People We Know

Most novelists wouldn't dare to launch their careers with a book about the little things that happen to them on their way to trying to launch their careers as novelists, but Gabrielle Bell's installation of the comic book Drawn and Quarterly(not quite a graphic novel but a collection of graphic novelettes and short stories) is so modestly simple in its conception and in its graphics that it disarms any criticism that she's narcissistic.

Though blatantly autobiographical, especially in a first section which is written in the form of daily diary entries, Bell's Quarterly entry, “Lucky,” gives us a sweetly fragile world that's doubtlessly familiar to that army of post-collegiate urban and suburban bohos who wear thrift clothes, string part-time jobs together to pay the rent, hang out and get depressed, and write (or paint, or act, or whatever). Bell's main character, Gabrielle, spends her days and nights helping her friends move from one tiny overpriced Brooklyn apartment to another, modeling nude for arts classes (which she hates doing, crying afterwards in the changing room), going to performance art shows or museums with friends, coping with roommates who communicate via refrigerator note, tutoring annoying 12-year-old boys, whacking bugs that crawl up her bedroom wall, and negotiating her relationship with her boyfriend, Tom, whose career and apartment situations get him so paralyzingly depressed that at one point he altogether goes limp and “plays dead”: Gabrielle has to carry his full weight from a couch back to their bed.

Luckily, Tom doesn't weigh very much. Nobody in this book does, actually: they're all slim, slump-shouldered, shapeless, sexless. Though Gabrielle's friends are all artist types, they're not particularly liberated: there's little drinking, no drug taking, and nobody seems to have the energy or disposition for lust. It's a Calvinist bohemian scene—much more an East- than a West Coast thing—where a bunch of young men and women devote themselves to the hard work of making art, and care little about money, success, or conventional forms of pleasure. When it comes to anything but art, they're meek as mice, afraid to call landlords about holes in the bathroom wall, and nonplussed when confronted with people who express powerful emotions. Bell conveys it all with a tender honesty that makes us feel protective toward her characters. Bell's ink drawings are endearingly primitive, especially in the diary section: everyone's eyes are simple little dots, and it would be difficult to tell characters apart if it weren't for their hair. The characters tend to stand apart from each other, as if they're suspended in space or are afraid to touch, and a striking loneliness (even among friends, even among couples) pervades the drawings. The book gives off the same quality of wistful lonesomeness that so much of 1980s culture specialized in: indie films or R.E.M albums and the stories of Raymond Carver or Frederick Barthelme.

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Kevin Huizenga's Drawn and Quarterly contribution, “Curses,” is set not in bohemian Brooklyn but deep in Wal-Mart country (the actual setting is Grand Rapids, Michigan, but with its planned communities, strip malls and fast food joints it could just be Anyburb, USA). Huizenga's ambitions are so much greater—and his graphic talents so much more developed—that the book transcends its blighted settings. It in fact is transcending one's boring world by burrowing into myth, history, folk tale, even science and theology—into imaginative and intellectual pursuits that can help link us all through the separations of time and space. This is a hell of a debut, and announces the coming of age of a writer who could in time approach the achievements of his obvious hero.

This book of graphic short stories centers around Huizenga's alter ego Glenn Ganges, who lives in a quiet tree-lined suburb with his wife, Wendy, but the stories unlock themselves from realistic time and place as soon as something catches hold of Glenn's obsessive consciousness. In “Lost and Found,” Glenn's trip to the mailbox to get his mail becomes a prolonged meditation on lost and displaced people. Fixating on those “Have You Seen Us?” cards that come almost weekly in the mail detailing lost and kidnapped children, Glenn goes into a reverie about these children's lives. But while he's meditating on that, he sees two black young men go by, whom he identifies as Sudanese refugees that the town has lately taken in.

Through Glenn's consciousness, Huizenga recounts their horrible history, characterized by war atrocities and loss of family, while the drawings show the refugees walking bewildered through Target-like superstores bursting with merchandise. The story makes the 20 steps to and from the mailbox a postmodern sociopolitical adventure of the most painful and disorienting sort.

Another story begins with Glenn speaking directly to the reader: “Well, I certainly don't expect you to believe me, but here goes,” and launches into the story of how as a college student he became obsessed with the subject of “vision,” which led him to research and study so intense that it appears he began seeing things. Right on campus he kept seeing a dog that had a man's severed hand in its mouth. It stalked him everywhere he went.

Was it a real vision, like those experienced by American Indian teenagers who were attempting to contact the Great Spirit? Or just hallucination caused by stress and overwork? He thought the latter until four years later, when he came upon nearly 200-year-old letters brought to him by a neighbor, letters that recounted the experiences of a Reverend who was so disturbed by increasing visions of being followed around by a monkey that he finally killed himself. These letters are a conduit into a long-gone history that illuminates Glenn's fragile psychology.

One story uses the actual language of a boy's adoption papers—presumably Huizenga's, though that's not clear from the text—and puts them into frames that simulate Japanese watercolor paintings of waterfalls and moss-covered crags. The story of the boy's parents and their “reason for relinquishment” is ordinary—the mother is a factory girl impregnated by a man who didn't stick around. But juxtaposed against images of nature's enduring stillness, the history of these parents is told under the aspect of eternity and takes on a sort of melancholic universality as a result. Other stories include “Jeepers Jacobs,” about a fundamentalist theology professor writing a (thoroughly researched and argued) paper on the existence and quality of Hell, in between playing golf with Glenn and his other suburban buddies; and “28th Street,” an adopted folk tale in which Glenn enters a magical world in order to overcome the curse that's prevented his wife from getting pregnant. The sight of Glenn wandering through the suburban Waste Land—the story resolves itself literally in the basement of a shopping mall—in a search for fertility pointedly recalls and updates T.S. Eliot in a provocative way. Huizenga is a major talent.


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