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ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND BY LEWIS CARROLL

I want, perhaps one last time, to write as I once did. To not punish myself, and punish you, with my words. Last week, I began a review in dialogue in which I meet adult Alice, old Alice, close to death, in a darkweb chatroom, knowing that it was so odd and unsettling that I would never publish it even if I finished it. I cannot continue to present you with flowers that smell like dirty feet. Yet it troubles me to put together sentences and make them stick. In Tokyo, I collapsed, and ever since I have been experiencing a ‘dropping’ sensation in my head. Momentarily, I feel as though I am falling, and, as in a real fall, I anticipate the end point as a sudden, devastating impact. I anticipate the impact, but do not experience it. It troubles me to attempt to think coherently, to pull together the loose threads of my mind. But I want, perhaps one last time, to force myself to do it, and produce the kind of review I once produced with ease.

“It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

I will write about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, because that is why you’re here. I will write about Alice as though I know her, as though she is the solid surface upon which I have fallen. I will call her Alice, although she denies the name and wishes that I would call her something else. She is easily bored, and possibly a little stupid. Certainly, she is impetuous and sometimes thoughtless. She follows a rabbit down a rabbit hole, remember. She drinks from strange bottles and eats strange things, without a great deal of consideration, without being sure that it is safe to do so. When talking to a mouse she cannot help but mention her cat, even though she understands that it frightens the poor creature. She often puts her foot in it, not out of malice, but rather out of carelessness. In person, she would be infuriating, to me at least, but in fiction she is charming, because she has a dreamy disposition and is not without obvious faults.

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Alice follows a rabbit down a rabbit hole and enters a world that is disconcerting to her. Within that world she is transformed; she becomes ungrounded, peculiar. She is the outsider there. The inhabitants, whom she thinks speak in riddles, question the turn and quality of her mind. Alice’s experiences in Wonderland are often compared to a dream, and they are dream-like in ways. She says so herself, in fact. As in the dream realm, the population and landscape of Wonderland isn’t unfamiliar, not completely so. Alice recognises the mouse and the bird, the door and the fire. It is more accurate to say that the familiar is distorted. The mouse speaks, for example. The dream realm isn’t another, or alien, world, it is a wax model of your world that has been placed too close to the fire. Yet there are signs, clear signs, frequent suggestions, that Wonderland isn’t part of the dream realm at all, but that Alice is more likely mad. Indeed, it is this way of interpreting the story that resonated with me, that moved me even.

The inhabitants, as far as Alice is concerned, speak in riddles, remember; their behaviour, moreover, strikes her as strange, unrelatable. This confuses and angers her and, in fact, makes her doubt herself. I feel that way all of the time, have done my whole life. Other people, the oppressive other, seem perfectly content and comfortable; they engage with each other successfully; and yet I cannot understand them. ‘We’re all mad here,’ the Cheshire Cat says, but isn’t it Alice who is mad, as she is the outlier? My concentration levels are poor these days, and I am unable to read carefully, but it seems to me that Carroll presents Alice, not as a young girl having weird yet harmless adventures, but as one who is unstable, as one who is, specifically, suffering from a crisis of identity. She is, to my mind, experiencing a fracturing of the self. Consider how we are told that she, in the ordinary world, pretends to be two people; she plays against herself, she admonishes herself. In Wonderland, the caterpillar asks her ‘who are you?’, to which she replies ‘I hardly know myself, sir.’

DOMU: A CHILD’S DREAM BY KATSUHIRO OTOMO

They often come to me from different towns or cities. I meet them at the train station, and on each occasion, as we exit, and start the climb towards one of the bars in the city centre, I turn my head and draw their attention to the Park Hill housing estate. I know I shouldn’t do it, but I do. The woman is not the same but this scene is; repeated I don’t know how many times now. Look, I say, and they look. And then I begin my explanation, which, by this stage, is almost scripted; and I’m boring them, I know; and I’m boring myself; but I can’t help it, as I am intensely moved. I didn’t grow up in Park Hill, but it was a place just like it; hard, raw and grey. The design of the buildings mirroring my experience. It’s pretty ugly, they say, or something of that sort. I don’t tell them that I feel ugly too, for this sort of thing formed me. I too am hard, grey concrete. For a while they stopped buses going up there, to the estate where I lived, because children would throw bricks at them. Where did they get such a supply of bricks? Were they stolen from the tower blocks themselves? In my mind I see little gutter kids sitting in the dirt, carefully removing bricks from the base of tall buildings. And in the next moment I see them toppling, in a perfectly choreographed, Twin Towers-like collapse.

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On the surface, Domu, by Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo, is a horror/murder mystery. At a large housing complex, the residents are dying – twenty-five in less than three years – in unusual circumstances. What appear to be suicides, murders and accidental deaths, are, the police think, somehow linked. The latest apparent suicide had, they note, no history of mental health problems and left no note. He also had no access to the key to the door leading to the roof, from which he flung himself, and the door itself showed no sign of being tampered with. At one stage, one of the detectives says that it is a ‘locked roof mystery,’ in a nod to the once popular locked room subgenre, of which Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room is a prime example. In the early parts of the manga, Otomo builds his puzzle carefully and expertly, leaving numerous clues and providing a number of possible theories. It could be that there is a serial killer in the housing complex who has a grudge against the residents. Or is that someone has a grievance with the complex itself, someone who was forced out when it was built perhaps? Or could it even be one of the children? Or a ghost or spirit of some kind?

After a while, however, although the ‘mystery’ remains important to the police, the truth is revealed to the reader and the story then becomes more about the housing complex itself. In fact, even from the beginning it dominates the book in a visual sense. It is a huge, brutalist structure, of the kind I grew up in. It is described as ‘really creepy’ by one character; while another says of it that it ‘goes on forever.’ It appears in almost every frame, often in the background, looming ominously behind the residents or the police. Having lived in something just like this, I understand how they function in the mind. It is a little world in itself, a world made up of often vulnerable people, a little world from which it feels impossible to escape. Wherever you are you can see it or you can feel its presence. One interesting thing that Otomo does as an artist is draw important scenes where the lens has panned out, so to speak, to show only the complex, and the speech therefore appears to be coming from the building itself, rather than the characters. It gives the impression of, not only its immensity, but of a community swallowed up by the complex. In this way, Otomo uses it a little like the Bates motel or the house in The Exorcist; it is not directly responsible for the crimes, but is, nevertheless, a symbol of evil.

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The truth of who is murdering the residents, and the police, is Cho, a senile old man with extraordinary powers. He can levitate, for example, and can move objects with his mind; but, most importantly, in terms of his crimes, he can influence people to do things, such as kill themselves and others. His nemesis is Eksuko, a little girl with similar, if not stronger, powers. The two engage in battle and this provides Domu with its thrilling climax, which is, as far as I am concerned, the best action sequence in manga. On this, my issue with Akira is that there is simply too much of that sort of thing, but here Otomo provides a perfect balance between action and character development and psychology. In any case, it is said that Cho was abandoned by his family, who simply moved out and left him. The murders are, therefore, part play, by a bored old geezer, and part revenge. When he makes someone kill themselves he needles them about their failures, about how awful their lives are. Like the housing complex, Cho could be said to have a symbolic function. He is the suffering, the hopelessness and the destructiveness of the residents. He is the bad spirit, energy or atmosphere.

KIJIN GAHOU BY SHINTARO KAGO

We hadn’t even finished our first drinks. This is what I do now. I invite strangers back to my place. She invited herself, in fact. She thinks I have a cat. But the cat is dead. She doesn’t seem to notice. I guess she isn’t here for the cat. I’m wishing I had drank more, so I could feign impotence. She notices the books. It’s difficult not to notice the books. ‘Wow, you have a lot of books,’ she says. She wants me to show her the one I spoke about on the way home, which, I now realise, I mentioned in an effort to put her off. The disgusting one. She’s not unattractive, but I have done this too many times to find meaning in it. I’ll cover her in my scent, in my DNA, and then she’ll leave and never return. I collect these women now, in the same way I collected all those books, without ever really enjoying it. I’m surrounded on all sides by shaky towers. One day I’ll die under a book avalanche. ‘You must love reading,’ she says. I want to tell her I hate it. This, I think, with an imaginary sweeping gesture that encompasses her too, is not about love.

“Met her at my younger brother’s family barbecue. I punched a hole in her cheek with an iron spit. My cum was leaking out of it. Amusing.”

The disgusting book is Kijin Gahou, a collection of one-shots, or standalone short pieces, by mangaka Shintaro Kago. I don’t know who put it together. Does it exist because the author wanted it to or was it fan-made? I can’t imagine that any publisher saw it as an opportunity to make money. Or not a lot of money, anyway. There’s something so unsettling about parts of the collection – and one story in particular, which I will discuss in detail later – that the healthy, immediate response would be to suppress it, to hide it, to look away. But, then, the world isn’t a healthy place. So maybe this is the book we need right now, maybe it’s the book we deserve. Certainly, I feel as though I have reached a [low] point in my life where it is one of the few books that has any significance for me, that says something meaningful about how I see and experience the world.

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On the surface, ‘collecting’ is what ties together many of the stories. In fact, the opener is actually called The Collector. It features a girl who is so in love with a boy that she wants to keep and catalogue everything he comes into contact with. It’s one of the strongest entries in Kijin Gahou, for the way that it unfolds with a satisfying, gruesome logic. If the girl wants the pencil that the boy touches, simply because he touched it, then it seems to naturally follow that she would want the skin of the people he touches too. I’m starting to realise that this is something of a Kago trademark, which is to say that he takes fairly banal or commonplace situations or phenomena and draws them out to an absurd, but still logical conclusion. While The Collector is, of course, about the act of collecting things, the author’s real focus is on the psychology behind it. The obsession and madness, I mean; and the strange – to me – desire to own something that once belonged, or was touched, by someone notable, often someone you admire. I have never understood how an object can become significant purely by virtue of having passed through the hands of another human being, but then I have always been unsentimental.

The most distressing, the most notorious, and the best, story is Suck It. Immediately after finishing Suck It I did not want to think about, discuss, or write about it. It affected me that profoundly. Yet even while I was reading it I knew that it had an incredible power, and that it was important in some way, even though I simultaneously hated it for what it was doing to me. It is concerned with a man who wants to photograph women giving him oral sex. For the most part, all that we see are the photographs themselves, with a short comment by the photographer. At first, the pictures are fairly standard, but they quickly increase in extremity and depravity. One way in which Suck It is so disturbing is that it makes you feel complicit, or made me, and perhaps most men who read it, feel that way. Having a dick, and having taken many a photograph and video of this sort myself, I could not help but put myself, my dick, in the situations I was observing. It was, in a sense, my dick that was being sucked; and that is the genius of Kago’s choice, of presenting us with the photographs, rather than a traditional narrative.

Suck It has many notable, and disconcerting, things to say about male sexual psychology. One gets the sense that the man is more interested in the image than he is in the blowjobs themselves, that he is, in other words, more concerned about his project than his pleasure; or, perhaps more accurately, it is the case that working on the project increases his pleasure. It is the desire to try something new, to get a different kind of picture, that appears to motivate him. ‘If you get down to it,’ he comments early on, ‘all faces look pretty similar’; and he then endeavours to make then look as different as possible. I have had many discussions over the years with men who want to fuck a range of women, simply to be able to say they have done it. Like a fat girl, for example, or someone of a race or nationality other than their own. It is a sort of competition with oneself, a kind of cataloguing of the opposite sex. The pleasure gained from these experiences is not from the acts themselves, or not primarily, it is in the accomplishment of a goal, in ticking a box. Maybe it is the case that women do this too; I’m certain that some do, at least; but it doesn’t seem to be as prevalent and toxic.

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I’ve read a lot of ero guro, both in terms of conventional literature and manga, and it is undeniable that much of it verges on, or just is, misogynistic; and, if one glanced at his work, one could accuse Kago of it too. Indeed, almost every story in Kijin Gahou involves sexual, or sexualised, violence against women. There are, for example, images of breasts being cut off, and of a woman sucking dick while having a hole drilled in her head, to name but two of many. However, the further I progressed through the book the more convinced I became of the author’s warmth and empathy towards women. In fact, he seems to focus on issues affecting women far more often than those affecting men, such as abortion in Fetus Collection. The young woman at the centre of the story is ‘filled with inertia.’ She has regular unprotected sex, she says, ‘to please and to avoid seeming unappreciative.’ The sad image accompanying this statement is of her vagina, with semen dribbling pathetically out of it. She then states that ‘the value of my existence is defined by the sexual desire of men.’ In any context I would find this thrilling, this subtle fuck you to all the guys who sulk and bitch if a woman won’t accept their cum, but in male-authored ero guro it strikes me as almost unprecedented.

TEKKONKINKREET BY TAIYO MATSUMOTO

Look who just walked in, my friend said. I tried not to look. This is why I don’t drink around here anymore, I thought to myself. My friend nudged me. Do you remember that guy? Of course I did. It was impossible to forget. My friend walked over to the bar and introduced himself. Are you him?, I heard him say. I might be, the old man replied with a sly grin. I thought my friend was going to buy him a drink, but thankfully he didn’t. The story goes that the police had been trying to put him away for years and eventually they did it. They got him for what must have been fifteen-to-twenty, and now he was out. I don’t know what they pinned on him, and I don’t want to know. Once, or so legend says, he was summoned to take part in a retaliatory raid on a local pub full of rival gang members. His one instruction was not to stab anyone. Beat them up badly, yes, but don’t stab. You got that? Sure, man, sure. Of course, he didn’t listen. As the members of the rival gang fled the pub he stuck a knife in the first three he saw.

You’re not having another? No, I said, eyeing the dregs of my drink. My friend had returned to our table and now I wanted to leave, to flee with the same kind of urgency I felt when I was boy. Only then it was a whole city, a whole life I wanted to escape, and this time it was just a sad old man and a sad old pub and a sad old situation. Are you alright? It was a joke. I almost smiled. No one ever asked you that back then. Are you ok? Can you handle this? Do you need any help? I didn’t look like a tough kid. And I wasn’t; not physically, at least; but I was desperate and crazy, and that is sometimes worse. The city did that to you; or our small, wretched part of it, anyway. Do you remember when we were kids?, my friend said, with a kind of smug complacency. He had allowed nostalgia to transform his memories into an heroic narrative, one worth reminiscing over, but I hadn’t. The pain, the blood, the fear, the heavy, sour smell of hopelessness in the air. Yeah, I remember.

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Yeah, I remember, although sometimes it takes a scene like that to bring it all back. Or a book, maybe. Sometimes it’s a book, and that’s even more unexpected. A book like Tekkonkinkreet, which is the story of orphaned brothers, one called Black and one called White, and a place called Treasure Town. Matsumoto’s style is crude, although detailed, with imprecise lines and perspective. There is a shakiness to it, a sense of chaos; and this suits the narrative, the personalities and lifestyles of the characters, and the setting. Treasure Town is, we’re told, a pit; it is the rundown playground of delinquent children, yakuza, drunkards, and stray animals. It is often said of cities within novels that they act as characters themselves, which strikes me as a meaningless phrase, but Treasure Town is certainly important to the people who inhabit it. They talk about it frequently; they are prepared to fight, and die, for it. Yet the place is changing. The adults are particularly sensitive to this, because they are old enough to remember how it once was. New gangsters are muscling in; old alliances are crumbling and fresh, but less stable, ones are being formed; and the landscape is being redeveloped.

One of Tekkonkinkreet‘s most interesting, and surprisingly moving, subplots involves yakuza members Suzuki [The Rat] and his protégé Kimura. Suzuki is weary of the game, in an ironically amused kind of way, and is planning retirement. He’s one of the guys – almost everyone in the manga is male; I recall only one female character – who most often speaks of changing times and of the relationship between a man and his city. One gets the sense that he feels left behind, that he intuits that he is no longer fit for purpose. Kimura is younger but equally at odds with the way that his world, the world of crime, is evolving. His girlfriend is pregnant and that makes him reevaluate his life and his priorities, but more than that it is the brutal approach of his new boss, Serpent, that disconcerts him. There is a scene, for example, in which he is presented with a gun and he behaves as though it is the first time he has ever seen one. Throughout his dealings with Serpent he counsels against excessive violence; he is always tentative, always seems uncomfortable and on edge. Matsumoto brilliantly weaves together all of these ideas when Kimura is ordered to kill Suzuki; and, as The Rat advises his friend on how to carry it out, and how to get away with it, I found a small lump forming in my throat.

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However, as previously suggested, the main characters are the two boys, Black and White. I’m not sure of their ages, but White behaves as though he is the younger brother. Certainly, he’s a simple-minded, happy-go-lucky kid. He often sings nonsense songs and talks in a kind of infant-like gibberish. His appearance also mirrors his mental and emotional state, what with the permanently snotty nose, missing front teeth, and the cute animal head hat. It is said that he is vulnerable, and Black takes care of him like a father; he ties his shoes, dresses him and makes sure he brushes his teeth. As his name implies, he is the [more] innocent half of the partnership. In one scene, for example, he plants an apple seed in a parking lot, so that he can grow a tree and have his own apples; although this can also be viewed a comment on the city as well as a symbol of hope. Yet, it would not to true to say that White is totally innocent, for he participates in and enjoys violence, even, at one stage, setting fire to a man [albeit he is an assassin who is, in that moment, intent on killing Black].

Black is, of course, the opposite of White. He is cunning and tough and street smart. Again, his appearance is telling, with the dark top, goggles, and the scar over his eye. Yet, while the boys are engaging enough as individuals, in their differences, it is what they mean to each other that gives them depth. I’ve already noted how Black looks after White, but it works the other way around too, albeit in a more subtle, indirect way. Throughout the book, Black is described as evil, abnormal, bloodthirsty; in fact, he is considered such a threat to White’s well-being that the police take him away to a kind of safe-house. However, Black needs White; he needs to have someone to care about. He needs White in order to feel something, in order to not lose the last remaining human elements of his personality. At one point, the boys’ grandfather perceptively says to Black that it is not he who is protecting White, but White who protects him. White himself says of the two of them that they each have the screws that the other is missing; and in doing so shows himself to be not all that simple-minded after all.

RED COLORED ELEGY BY SEIICHI HAYASHI

Recently I read Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show by Suehiro Maruo. I wanted to put together a review, but I could not. I don’t know how to write about manga. I do not know how to write about anything anymore. Ever since returning from Tokyo I have felt changed. I have thought about recording my experiences. A kind of travelogue. Since no one knows about Chihiro and the love hotel I could make something of that, perhaps. I feel changed. You could blame the seizure. Or the typhoon or the earthquake. The world is trying to kill me, it is clear. I met Chihiro at 4am outside Shibuya station, by the Hachikō statue, which is where all young lovers meet. I had expected her to be a man. I had expected to be murdered. How many beautiful young women offer to pay for a hotel in order to sleep with a stranger? Recently I read books by Suehiro Maruo and Katsuhiro Otomo. I enjoyed them both, but I could not write about either. I cannot. Tokyo was trying to kill me, it is clear; and yet I long to return.

It could be that what I am experiencing is an extreme form of Stockholm Syndrome. I only force myself to write this now because I wonder if it is the last time. The very last. Not one but one. Not the bluff. My eyes lose focus. I’m sick. My head is sick. Something happened out there, something entered into me and I have brought it home. Tokyo was trying to kill me, of that there is no doubt. The world is trying to kill me, and for the first time I feel as though it is succeeding. Last week I read Travel by Yuichi Yokoyama. I bought it in Mandarake Shibuya. It was a lucky find. That day, I could not move further than a few hundred yards from my hotel. I was too ill, too weak. I was constantly on the verge of collapse. I felt as though I was trapped in a giant pinball machine. I did not write about Travel. I did not make notes, even.

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In Shinjuku a middle-aged man in a shirt and tie offered me a blowjob while I stood outside the Robot Restaurant and listened to their song. It was 4:30pm. I politely declined. Akari commented on my politeness. How politely you decline the blowjob, she laughed. No, thank you. No, I don’t want a handjob either. Young girls inside. I questioned his sales technique. You don’t offer the blowjob first, I explained to Akari. If someone doesn’t want that they certainly won’t be enticed by a handjob, I said. My head feels as though it is immersed in warm water. I am ashamed of myself for allowing Chihiro to pay for the hotel. I had plenty of money but I wanted to see if she would go through with it. It was the first and only time we met. Her friend, she said, had drank too much and passed out and had to be taken to the hospital. That is why she was still out at 4am. She did go through with it; although there was going to be no love, she said, only sleep. I asked why, in that case, she needed me. To hold, she said; but of course it didn’t work out that way.

Yesterday I finished reading Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi, and this is my attempt to write about it. I didn’t know that it was an earthquake. Not at first. My mobile phone vibrated, beeped and spoke to me in Japanese. On the screen was displayed an emergency warning. The word emergency was the only word that I could understand. Red Colored Elegy is a love story. There are two people, Ichiro and Sachiko, a man and a woman, and they are in love. When I looked up everyone had stopped; everyone was motionless, staring at their phone or staring into the distance. They looked confused, or concerned. A voice came over some kind of PA system. I do not speak or read Japanese. I thought the world was ending. Someone has launched a nuclear weapon, I thought, and the world is coming to an end. I am dying here in Tokyo, at the Shibuya crossing. It was midnight, four hours before I met Chihiro. I had been out drinking, but not enough to be hospitalised. I am dying here, and I am not in love.

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Ichiro is an artist who wants to draw comics. A man can’t live off paintings, we’re told. There is something in this, I’m sure, about Japanese culture, or Tokyo culture, at the time; some reference to the emergence of manga as a way for artists to express themselves. But not too much is made of it. Ichiro draws, doodles or whatever, but it could have been anything, any activity. When the typhoon hit I was in Ebisu with Akari. The old men outside the traditional restaurant jeered and whooped when I kissed her. I dropped my umbrella and my jacket on the street as I put my hands around her hips. The old men are watching us, she said. I am not in love. I picked up my umbrella and my jacket and we walked for a while. I could not walk for more than a few hundred yards. I am not in love, although I am constantly on the verge of love. As we left the hotel I offered to buy Chihiro a coffee. It was the first and only time I saw her in daylight.

Ichiro and Sachiko move in together. Ichiro draws, or doodles or whatever. Sachiko works. Yet most of the panels show the couple squabbling, rolling around on the floor, playing with each other, smoking, fucking. It is the most realistic, and therefore the most moving, representation of the banalities of love that I have read. This, I thought, as I turned the pages, is love. This is what I don’t have. I bought Chihiro a coffee, when perhaps what she really wanted was to leave. The typhoon ripped through Ebisu. I was scared. I am dying, and I am not in love. Akari and I kissed outside the restaurant, my umbrella and jacket in a heap by my feet. I am not in love. This is my attempt to write about Red Colored Elegy. It is a failure. Tokyo has changed me. Something entered into me out there, and it will not leave. In Harajuku I had a seizure. My head felt as though it had been immersed in warm water. I fell against a wire fence and shook. I fell further down. I slouched towards the street. I am dying here, of course, on the floor, without love. I tried to ask for help, but no one heard.

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.’

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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.

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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.