Favourites

WATCHMEN BY ALAN MOORE

My father is worried about Devil-dog. He has been out of intensive care, and a coma, for two days. Devil-dog! he shouts and points from the chair by his hospital bed. I’m not sure if he is pointing at me, but it appears so. Before his illness, I barely knew him; I hardly ever thought about him. It is only in this vulnerable state that his existence has become a thing, a fact, for me. Devil-dog, he shouts, and I think that he may be pointing at one of the tattoos on my arm. Or at least I hope so. Before his illness, my father was almost invisible to me; but now that he is on my mind, now that I see him at last, I realise how difficult his life has likely been. A man so meek and undemanding, so out of place and out of time, that the world – our world – must have been bewildering to him. Not once have I seen him do anything wrong; but then I never saw him do anything at all until now. It seems as though he had to lose his mind in order to impose himself, to speak up. Devil-dog! he shouts again, his frail arm extended and scanning the room; and suddenly I’m convinced that he’s passing judgement; on me, on all of us.

“Looked at sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there. The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else.”

When I began to take a serious interest in graphic novels I knew that one day I would have to read Watchmen. Although I was not, to be honest, excited about the prospect. Despite its lofty reputation – a reputation that makes the book difficult to ignore or bypass – the little I knew about it didn’t appeal to me. I picked it up, therefore, with a feeling of, not dread, but mild irritation, as though I was performing a duty. Yet it took no more than the first frame to dispel my misgivings. Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach, begins Rorschach’s diary; and I knew immediately that the writing – the narration, in this case – was superior to any I had come across previously within this genre; it is superior, in fact, to most conventional novels, and frequently verges on the poetic. Often when reading something of this sort there is a begrudging acceptance that the prose parts will be average, at best; and that this is a necessary trade-off for the interesting visuals. That a book could be as impressive in both areas was incredibly exciting. Indeed, it made graphic novels look like the future of literature, rather than a fun diversion.

Everything that I thought a novel of this sort could achieve Watchmen does it; it does more, in fact. Throughout, there are extracts from a character’s autobiography, newspaper articles, letters, an academic journal; there are quotes from Nietzsche and the Bible; and so on. These are not new tricks, of course; one will find similar in Berlin Alexanderplatz, and such like, but certainly I wasn’t expecting to come away from Watchmen referencing the touchstones of Modernism. Moreover, the prose pieces, or essays, are of the highest calibre. The story of Joe Mermon, for example, really touched me. He was, we’re told, a collector of erotic novelties, who one day put on a pair of false plastic tits to get a cheap laugh. However, he finds out that his wife has been cheating on him; and when he tells his colleagues they go into hysterics because he had forgotten to remove the breasts. The writer, and former masked avenger, Hollis Mason, concludes: ‘and although I have never worn a set of false bosoms in my life, I’ve stood there dressed in something just as strange, with tears in my eyes while people died laughing.’

Watchmen-Malcom-Despairs.jpg

Usually, I will complete a graphic novel in a day, no matter how many pages it contains, but Watchmen took me over a week to read. This is because it is so dense, so sophisticated and detailed. One gets the impression that Moore [and Gibbons, the illustrator] threw everything at it, gave it everything, and remarkably almost* all of it works. One of my favourite aspects of the book is how multiple stories are told simultaneously, in a cinematic fashion. In Black Hole by Charles Burns, if someone is having a flashback the frame is wavy, which is a simple, almost childlike, technique. Here, however, you are made to work; it is only by following the story, being fully engaged in the story, that one is able to distinguish present day from memory. Moreover, and most impressively of all, there are times when two stories are told within the same frame[s]. For example, there is a scene in which a couple are having sex, which is a significant plot development, while on the TV there is a news broadcast, followed by an acrobatic performance, both of which provide information about other plot points. Not only that, but the TV could be said to commentate ironically upon the sex: ‘one smooth, seamless flow of motion’ is how the acrobatic performance is described, while the couple’s endeavours are fumbling, awkward.

Moore also clearly put a lot of work into developing his characters. We learn their back stories, their fears, their hopes, their motivations, etc; they are, without exception, rounded, believable and, in most cases, relatable. This, one imagines, was intended as a kind of comment upon the genre itself, as a deliberate bucking of a trend. Prior to Watchmen, almost all masked avengers, or superheroes, were flat; necessarily so, you might argue. They were not ordinary people, they were special. One was meant to look up to them as superior beings, both physically and morally. Flawless, they dealt in absolutes: absolute goodness, absolute justice, and so on. They were essentially Gods. Well, Moore’s ‘heroes’ are not at all God-like, except the brilliant Dr. Manhattan. Take Rorschach, who is mentally and emotionally unstable. The Comedian, on the other hand, is not only morally dubious in a Batman-like manner, but, in killing an innocent woman and attempting to rape a colleague, actually behaves in such a way as to make him the book’s biggest villain.

The Comedian is particularly interesting because he is a man of the times or, more accurately, a man who moved with the times, who saw and understood where humanity was heading. One of the book’s major themes is social change, away from old ways of behaving and being towards new, and less innocent, ways. At the beginning of the book all of the avengers, except Rorschach, have retired. It was a forced retirement, but the impression is given that they were no longer needed, that they were, in fact, no longer capable. Crime had changed, the world had changed; and not, one is led to believe, for the better. Indeed, Watchmen, like Bolano’s 2666, is a kind of literary death rattle; it’s humanity’s last rites in book form. In short, we are fucked; and there is little that we can do about it. We are circling the bowl of the toilet. It might take one last flush, but the end, for us, is at hand. Moore sees it, Bolano saw it, and my father sees it too. Devil-dog! he shouts repeatedly from the chair by his hospital bed, his eyes intensely focussed and his frail arm outstretched.

 

*there was a point in the book, about a third of the way into it, when I began to wonder how Moore was going to draw all the strands of his narrative together in a satisfying manner. And the truth is that he doesn’t. In the final stretch, the plot becomes corny and silly.

Advertisements

GARDEN BY YUICHI YOKOYAMA

Unknown. He works at the Post Office. I’m here to pick up a package that could not be delivered to my home. ‘I haven’t seen you for a while,’ he says. I used to order more packages than I do now. ‘I don’t buy as many books these days,’ I say. Not all my packages contain books but it’s easier to allow him to think that they do. He hands me my book-shaped package.

Andreea. We are talking about architecture and geometry. I speak with authority, although I am not especially knowledgeable about such things. It is possible, in fact, that I have directed the conversation towards these subjects purely in order to be able to discuss the book I am reading, which, conveniently, I have in my bag. I take the book from my bag and place it on the table. I open it at random. She peers over the two page spread. I shift my chair closer to hers. She appears to be interested. She points at one of the pages. The characters have caught her eye. At first glance one would say that they are dressed in strange and flamboyant outfits, like professional wrestlers. Upon closer inspection, however, some of the characters, perhaps most of them, do not appear to be human. I put the book away, so as to avoid spilling beer on it.

Ballal. I am outside smoking a cigarette. He is puffing on an e-cigarette. We have been talking about The Lonely Doll for approximately ten minutes. I have shown him a number of the book’s photographs on my phone. He likes me to tell him about the unusual books that I have read, of which The Lonely Doll was the most recent. There is a brief period of silence. I check the time. We must return to work in approximately five minutes. ‘At the moment,’ I say, eventually, ‘I am reading this thing about a bunch of people who break into a garden.’ I immediately regret this statement. We return to work early.

Rebecca. She looks confused. Or bored. I would like to show her the drawings, but I did not bring the book with me. ‘It is not an ordinary garden,’ I say. I am aware that this is not normal or advisable post-intercourse conversation. ‘Almost everything within it is man-made, non-organic; yet many of these structures, objects, and machines resemble the natural world.’ It is likely that I am saying these things in an attempt to avoid any uncomfortable post-sex sharing of feelings or physical closeness. ‘A waterfall of balls, a paper mountain, a river of photographs.’ In short, I do not want to cuddle.

Garden_FullRev_011711-69.jpg

Mother. [on the phone] ‘…There are some natural objects in the garden – such as the boulders – but these have been arranged for a specific effect. Everything within the garden has been arranged for effect. The garden as a whole has been carefully designed, but it is not clear why, for what purpose. In fact, nothing about the garden is explained. Who designed it? Who built it? None of your questions are answered. I’m enjoying it. The book, I mean. It’s like walking around a modern art space, a gallery, a big one; or something like that. Or like an abandoned amusement park. Or, more accurately, an amusement park that gives the appearance of being abandoned. I talk a lot of shit, mum…’

Myself. The behaviour of the characters is mechanical. They move forward as if propelled, rather than of their own free will. Or something. I talk a lot of shit. If they – the characters – see a ladder they climb it; if they encounter a door they go through it. Their behaviour gives the impression of being one part of a larger mechanism; of being, I should say, a small but essential part of the overall design, of the garden itself. I was put in the mind of the Mouse Trap game, in which they  – the characters – would be the ball, of course.

Unknown. They live next door. We are in the elevator. We are heading for the second floor. Therefore, it will be a short journey. Strictly speaking, they do not live ‘next door,’ but on the same floor as me. We are travelling upwards, from the ground floor. ‘It’s funnier than it sounds,’ I find the time to say. ‘The style is clinical, geometric; and that sounds dull, perhaps.’ They smile in unison. I am pretty sure they are stoned. This is the first conversation we have had, even though they moved in approximately six months ago. ‘The funny looking characters,’ I say, ‘and how they appear to multiply as the book progresses.’ The landing smells almost constantly of weed now. ‘The exhibits – if you want to call them that – become more outlandish, bigger and more dramatic, too. I don’t know the technical term for it; I am sure there is a technical term for it…’ They are both still smiling. ‘…how the ‘camera’ pans out, if you know what I mean. In the beginning, the images are close ups, or something; and then, later, there is a, uh, definite panning out, so to speak, to reveal grander exhibits, mountains and such; and the people, they get smaller, further away. Or something.’

You. I now realise that I did not successfully explain to the neighbours how, in what way, the book is funny. What I said to them, I now realise, was not amusing. If I had my time again, or more time, I would say that what seems to be a small group of people request to enter the garden. They are refused and so break in. Then, as the story progresses, you notice that there are actually hundreds, if not thousands, of them running around this huge, absurd, and very dangerous, place. This made me laugh. Especially as they have chosen to be there, to do this; for no rational reason, or no reason at all. Which is to say that, in conclusion, the sheer lunacy of the whole thing strikes you, after a while.

THE LITTLE PRINCE BY ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPERY

I had bought the book at St Pancras station at the end of one our day trips. It was, I guess, a prop, something to fiddle with, to pretend to read; it was, in other words, a way of erecting a barrier between us while on the train home. Not because I didn’t want to speak to her, but because I was ashamed of my behaviour. I had spent the day chiding her. Don’t do this; don’t touch that. How was it possible that the most common sense actions were inaccessible to her? I had first met her in Moscow, a meeting that ended in a car crash. I saw her again in Barcelona, where she was on holiday. She had arrived with no money at all. She had money this time, this third time when I had invited her to England, but she seemed not to value it. She’d smile and laugh, as though the dangers and miseries of the world were not applicable to her. I called her a child. These words came easily to me. But what I didn’t say was how inelegant she made me feel, how dour and unimaginative. She struck me as some kind of dream fairy. I began to wonder if she really existed. Perhaps I died in that car crash and none of this is real, I thought. I awoke every morning amazed to find her next to me. I didn’t tell her any of these things.

With her, the world became clear and intelligible. The flowers, the water, the hills. I didn’t like them any more than before but I saw them and understood them at last. You think that I am simple just because I always smiling, she had said, still smiling; but that isn’t the case. She’s doing the hardest thing of all: making the most of life; approaching it with a kind of manic positivity that makes my heart ache with admiration and incredulity. How can she be real? I wasn’t used to feeling anything; I’m not used to it. I am bewildered. I imagined, as I saw her off at the airport after two weeks, that all would return to normal, that everything would stop. I do not want clarity; the glare is too harsh. Let me once again see through blurry eyes, I prayed. At first, I thought I’d got my wish. As I walked away, I felt purged of something beautiful but terrible. But then, when I got home, I opened the book and started to read. Please tame me, says the fox to the Prince. Or something of that sort. I could not stop crying. I was Nietzsche throwing his arms around the horse.

“You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”

The Little Prince is narrated by a man who is stranded in the Sahara Desert due to a problem with the engine of his plane. He is alone, without water, and, he thinks, likely to survive only a week. While he is trying to fix his plane he is approached by an ‘extraordinary small person’ with an ‘odd little voice’, who asks lots of questions, but will not respond to them. The two hit it off over a sheep, an imaginary sheep, and it is easy to be swept away by the charm and magic of the situation. Which is to say that initially one takes it all at face value. Why can’t a little Prince suddenly appear in the desert? A little Prince from another planet, who needs a sheep? It took me a while – me, an overthinker and careful reader – to realise what was really going on. For the boy does not exist; he is an hallucination, a dream fairy. He is a product of the man’s dire situation, and state of mind, but also a symbol; he is, for want of a better term, his inner child. It is an element of weirdness, of the offbeat, that helps to make the story compelling, that gives it greater depth.

The book begins with the man telling an anecdote about how he once drew, from the outside, a snake which had swallowed an elephant. The adults, he says, could not see it for what it was and thought it was a hat. When he then drew a snake swallowing an elephant from the inside they told him to stop altogether and devote himself instead to worthier subjects like geography, arithmetic, history and grammar. This anecdote is the first of many instances where de Saint-Exupery criticises the adult mindset and behaviour. Grown ups, he tells us, always need to have things explained. They are, moreover, overly concerned with dry facts and figures, rather than ‘essential matters.’ The narrator uses the example of making a new friend to illustrate this claim. A grown up would not ask what the voice of your friend is like, they would want to know how old he is or how much money his father makes. His point is clear: grown ups have forgotten how to live, how to see, how to experience wonder and joy; they lack imagination and, furthermore, wish to stifle the imagination and creativity of children.

little-prince-cannes-film-festival-7.jpg

What is not clear is what the author’s overriding message is. It appears to be that we should be always young at heart. Yet the ending of the book suggests that this isn’t possible. For the Prince goes away; one might say that he commits suicide, in fact. This may seem like a strange and unexpectedly melancholy conclusion, especially for a much-loved children’s book, but there is a deep strain of sadness, of darkness even, running through the entirety of The Little Prince. A man alone in the desert, remember, who hallucinates a little boy; a boy he loves; a boy who is his only friend. He feels disconnected from other people, and in this way the desert is symbolic too. The man is lonely, unhappy, possibly mad. Then there is the Prince’s story, that of a child who lives, again alone, on a planet far away from earth. This planet is no larger than a house. Even in the parts of the story which have been designed to illustrate how misguided adults are – the planet hopping section – there is a gloomy undercurrent. The king, for example, who rules over nothing. The tippler too.

For all that I have written so far about adults and children, loneliness and madness, The Little Prince is most affecting as a love story. Certainly, it is in that way that it hit me the hardest. So hard that I could barely breathe. In fact, I don’t know if I want to write about the flower and the fox. I do not know how to do justice to these aspects of the novel. They are now, and will always be, part of me and her, of our story, even though she doesn’t know it. Please tame me, says the fox, and I could cry forever, my arms thrown around the horse, my wet face nestled in its mane. To tame someone or something is to make it yours, is to recognise it, to make it unique. Your voice, your step, your presence will matter to them; only yours; and theirs will matter to you. Before, they were indifferent to you, before you were one amongst many, but now you are special; and they are special to you. The flower…a common rose, unlike any other, because it belongs to the Prince. I can hardly type the words. I do not want to sound like a fool. I cannot go on.

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.

FEVER IN URBICAND BY FRANCOIS SCHUITEN & BENOIT PEETERS

She is coming from Moscow with the expectation that I will show her the sights. There is nothing here, I told her over the phone. Except parks and gardens. That is not nothing, she said. I like green. Why is it nothing? I tried to explain that this sort of thing bores me. It is just there. It exists, and that is all. It’s beautiful! Maniac! She sounded angry. I’ll kill you: put put put. I knew that, if I could see her, her fingers would be making the shape of gun, and that it would be firing straight at me. Perhaps I deserved it. You like always grey, she said. Always grey, aways concrete and broken windows. Which is true. I do like those things. I like the way, for example, that the grim Park Hill housing estate hangs ominously over the city like a spider. The story goes that the council wanted to tear it down, only to find that it is a protected building. If they’d had their way it would now be flower beds and water features, no doubt. The city in which I live is losing its identity. What once was wild and spirited is now twee. I feel this gentrification as a threat; I see it as a kind of creature or spirit that is invading, transforming, taking over. Soon, this place will be Sheffield in nothing but name; and that other place – the real Sheffield – will exist only in the imagination.

“Right now, the network continues to grow outside this city, this house, this room, where it began. It weaves its links between distant stars.”

Fever in Urbicand is the second instalment of the Les Cités obscures series of graphic novels [or comics, if you prefer] by the artist François Schuiten and the writer Benoit Peeters. Its plot centres around a cube that has been unearthed at a construction site and handed to the urbatect Eugen Robik. In the beginning, much is made of how innocuous the object is. It is, Robik notes, ‘merely an empty cubic structure with sides approximately 15cm long.’ There is ‘nothing extraordinary about it’ and, moreover, it ‘appears to be totally useless.’ Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the cube is growing, and that it shows no sign of stopping, such that eventually it takes over Urbicand, forming a new landscape, a new city. When one considers the drama and damage caused by the cube as it expands one realises how clever a choice the shape was. It’s power and destructive ability seem all the more terrible and awesome as a consequence of its familiar, ordinary appearance.

Eugen Robik could not be described as the hero, but he is certainly the most prominent character. Prominent, yet largely passive in the face of what many of us would call ‘life.’ He is not interested in furthering himself, is adverse to adventure or risk-taking, and only briefly flirts with the idea of starting a liaison with a woman before allowing her to slip through his fingers. He is a man consumed by his work and projects, so much so that initially he is all but disinterested in the cube, even when it begins to grow. His primary concern is the vote to deny permission to build a new bridge in Urbicand. Having designed the city, this denial, he feels, compromises his vision. Without it, he says, his project becomes ‘unbalanced’; the space where it should be he describes as a ‘void.’ I found this aspect of the novel fascinating. It is unusual for an architect, or urbatect, to be so central to a story, to be given such responsibility. It struck me that Schuiten and Peeters wanted to highlight the importance of this profession. Indeed, I have long thought that architects are something like Gods. They create our world. We live within their imagination.

11810841

One might say that one of the themes of Fever in Urbicand is the arbitrary nature of boundaries. A bridge is, of course, something that connects two things, it brings them together. It is, in fact, something so significant that the great Serbian writer Ivo Andric devoted an entire novel to one in The Bridge on the Drina. As noted, Robik’s planned bridge is rejected, because, one politician states, ‘travel between the north and south bank will become too easy.’ It is never revealed why bringing the two banks together is undesirable, but one gets the impression that it is not with the good of the people in mind. The art and architecture in the book is stark and imposing and characters are frequently seen to be dwarfed by Robik’s buildings. There is an atmosphere of suppression and oppression, with, for example, those who cross the border being threatened with execution. Fever in Urbicand is, therefore, a kind of totalitarian dystopia. One cannot read it without thinking of two walls, one that was once built in Berlin and one that thankfully still only exists in the mind of Donald Trump.

However, what is most interesting about all this is that, in a seemingly random manner, as the cube expands it connects the two banks, making passage between them possible. The cube – which is also, significantly, called the network – doesn’t require planning permission; it doesn’t care about ‘hidden implications’, power and politicking; and it is, moreover, stronger than any man or manmade material. Indeed, in order to protect its interests, the government of Urbicand attempts to stop it by firing at it, but the cube is unaffected. What this ultimately means is that it is a structure, a kind of architecture, not a man, that is the hero of the story; it is the cube that changes and improves lives; it is the cube that frees the people.

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.’

giphy (1).gif

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.

sc-books-sabrina-nick-drnaso-0516 (1)

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.

fndr0zxkaly5y4lob5q8.png

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.