made by my right hand. The actress may be Clay’s mother or his wife. The man laughs, or cries, or whatever. His big head shakes like a dandelion in the wind.

Clowes’ art, I say to myself, is noirish. B-movie noir. I’m embarrassed by my inability to capture, on paper, a true likeness of a dick and a vagina. My head pounds. The vagina, I must admit, is causing me greater problems than the dick. Tropical slush. Shush. The man wakes. It is possible that I nudged him. Hey, I might have said, don’t sleep. This is panel something or other. A black bordered panel; a black square with nothing inside. The people in Clowes’ world are grotesque-looking. Not only Tina the fish. Everyone, really, except Clay. Hey, I say. Something something America. Cults and conspiracy theories. Charles Manson and murder. Something something America. I don’t know. I have never been. I don’t own a TV either. Hey, mister, have you ever been to America? The man solemnly walks away. I sketch his receding figure. Hey, mister! His big head trembles, like a golfball rattling the rim of the hole.

A SCANNER DARKLY BY PHILIP K. DICK

Mors ontologica. The death of being. Although, strictly speaking, there is no being. No substance to it. You are nothing but a cloud of blue smoke on a windy day. Less than smoke, in fact; less than wind. At the age of twenty two I quit my job, a good job, a promising career, and moved, with nothing, to London. I took a new name and lived a new life for twelve months. There are people still now who know me as that person. In their memories, I mean. That man continues to live, to be, in their memories. Two people. He and I; and I suspect he is having the better of it. Younger than I, fitter, more handsome. I look at myself and I don’t recognise what I see. I never have. In the mirror, for example, I am short. The mirror, you’d think, cannot lie. Your reflection is real, if anything is. Yet when I stand next to the woman with the long legs, the woman who is, we all agree, very tall, I find that I am taller still than she is. Perhaps it is my bad posture that tricks the eye.

Many years ago, or so it feels to me, a different woman sat down next to me in a bar. She was unknown to me, but spoke as though we were friends, or had at least had prior conversations. She asked me about my music. She had seen me, she said, performing only ‘the other day.’ I allowed her to continue in this fashion, not out of politeness, but because I couldn’t be sure that she was mistaken. Where was I ‘the other day’? I could not account for my whereabouts, or not with any certainty. She called me Joshua. How tall is Joshua, I wondered. I wonder still now. Who is he? Who am I? Less than smoke; less than wind. Recently, I was asked if I would consider doing some modelling. I laughed when I read the message. Imagine. Me turning up at the studio or house or wherever looking like this. Their interest had been aroused by my Instagram pictures, they said. They wanted someone who looked just like me, they said. Whoever is in those photos does not exist, I replied. Imagine. They had no idea who they were talking to. The tall or the short guy? The guy who lives in London or the one who is writing this? The musician or the model? The truth is, I feel no meaningful connection to any of these people.

“What does a scanner see? he asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me – into us – clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

I have toyed with reading Philip K. Dick for as long as I can remember. I have picked up several of his books, read a page or so, and then abandoned them. I have picked up and abandoned A Scanner Darkly more times than any of the others. Even though I was enjoying it. It was, I think, the threat of his work being badly written. It’s the one thing I see repeatedly stated in relation to Dick’s novels. The ideas are great but the writing is poor. It made me nervous. So I wanted to deal with that accusation straightaway. I consider myself to be highly critical of, and sensitive to, bad prose style; and I did not find it here. Dick isn’t Nabokov, certainly, but then Nabokov is, as a stylist, overrated anyway. Often turgid and smug. Although that’s beside the point, of course. I’m losing focus. Dick’s style isn’t meticulous, or does not give that impression. Not here. And this is, I’m told, one of the more mature efforts. The language is jivey, the sentences – the word order, the grammar – idiosyncratic. I was strongly reminded, to the point of crying theft, of David Foster Wallace. For what it’s worth.

A Scanner Darkly begins with a man’s struggle against the aphids he thinks have taken over his house, his dog and his own person. An infestation. Only the bugs aren’t real. Jerry has lost his mind. Jerry was a drug addict. He took a whole lot of drugs and lost his mind and started seeing bugs, in the house, on his dog, and his own person. It is one of the funniest, and saddest, openings to any novel I have read. It sets the tone, too, for the rest of the book. Sad and funny. A Scanner Darkly is about drugs and drug addicts, amongst other things. It is about what it is like to be an addict, the awful consequences. The premature ageing, the brain damage, the cravings. That sort of thing. Guys sitting around talking shit for days on end. Wasting their lives, you might say. Oblivious to life, you might say. I don’t know. The addicts live to score. One guy fantasies about ‘a huge window display; bottles of slow death, cans of slow death, jars and bathtubs and vats and bowls of slow death, millions of caps and tabs and hits of slow death, slow death mixed with speed and junk and barbiturates and psychedelics, everything–and a giant sign: YOUR CREDIT IS GOOD HERE. Not to mention: LOW LOW PRICES, LOWEST IN TOWN.’

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In a speech given by Bob Arctor, the main character, we are told that drugs will lead to ‘the desertion of your friends from you, you from them, everyone from everyone,’ but that did not ring true in Dick’s portrayal. There is, amongst his addicts, a sense of camaraderie, of people, in a mostly incompetent fashion, looking out for each other. Dick’s attitude towards these people is sympathetic, sometimes lapsing into romanticism and sentimentality. Like, he cares about them and doesn’t want to show them in an entirely bad light. Charles Freck, for example, wants to lay Donna, but doesn’t like the idea of buying her. Dick’s addicts are charming too. Even Barris, who is something of a cunt. The bad guys in A Scanner Darkly are not the drug takers, even though they break the law to feed their habit, but the dealers. There is much in Dick’s work that is murky, but his ethics aren’t. While Freck doesn’t want to buy Donna, we are told that two dealers shot up their sleeping underage sister, raped her and then pimped her out. In addition to the dealers, the straights, the establishment, get a kicking too. They are bad guys too, in Dick’s world. The cops, the rich, the government.

“Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgment. When a bunch of people begin to do it, it is a social error, a life-style. In this particular lifestyle the motto is “Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying,” but the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory.”

There have, of course, been many novels about addiction and, while I enjoyed Dick’s big-hearted version of all of that, A Scanner Darkly was not, on that basis, particularly fresh or illuminating. For me, the most interesting thing about the drugs aspect of the novel is how Dick uses it to engage with other, trickier, subjects, such as identity and paranoia. On the latter, it is easy to see how being an addict, being strung out, can lead to feeling as though someone or something is out to get you. Yet Dick’s kind of of paranoia is deeper, more intelligent than that. There are times when Barris, for example, seems unreliable, untrustworthy; but, then, of course he is, he’s an addict. Likewise, so is Bob Arctor. Arctor cannot trust Barris, but he cannot trust himself either. It is not a question of whether the threat of Barris is real or imagined, but the fact that it is probably both.

Moreover, Bob Arctor is not only an addict but also a undercover narcotics agent. At one point in the book he is given the job of surveilling himself. Which is funny, of course, but consider what this means. Most people who are being watched do not know that they are, or only suspect it. Arctor knows. Therefore, every moment he must wonder how his actions and words are to be perceived, he is ultra aware of what impression he is giving of himself, of the precarious position he is in. As a undercover agent and an addict Arctor has two distinct identities. Bob and Fred. As the storyline progresses, A Scanner Darkly asks you to consider the question: which of these two personalities is real or legitimate? Or is it neither? Or both? As previously noted, one of the consequences of drug using is brain damage. See: Jerry and his bugs. Ultimately, Arctor develops a kind of split personality. As Fred he begins to talk about Bob in the third person, as a separate being. Bob and Fred. He is both the establishment and the lowlife. He is the paranoid freak and the ‘they’ who is out to get him.

SABRINA BY NICK DRNASO

There’s an app which, when you input some personal information into it, will send you a message from a dead loved one. No one I spoke to about it could understand why such a thing would bother me. The resulting text can be posted on Facebook. Richard, you know I love you and that I’m always watching over you from up here. The poster’s friends can comment sympathetically and like the post. No one understood. They thought I was upset for no reason. Chill out, they said. If it makes people happy, they said. They couldn’t understand how for me it was a symbol of everything that I despise about how we live our lives now, of how we interact with each other and the world; a grim symbol of what we are and where we are going. It could have been any number of other things, other examples. It could have been any one of a million tweets on twitter; the heartless, the idiotic, the hysterical, on all sides of the political and ethical debates. It could have been a video, shared indignantly around the world, of a dog being thrown down the stairs by its owner. It could have been the comments attached to a youtube 9/11 documentary. It could have been almost anything, but it was that, that shitty, insignificant app. I felt like I gave up that day. Not immediately, but over the course of a few hours. By evening, I felt as though some part of me had been hollowed out.

“How many hours of sleep did you get last night? Rate your overall mood from 1 to 5, 1 being poor. Rate your stress level from 1 to 5, 5 being severe. Are you experiencing depression or thoughts of suicide? Is there anything in your personal life that is affecting your duty?”

Sabrina is the first book published in 2018 that I have read this year. The first new work of fiction I have read by anyone for years. I was meant to be at work. I left early in the morning due to a pain in my shoulder that has been troubling me for three weeks. Before going home I dropped into a local book shop. The first book shop I have entered for years. Rarely do they stock the kind of literature that interests me. However, I had a gift card to use. It had been awarded to me, ironically, by my employer for outstanding work. I’d had the card for over twelve months. I immediately headed for the graphic novels and manga section. It was there that Sabrina caught my attention. I knew nothing about it. I had seen no prior reviews nor praise for it. I think it may have been the red, pink and black cover colour scheme that drew me in. There is no synopsis, either on the back of the book or inside the cover. Someone called Tony Tulathimutte is quoted. Sabrina is full of ominous, dead-quiet catastrophe. I had to buy something; the card was due to expire.

The book begins with the woman of the title cat-sitting at her parents’ apartment. Her sister comes over and they chat for a while. It’s the last we see of Sabrina. She disappears, later confirmed murdered. This sounds like the premise of a thriller, but Sabrina certainly isn’t that. There is almost no dramatic action or tension in it. There isn’t a noteworthy police investigation; there are no suspects, no mysteries to solve, and no grisly details, or images, relating to the crime. For the most part, the book maintains the sedate pace of its opening scene. Indeed, there are images and sequences that I never would have expected to encounter in a graphic novel, such as a character putting in his contact lenses or being given directions to a bathroom. There are also numerous conversations about nothing at all, or nothing important; chit-chat, small talk. Yet there is something moving about these banal episodes, as though you are being given access to intimate moments of the characters’ lives that you ought not to see. I think that most artists would have considered these details unnecessary, or likely to bore, and so it is to Drnaso’s credit that he recognised that these moments are, in fact, the most profound. They are when we are truly ourselves. It’s how we spend most of our time.

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Often with graphic novels it is difficult to care about, and certainly difficult to write anything meaningful about, the characters. One’s understanding of their motivations, their psychology, their emotions, their lives is superficial. And yet that is not the case here. Which is to say that, in subtle ways, Drnaso made me care, at least. We get to know very little about Sabrina’s sister, for example, except when she casually mentions that she was once ‘in the hospital.’ It isn’t explained why she was there, but one assumes a issue with her mental health. A couple of pages later she tells an anecdote about riding a bus to panama city beach on her own when she was nineteen and being harassed by three guys who want her to go to their room. Not much is made of it, but I suddenly felt something for this woman, I felt like I knew something about her and her dreams and her nightmares. There is, in fact, a deep core of sadness to Sabrina, one that goes beyond the central crime. Drnaso’s characters, like many of my friends, like me, are drifting aimlessly, lost, confused, making the best of things.

Of course, not everything in the book is mundane, even though at points it is possible to forget that a girl has been murdered in apparently gruesome circumstances. Part of Sabrina‘s focus is on the nature of grief, how it affects us, how we cope [or don’t] when something awful happens. This is mostly explored through Terry, Sabrina’s boyfriend. I’m not sure how much dialogue is attributed to him, but it cannot be a lot. He barely speaks throughout. Indeed, his introduction is as a man sitting silently in a bus station. Terry doesn’t eat either. He is even force-fed at one point. He sleepwalks through the book, as though he has all but shut down, as though he is a robot running low on juice. Yet none of this is surprising, to me at least, nor really all that engaging. The most striking moment is when he has a telephone conversation with Sabrina’s sister. She shouts and swears at him, she denounces him; and one understands that it is because he doesn’t grieve, he doesn’t react to tragedy, in the way that she expects, in the way that the public would expect. One is not allowed to grieve one’s own way, these days, one must not do it quietly and privately. It should be done in the open, at a funeral, and on social media. One must rally round, one must support those also affected, one must share.  Terry does not, and so he is seen as something like a fraud, as someone who doesn’t care.

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Sabrina also has a lot to say about how the public and the media deal with tragedies; and it is in this way that this book most captured my attention. In my experience, whenever something awful happens – 9/11, the Paris shootings, etc – the public make it all about them, about their entertainment, their grief, about their desire for ‘truth’ or ‘justice’ or whatever. They use these tragedies to gloat, to get attention, to gain or wield power, to make jokes even. The media, on the other hand, feed them, whip them up, in order to make money, to get clicks, to sell their shit. Take the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, for example. None of us know what happened to that little girl, and yet that has not stopped us rushing to judgement, analysing, creating conspiracy theories, harassing and reviling the parents. It vividly struck me back in 2007 that the public at large did not care about the crime, nor the girl, nor the suffering of her family, what they cared about was their own agenda. We see this also in Sabrina, where those closest to the situation are accused of being actors and the video of the woman’s murder is called a fake. That video has, by the way, been leaked to the internet, for people to watch. We feel as though we have a right to these things, once they become public knowledge. Even Calvin – the closest we get to a hero – downloads it.

There is much more that I could write about all this but I am concerned that this review is overlong already. Before I finish, I want to praise Nick Drnaso’s subtlety and sense of control once again. The way, for example, that we chart Calvin’s mood through the health questionnaire he completes at work. The way that the artist/author drops motifs, clues and symbols into the text, such as the two times that characters are scared by someone approaching them on the blind side, or the ‘fake’ apples in Sabrina’s parents’ house, or the mysterious disappearance of Calvin’s cat. The way, finally, that the murder is kept from us, the way it is left to our imagination. The trust, to put it in other words, that is placed in us as readers is extremely satisfying. I could say, in conclusion, that Sabrina is the best book published in 2018, or that it will not be bettered, but that would be meaningless coming from me. I probably won’t read another one. So I will simply say that it is something approaching a masterpiece.