Alone by Chabouté. Translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger. Gallery 13, 2017. 368pp. 9781501153327.
The English translation of Chabouté’s graphic novel adaptation of Moby Dick is amazing for its pacing, its artistry, and its sense of time and place. Alone is the story of a deformed man living alone in a remote lighthouse, separated from all humanity, his only contact with the outside world the boxes of supplies dropped off by fishermen (though they never see him). A new deckhand on the boat thinks the man must be unhappy, but his boss would rather not think about it. Inside the lighthouse, the man flips open a beat-up dictionary at random, reading definitions and imagining the outside world. These short looks into his mind are brilliant, and form the heart of the book, telling as much about this lonely soul as the expressions on his face. And then the deckhand secretly initiates contact.
For such a long book, it really is a quick read, with long sections that are wordless. But I’ve found myself flipping it open again and again after finishing it the first time (or was it the second)?
The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg. Little Brown, 2016. 9780316259170. 224pp.
Kiddo, daughter of a God named Birdman, created the Early Earth. For a time it was a paradise, a happy world full of perfect, ignorant people that she liked to watch. Birdman was revolted by their purposelessness and the fact that they knew nothing of him, so he took over, creating a world where people feared and worshipped him, and where they knew their place. But he also accidentally created love.
This is a tale of two lovers in that fearful world, two women who are secretly in love, Cherry and her maid Hero. It starts when Cherry’s husband Jerome and his repulsive friend Manfred make a bet: Jermome believes Cherry is faithful, and he agrees to leave her for 100 nights to give Manfred a chance to seduce her. (Manfred doesn’t seem to understand the difference between “seduce” and “rape.”) When Manfred soon climbs uninvited into Cherry’s bed, she begs him to let her hear a story from Hero first.
Thus starts a series of magical tales (and tales within tales) that Hero learned from the League of Secret Storytellers. In a world where women aren’t allowed to learn to read or write, they stitch stories into tapestries and pass them around. They captivate not only Manfred but the guards at Jerome’s house as well. They are tales of a woman who marries the wrong man and tells him her secret, that she and her sisters can read and write; of two sisters seduced by the same man, and possibly of a murder; of a young girl whose mother is the smallest and most beautiful of the three moons, and of a king looking into a mystery posed by his three daughters.
The art in this graphic novel is dark and the lines heavy, though there are brush strokes that seem loose and unplanned. This odd combo gives the story both mythical gravitas and a bit of whimsey.
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick by Chabouté. Translated by Laure Dupont. Dark Horse Books, 2017. 9781506701493.
I’ve danced around reading Moby Dick since buying a Fone Bone action figure with a little plastic copy, but I’m still too intimidated — I’ve never gotten past adaptations by Eisner and Kish and now this graphic novel.
This book is gorgeously large and heavy, and illustrated in glorious black and white. It opens with a young, would-be whaler unexpectedly sharing a room with the intimidating Queequeg, a much tattooed harpooner recently arrived from the South Seas with a souvenir: a bunch of mummified heads. (Don’t worry, things work out. Q not only agrees to teach his new friend whaling, he also tells the man they’re married. Who knew Melville was that progressive?) After a freaky sermon they sign on with the Pequod. It’s clear from the start that Q is a badass harpooner, that Starbuck is trying to keep everyone safe, and that Ahab is mad and will do anything to kill the whale. But then, like me, you probably knew that already.
It’s the art and the pacing that kept me moving through the book. The story is told in short chapters, which is good because things are grim. From the short quotes (from the original I assume) that start each section and the heavy handed way everyone talks to each other, if this were just text or didn’t shift in time frequently I’d never have made it to the end. Ahab’s heavy, long coat is as black as the sea, and his eyes as crazy as Marty Feldman’s, though he’s clearly got focus. This gives the same sense of life on a boat as Nick Bertozzi’s Shackleton but it feels much more oppressive and frightening. The whales are huge. The boats that go after them aren’t. And even when the crew succeeds in killing one, it turns the boat into something worse than a butcher shop as they cut up and then boil down the blubber for the oil. (If they had eaten any of it this book might have turned me vegan.)
Step Aside, Pops: A Hark! A Vagrant Collection by Kate Beaton
Drawn and Quarterly, 2015
Kate Beaton, of course, is super awesome and funny. Her gag-strip humor range? Black Canary making friends with a heavy metal singer. Alexander Pushkin enters a cat show. The emotional fallout for a nasty boy called out in Janet Jackson’s Nasty Boys music video. Wuthering Heights jokes. Ida B. Wells. Hard as nails lady Victorian bicyclists. Extra bonus for book nerds: her strips riffing on Nancy Drew and Edward Gorey book covers.
One D.O.A. One on the Way [a novel] by Mary Robison. Counterpoint, 2009. 9781582435619. 166pp
I don’t read much literary fiction, but what I do read is usually recommended to me by my friend Wally or my favorite bookseller at Third Place Books. This is one of the latter. His pitch went something like this: Mary Robison is a fantastic writer. A while back she had a severe case of writer’s block she cured by writing on index cards. She jots down sentences and scenes and just bits that reveal character and then, when she has enough, arranges them until they form some sort of narrative. He showed me a few pages of the book, written in small bits as he’d described. I was hooked. (He may have also told me she now writes in her car, but I heard Nicholson Baker say that he does that, too, so I’m not sure about this. I’m also not sure how much of this I’m remembering wrong, so I’m not putting quotes around the pitch or telling you his name.)
The story that slowly reveals itself is about a location scout living in post-Katrina New Orleans. She’s married to one of two twins, and having an affair with the other, as she tries to train a new assistant. It’s full of sentences and descriptions so full of craft that they stopped me cold — I’d often put the book down and walk away for a few moments before sitting down again and reading them again.
The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman
Austin therapist Victoria Vick gets a strange new client, Y_____, who initially is only willing to speak to her over the phone, though he eventually comes to her office. He can make himself invisible thanks to military technology stolen from a former workplace. His odd demands increase and his stories become more and more disturbing. He uses this ability to spy on strangers in their homes. And he thinks he can find out some vitally important information about humanity by seeing how people act when they think they are alone. But he often intervenes, unseen, in destructive ways.
Y____’s voice perfectly captures the sort of creepy narcissistic mansplainer that you suspect could quickly escalate to dangerous behavior. (Ladies, I’m betting you know what I’m talking about.) Klosterman includes pop culture and music in his descriptions in a way that’s really satisfying rather than annoying and dated: Y_____ misremembers singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston’s name at a critical part of one of his stories and is corrected in his therapist’s notes, though she doesn’t dare correct him in person.
It feels strange to write, “Read this book! It’s unsettling in a very well-crafted and realistic way!” but here I am, telling you just that. And I want to add that I loved the mashup of literary fiction and superpowers in the same way I like really well done character exploration in superhero books. (For more literary superpowers check out Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff, Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales)