Enjoy Thanksgiving with this menu of literary recipes:
Christmas Bonus: George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding
Enjoy Thanksgiving with this menu of literary recipes:
Christmas Bonus: George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding
I know of two kinds of writers: those whose central preoccupation is a verbal technique, and those for whom it is human acts and passions. The former tend to be dismissed as “Byzantine” or praised as “pure artists.” The latter, more fortunately, receive the laudatory epithets “profound,” “human,” or “profoundly human,” and the flattering vituperative “savage.” The former is Swinburne or Mallarme; the latter, Celine or Theodore Dreiser. Certain exceptional cases display the virtues and joys of both categories. Victor Hugo remarked that Shakespeare contained Gongora; we might also observe that he contained Dostoevsky…Among the great novelists, Joseph Conrad was perhaps the last who was interested both in the techniques of the novel and in the fates and personalities of his characters. The last that is until the tremendous appearance of Faulkner.
From Borges’ 1937 review of William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!. Originally published in the Argentine magazine El Hogar, part of Borges’ “The Literary Life” column. Republished in Selected Non-Fictions.
Denis Johnson’s new novel The Laughing Monsters is excellent.
Okay: Too short a review? Well. Look, I read it over the weekend, and got a copy of the audiobook version to listen to this week, and then I’ll write a proper review, but here’s publisher FS&G’s blurb, followed by a few quick impressions:
Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters is a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world that shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game.
Roland Nair calls himself Scandinavian but travels on a U.S. passport. After ten years’ absence, he returns to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to reunite with his friend Michael Adriko. They once made a lot of money here during the country’s civil war, and, curious to see whether good luck will strike twice in the same place, Nair has allowed himself to be drawn back to a region he considers hopeless.
Adriko is an African who styles himself a soldier of fortune and who claims to have served, at various times, the Ghanaian army, the Kuwaiti Emiri Guard, and the American Green Berets. He’s probably broke now, but he remains, at thirty-six, as stirred by his own doubtful schemes as he was a decade ago.
Although Nair believes some kind of money-making plan lies at the back of it all, Adriko’s stated reason for inviting his friend to Freetown is for Nair to meet Adriko’s fiancée, a grad student from Colorado named Davidia. Together the three set out to visit Adriko’s clan in the Uganda-Congo borderland—but each of these travelers is keeping secrets from the others. Their journey through a land abandoned by the future leads Nair, Adriko, and Davidia to meet themselves not in a new light, but rather in a new darkness.
The Laughing Monsters is not the plot-driven spy novel it pretends to be. The novel’s plot is a shaggy dog story, an excuse for Johnson to riff on how adventure tips into madness, how conflicting identities jam up against loyalties.
Johnson is clearly following Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, sure, but there are also heavy hints of Moby-Dick here, and even Blood Meridian (McCarthy clearly is the descendant of Melville and Conrad, of course). But mostly Denis Johnson is following Denis Johnson in The Laughing Monsters.
The Laughing Monsters is also very-much about writing itself: Nair is a writer, and much of the novel takes the form of emails he sends (or writes without sending), notes he scratches on lined paper in dull pencil, and half-mad confessions. Ultimately, the voice that narrates the novel is Nair’s internal composer. The driving force of the story though is Michael Adriko, the charismatic trickster who seems to be creating the plot as he goes along.
More to come, but again, short version: Great stuff.
I should probably start with a confession: I’m not a big Haruki Murakami fan.
I’ve probably abandoned The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle more than any other book (save maybe Proust). I lost interest somewhere in the first 100 pages of Kafka on the Shore, despite finding the premise intriguing. I’ve enjoyed a few of Murakami’s short stories over the years—or maybe found them technically impressive—but none more than the first one I read back in 2001 or 2002 in an issue of Harper’s (I was living in Tokyo at the time, and the main character took the same train I did everyday, the Marunouchi Line).
I want—or rather at one point I really tried—to like Murakami’s fiction, but I just don’t. It leaves me cold.
Which is odd, I think, because the themes and tones—dark ambiguity, strange disappearances, unresolved mysteries, etc.—these are the themes I enjoy most in fiction.
When the kind folks at Audible offered me a review opportunity, I thought I’d take another shot at Murakami. His new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is short enough, I reasoned, for me to, y’know, not abandon it. So I listened to Random House Audio’s production (10 hours, unabridged), reading sections against a copy of the book I checked out from the library. (English translation is by frequent Muarkami translator Philip Gabriel).
There were some fine, creepy moments, but on the whole, I was left cold. The novel is technically impressive (did I already use that term?—What I mean is that Murakami is masterful at activating the sensuous strokes that make the words real for the reader—the book is stuffed with the tiny details that are, y’know, mimetic, and these mimetic details bring vitality to Murakami’s frequent metaphysical digressions—when Tsukuru feels a pain in his back, for instance, this physical sensation is not merely a placeholder for a psychological or spiritual hurt, but the very locus of metaphysical disjunction that Murakami wants to explore in the novel—but hang on, I seem to be riffing unfocused in a parenthetical aside, before I have even addressed that basic question review readers want satisfied up front: What is the book about?).
What is the book about?
Before I get to that, I have to address the performance in the audiobook by Bruce Locke, who reads the dialogue (and Tsukuru’s inner-monologues) with a mild Japanese accent. This accent clashes with the affectless intonation that Locke uses to read the exposition. It makes no logical sense at all why Japanese characters would speak to each other in this way. The audience is smart enough to realize that they are reading a book in translation—why make the characters speak to each other in stereotypical accents? The choice is unfortunate, problematic and distracting.
What is the book about?
Reader, in the acme of laziness—a laziness I will attribute to my lack of enthusiasm to the novel—here is a synopsis of Colorless Tsukuru that I jacked from Wikipedia:
In this Bildungsroman of the realist kind (hints of the author’s magical realism are left to dreams and tales), the third-person narrative follows the past and present of Tsukuru Tazaki, a man who wants to understand why his life was derailed sixteen years ago.
In the early 1990s in his home town of Nagoya, the young Tsukuru was a fan of train stations. In high school, the two boys and two girls that were his four best friends all had a color as part of their surnames, leaving him the “colorless” one of their “orderly, harmonious community”. But one day in 1995, during his second year in college, his friends abruptly cut all relationships with him. That never-explained, Kafkaesque ostracism left him feeling suicidal then guilty “as an empty person, lacking in color and identity”; and when his only college friend vanished the next semester, he felt “fated to always be alone”.
Now in 2011’s Tokyo, the 36-year-old engineer Tazaki works for a railroad company and builds stations. His new girlfriend Sara spurs him “to come face-to-face with the past, not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up” and seek his former friends to mend the relationships and find out why they rejected him, because she won’t commit to him unless he can move past that issue. And so he will visit them one by one, first back in Nagoya, then in rural Finland, on a quest for truth and a pilgrimage for happiness.
That’s actually a pretty nice little summary—hey, there’s even some analytic commentary! Kafkaesque indeed!
What’s missing from the summary—besides the seemingly-endless metaphorically-overdetermined scenes of Tsukuru swimming that Murakami insists on inserting—what’s missing from the summary is what I take to be a key scene, a story-within-a-story that Tsukuru’s college friend tells him about a pianist who travels around with a bag (which may or may not contain human fingers). The pianist explains to his audience-of-one (Tsukuru’s college friend’s father, if that matters) that he has chosen to die in the place of another person. This metaphysical conceit haunts the rest of the novel, but remains unresolved. (The theme of death and the specter of severed fingers returns again in the novel’s most compelling passage, an extended grotesque vignette featuring fingers floating in formaldehyde).
Much of Colorless Tsukuru remains unresolved. I’d be fine with that if it worked, but I don’t think it does here. (I’m reminded of a joke I read on Twitter years ago: That we know it’s literary fiction if at the end the character is waiting for something). The prose, while brilliant at times in its mimesis, is often clunky and almost always repetitive. This is a repetitive novel. This novel repeats its scenes repetitively. There’s a lot of repetition here.
But you just don’t get Murakami, man, you may reply, dear reader, and that may be true. (Although I do have a penchant for ambiguous, morbid, sinister fiction in translation). I try to assess a novel on what the writer is trying to do, and Murakami—here and elsewhere—feels like a writer supremely adept at creating what Jonathan Lethem called the “furniture” of the novel, the mimetic space in which the characters can come to life. And yet the life force of the characters—their spirit, if I may—seems tepid, clichéd—boring. In the end, I just don’t care. I guess I just don’t get Murakami, man.
Stephen Collins’s début graphic novel The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil tells the story of Dave, an especially average (forgive the oxymoron) guy in the neat-and-tidy island of Here, a place where conformity rules and difference is unthinkable. Dave fits like a cog into his tidy world until a beard erupts from his face, severing him from society.
Despite its neat and tidy contours, an omnipresent dread of otherness gestates in the egg-shaped isle of Here. That dread manifests in the fabled land of There. Dave’s psyche is haunted by There; its very existence threatens both body and mind. Collins renders this anxiety in a remarkable series of panels that concretize Dave’s nightmare of otherness:
Dave’s nightmare highlights his subconscious realization that there cannot be a Here without a There. The realization leaves him abject, torn, and destabilized, even before his beard appears. When the first hairs do arrive, Dave’s interior existential crisis spills outward, his messy difference oozing out to disrupt and upset the tidy normalcy of Here.
The beard quickly becomes a national emergency requiring enormous resources. Police, military, the media, and eventually the entire society become entangled in the crisis. United against a common foe, the citizens of Here are nevertheless distracted, letting their grooming habits slip. Things become less tidy. In their battle against the beard, they overlook the greater war on weird.
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an allegorical fable. Collins attacks conformity and fear of otherness, but also depicts just how complex and horrifying otherness can be. While the island of Here is clearly a stand-in for England, Collins’s satire of xenophobia and the dangers of groupthink will resonate pretty much everywhere. All kinds of 21st-century anxieties writhe under the text: fear of immigration, the collapse of cultural homogeneity, ecological devastation—the end of a particular way of life. The angry mob castigating poor Dave call him a terrorist, but they are the authors of their own terror.
In an unexpected and rewarding fourth act, Collins examines the aftermath of what comes to be known as “The Beard Event.” The Untidiness that happened while the citizens of Here were distracted dealing with Dave becomes the new normal. Fits of nonconformity inevitably become trends, then commodities.
The Beard Event eventually becomes “A story many times retold and resold,” complete with its own museum (enter through the gift shop). Collins offers a clear depiction of difference—how it’s first feared, then resisted and attacked, and eventually absorbed and recycled.
I’ve tried to offer enough of Collin’s words and art to convey a sense of his simple but refined style. His lines are often gentle and always precise, his subtle shading all the color this tale needs. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil succeeds visually on the strength of Collins’s pacing and panel design. Collins seamlessly integrates his prose into the panels, moving the story along in a lilt of rhymes and non-rhymes evocative of Edward Gorey or Roald Dahl. Collins nimbly avoids the potential pitfalls of preachiness or meaningless absurdity here, leading to a confident and convincing début. I look forward to more. Great stuff.
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is now available in the United States in hardback and ebook from Picador.
David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks is 624 pages in hardback, its sprawling metaphysical plot jammed into six overlapping sections that move through six decades and several genres. Any number of critical placeholders might be applied here: Sweeping, ambitious, genre-skewering, kaleidoscopic (I stole that last one from the book jacket). Or, perhaps we prefer our descriptors more academic? Okay: Postmodern, metatextual, metacritical, polyglossic. With The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has used these functional, formal postmodernist techniques to string together a few good novellas with some not-so-good novellas into a novel that’s not bad—but also not particularly good.The Bone Clocks is just okay. It fills space, it fills time. But unlike Mitchell’s previous stronger novels—Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas in particular—The Bone Clocks fills without nourishing.
The Bone Clocks opens in 1984 with “A Hot Spell,” introducing us to the novel’s ostensible subject, Holly Sykes, a fifteen year-old who runs away from home. This section also introduces us to Mitchell’s consistent idiom here, a first-person present tense narration that forces the plot forward like an engine. When Mitchell needs to deliver any background information, the narrator simply trots out old memories, or a character politely shows up to dump exposition. The exposition-dumping is particularly egregious in the novel’s final sections.
Our heroine Holly Sykes helps out with some of that exposition early on, filling in some of the contours we’ll need to understand if we want to suss out the Big Metaphysical Plot of The Bone Clocks: There are “the radio people,” voices that contact Holly, um, telepathically; there are the strange figures of Marinus and Constantin; there is the drama of Holly’s deep-souled, old-souled little brother Jacko, who ominously makes her memorize a labyrinthine map in the book’s early pages (foreshadowing!):
The one Jacko’s drawn’s actually dead simple by his standards, made of eight or nine circles inside each other.
“Take it,” he tells me. “It’s diabolical.”
“It doesn’t look all that bad to me.”
“ ‘Diabolical’ means ‘satanic,’ sis.”
“Why’s your maze so satanic, then?”
“The Dusk follows you as you go through it. If it touches you, you cease to exist, so one wrong turn down a dead end, that’s the end of you. That’s why you have to learn the labyrinth by heart.”
Christ, I don’t half have a freaky little brother.
“Right. Well, thanks, Jacko. Look, I’ve got a few things to—” Jacko holds my wrist. “Learn this labyrinth, Holly. Indulge your freaky little brother. Please.” That jolts me a bit.
See how young Holly doesn’t quite cotton that Jacko has, like, responded to her by using the same phrase she thought but didn’t say aloud? Mitchell has a talent for crafting characters like this—characters who can’t see their own blind spots, characters utterly naïve to how we see them. Mitchell excelled at this technique in Black Swan Green, whose narrator Jason Taylor describes for us what he cannot name or fully understand. Holly’s 1984 narrative often feels like a rewrite of Black Swan Green. Jason actually shows up—sort of—in The Bone Clocks; his cousin Hugo Lamb, a minor character in Black Swan Green, narrates the section antecedent to young Holly’s story.
Hugo Lamb’s “Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume” propels us to 1991. Lamb is a charming, conniving con man. If young Holly echoes Adam Ewing of Mitchell’s superior novel Cloud Atlas in her naïve innocence (she does), then Hugo Lamb echoes Cloud Atlas’s genius con man, Robert Frobisher. Indeed, most of the central narrators in The Bone Clocks read like familiar repetitions of characters from Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed Frobisher’s plotting and scheming, and I enjoyed it again in Lamb, a sympathetic rake. I was digging The Bone Clocks all through his section, despite feeling vaguely worried that Mitchell was not exactly doing much to flesh out The Big Metaphysical Plot that would have to hold this thing together.
William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape is a bitter, funny rant, a monologic stream-of-consciousness that, through its extreme powers of synthesis, spills over into heteroglossic eruptions, a carnival of erudite voices. Driven by terrible physical pain, hints of madness, and, most of all, the need to “explain all this” before he dies, the voice of the novel (surely Gaddis himself) channels cultural historian Johan Huizinga and philosopher Walter Benjamin into a conversation about the conflict of art and commerce set against the backdrop of the rise of mass culture:
. . . falls right into line doesn’t it, collapse of authenticity collapse of religion collapse of values what Huizinga called one of the most important phases in the history of civilization, and Walter Benjamin picks it up in his Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in this heap somewhere, the authentic work of art is based in ritual he says, and wait Mr. Benjamin, got to get in there the romantic mid-eighteenth century aesthetic pleasure in the worship of art was the privilege of the few. I was saying, Mr. Huizinga, that the authentic work of art had its base in ritual, and mass reproduction freed it from this parasitical dependence. Ah, quite so Mr. Benjamin quite so, turn of the century religion was losing its steam and art came in as its substitute would you say? Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, and I’d add that this massive technical reproduction of works of art could be manipulated, changed the way the masses looked at art and manipulated them. Inadvertently Mr. Benjamin you might say that art now became public property, for the simply educated Mona Lisa and the Last Supper became calendar art to hang over the kitchen sink. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, Paul Valery saw it coming, visual and auditory images brought into homes from far away like water gas and electricity and finally, God help us all, the television. Positively Mr. Benjamin, with mechanization, advertising artworks made directly for a market what America’s all about. Always has been, Mr. Huizinga. Always has been, Mr. Benjamin. Everything becomes an item of commerce and the market names the price. And the price becomes the criterion for everything. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out when the uniqueness of every reality is overcome by the acceptance of its reproduction, so art is designed for its reproducibility. Give them the choice, Mr. Benjamin, and the mass will always choose the fake. Choose the fake, Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out, it’s wiped out Mr. Benjamin. Wiped out, Mr. Huizinga. Choose the fake, Mr. Benjamin. Absolutely, Mr. Huizinga! Positively Mr. Benjamowww! Good God! a way to find a sharp pencil just sit still avoid stress stop singing what, anybody heard me they’d think I was losing my, that I’d lost it yes maybe I have . . .
In X’ed Out, Burns introduces us to his protagonist Doug, a would-be art-punk poet whose Burroughsesque sound-collage performances are misunderstood by everyone but Sarah, a troubled artist whose photographs and installations reverberate with menacing violence. We first find Doug in the aftermath of an unnamed trauma involving Sarah and her tyrannical boyfriend—a trauma that Sugar Skull must and does answer to. The trauma transports Doug from his dead father’s office, where he’s been hiding and popping pills, into a fever-dreamscape reminiscent of William Burroughs’s Interzone. In this world, Doug becomes Nitnit, his own features transmuted to the Tintin mask he wears when performing his cut-ups.
The Hive takes Doug/Nitnit even deeper into Interzone, into its subterranean caverns, gaping like tumorous wombs, while simultaneously moving the “real” Doug forward and backward in time, through his doomed relationship with Sarah and into the fallout of their split, where Doug short circuits.
Sugar Skull completes this circuit, offering readers the complete picture—and an exit out of Interzone—even as it dooms Doug/Nitnit to repeat the past. We find here the traumatic violence of love, death, begetting, and denial.
The trilogy’s development evinces in Burns’s rich cover art. X’ed Out shows us young, skinny Doug, his head bandaged, his haircut an echo of Tintin’s cowlick. Wrapped in his dead father’s purple robe and set against utter wreckage, young Doug regards a massive egg, itself a visual echo of a Tintin cover. The cover of The Hive shows us an older, heavier Doug, lost and confused in the abject uterine labyrinth of the Hive. In the lower-right corner—the same space the egg occupies on the cover of X’ed Out—lurks one of Interzone’s mutable mutants. This figure repeats in the trilogy, an amorphous being who shifts from Nitnit’s aide and familiar, to a dog stranded in a flood, to a piglet in a jar, to a massive breed-sow, to, perhaps, Doug’s father—and then Doug himself.
The figure opposite an older, fatter Doug on the cover of Sugar Skull condenses these roles into the emblem of death: it is at once the skeleton of the mutant, but also the frame of Doug’s dead father and the emblem of the symbolic infanticide at the core of the trilogy. And so we get the natural progression of life—from egg and embryo to a pink bundle of mobile cells to skeletal remains—set against an uncanny, chaotic backdrop.
Throughout the trilogy, Burns forces reader and Doug alike to navigate that chaos. The first two volumes in the series propelled the reader (and Doug, of course) through different times, different realities, sifting through the awful wreckage for clues, for a pattern, for an answer that might explain poor Doug’s trauma. By the beginning of Sugar Skull, our hero is finally equipped with a map to guide him through the underworld:
“Why does this have to be so difficult?” our hero wonders. Because of repressed fear, anger, hurt—and failure. The real trauma, the secret trauma, of the trilogy is Doug’s radical failure. This failure keeps him up at night, both in waking sweat, but also in his Interzone, the fantasy world where the repressed returns, where his alter-ego Nitnit can play boy detective. And yet, as we see in Sugar Skull, Nitnit, dream warrior, is ultimately unequipped to right the wrongs of the past. He can only replay them in a dark, surreal space. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
X’ed Out and The Hive point repeatedly to the specter of violence and infanticide, both through implication in the dialogue as well as intense imagery. Both novels ominously arrange events that could only lead to the head wound that our hero sustains before the trilogy begins—a head wound that may or may not be a primary cause of Doug’s excursions into irreality.
The infanticidal images that haunt the first two books pointed to a deeper mystery though, one beyond the physical violence Doug suffered. Those books hinted at abortion or miscarriage. But there are other ways to lose children.
Have I over shared the plot? Or am I hinting too vaguely? Reviewing my lines, it seems like I’ve said nothing at all, or perhaps dwelled on the first two books too much.
To simplify: Sugar Skull is sad and beautiful and strange and deeply human—this is not the tale of a doppelgänger’s adventures in wonderland, but rather the story of youth’s cowardice, of how we fail ourselves and others, how the versions of ourselves that we try to pin down—like Doug, who takes endless selfies with a Polaroid—are not nearly as stable as we might like them to be. Sugar Skull also explores how we cover over those instabilities and failures—I didn’t do those things; This isn’t happening to me.
The final moments of Sugar Skull enact a shock to stability, to sense of self. Burns fulfills a narrative promise to his readers, and to Doug—one that, if I’m honest, was not what I had predicted at all—and then sends Doug’s altered-ego Nitnit into the desert wilds. The last few pages of Sugar Skull seem to borrow as much from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as they do from Hergés Tintin or William Burroughs.
And yet Doug passes through the wasteland to a refuge of sorts, the dream-double of two other settings that figure prominently in the trilogy, condensed into a place that is and is not. The setting mirrors Doug’s doomed double-consciousness, a consciousness condemned to repeat the same cycle, to respond again and again to the same terrifying call to nightmare-adventure.
I’ve neglected to comment on Burns’s wonderful art, mostly because I think it speaks for itself. His heavy inks and rich colors help unify the shift in styles that mark Doug’s movement between worlds. The trilogy would be worth the admission price alone just for the art, but Burns offers so much more with his storytelling. What’s perhaps most impressive is how thematically precise Burns’s images are—how panels, angles, shots, poses, gestures, and expressions repeat with difference from volume to volume. Burns uses these repeated images to subtly evoke his theme of cycles, doubles, and reiterations. In rereading we see again, recognize again—but from a different perspective.
And if Burns strands Doug/Nitnit in a loop of repetition, he also extends, perhaps, that same chance to his hero—to see again, but from a different perspective. If Sugar Skull forecloses the possibility of escape from the past, it doesn’t cut off a generative futurity. And as our protagonist awakes—again—to follow Inky into the strange wreckage of the past, many readers will feel prompted to follow the pair—again, and then again.
Sugar Skull is available now in hardback from Pantheon.
I’ve been a fan of Roman Muradov’s strange and wonderful illustrations for a while now, so I was excited late this summer to get my hands on his début graphic novella, (In a Sense) Lost and Found (Nobrow Press). In my review, I wrote: “I loved Lost and Found, finding more in its details, shadowy corners, and the spaces between the panels with each new reading.” The book is a beauty, so I was thrilled when Roman agreed to discuss it with me over a series of emails. We also discussed his influences, his audience, his ongoing Yellow Zine projects, his recent cover for Joyce’s Dubliners, and his reaction to some of the confused Goodreads reviews his novella received. Check out Roman’s work at his website. You won’t be disappointed.
Biblioklept: When did you start working on (In a Sense) Lost and Found? Did you always have the concept kicking around?
Roman Muradov: The idea came to me in 2010 in the form of the title and the image of a protracted awakening. I wrote it as a short story, which had a much more conventional development and actually had some characters and plot movements, all of them completely dropped one by one on the way to the final version apart from the basic premise. I didn’t have a clear understanding of what was to be done with that premise, but the idea kept bothering me for some time, until I rewrote it a few times into a visual novella when Nobrow asked me if I wanted to pitch them something. Since then it went through several more drafts and even after everything was drawn and colored I had to go back and edit most of the dialogues, which is a nightmarish task in comics, since it involved re-lettering everything by hand.
Biblioklept: When you say you wrote it as a short story, I’m intrigued—like, do you mean as a sketch, or a set of directions, or as a tale with imagery? Part of the style of the book (and your style in general) is a confidence in the reader and the image to work together to make the narrative happen. When you were editing the dialogues, were you cutting out exposition, cues, contours?
RM: No, I mean a traditional pictureless short story. I was struggling with forms at the time and didn’t feel confident with any of them. In a way this still persists, because my comics are often deliberately deviating from the comics form, partially in my self-published experiments. The story itself was still ambiguous, I never considered showing what she lost, or how. With time I edited down all conversation to read as one self-interrupting monologue.
Biblioklept: I want to circle back to (In a Sense) Lost and Found, but let’s explore the idea that your work intentionally departs from the conventions of cartooning. When did you start making comics? What were the early comics that you were reading, absorbing, understanding, and misunderstanding?
RM: I came to comics pretty late; I only discovered Chris Ware & co around 2009. As a child I spent one summer drawing and writing little stories, ostensibly comics, then I stopped for a couple of decades. I’m not really sure why I started or stopped. In general my youth was marked by extraordinary complacency and indifference. I followed my parents’ advice and studied petroleum engineering, then worked as a petroleum engineer of sorts for a year and a half, then quit and decided to become an artist. I still feel that none of these decisions were made by me. Occasionally certain parts of my work seem to write themselves and I grow to understand them much later, which is weird.
Biblioklept: Was Ware a signal figure for you? What other comic artists did you find around that time?
Ware, Clowes & Jason were the first independent cartoonist I discovered and I ended up ripping them off quite blatantly for a year or so. Seth was also a big influence, particularly his minute attention to detail and his treatment of time, the way he stretches certain sequences into pages and pages, then skips entire plot movements altogether. Reading Tim Hensley’s Wally Gropius was a huge revelation, it felt like I was given permission to deviate from the form. Similarly, I remember reading Queneau’s “Last Days” in Barbara Wright’s translation, and there was the phrase “the car ran ovaries body” or something like that, and I thought “oh, I didn’t know this was allowed.”
Biblioklept: Your work strikes me as having more in common with a certain streak of modernist and postmodernist prose literature than it does with alt comix. Were you always reading literature in your petroleum engineer days?
RM: That’s certainly true, nowadays I’m almost never influenced by other cartoonists. I wasn’t a good reader until my mid-twenties, certainly not back in Russia. I stumbled upon Alfred Jarry (not in person) while killing time in the library, and then it was a chain reaction to Quenau, Perec and Roussel, then all the modernists and postmodernists, particularly Kafka, Joyce, Nabokov and Proust.
Biblioklept: How do you think those writers—the last four you mention in particular—influence your approach to framing your stories?
RM: From Nabokov I stole his love for puzzles and subtle connections, a slightly hysterical tone, his shameless use of puns and alliteration, from Kafka–economy of language and a certain mistrust of metaphors–it always seems to me that his images and symbols stretch into an infinite loop defying straightforward interpretation by default, from Joyce and Proust the mix of exactitude and vagueness, and the prevalence of style over story, the choreography of space and time. I should’ve say “I’m in the process of stealing,” I realize that all of these things are far too complex, and I doubt that I’ll ever feel truly competent with any of these authors as a reader, let alone as a follower.
Biblioklept:(In a Sense) Lost and Found begins with a reference to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and then plunges into a Kafkaesque—to use your phrasing—“infinite loop defying straightforward interpretation.” How consciously were you following Kafka’s strange, skewed lead?
RM: I wanted the reference to be as obvious as possible, almost a direct copy, as if it’s placed there as an act of surrender–I’m not going to come up with a story, here’s one of most famous opening lines that you already know. Usually I know the beginning and the ending and I often downplay their importance, so that the work becomes focused mostly on the process and so that readers don’t expect any kind of resolution or satisfactory narrative development. In the password scene the phrases are copied directly from Eliot’s Wasteland, which itself refers to Paradise Lost in these passages. It’s a bit like a broken radio, shamelessly borrowing from the narrator’s visual and literary vocabulary, the way it happens in a dream.