Monday, 19 November 2007

Review (of sorts): The Book of Other People

The Book of Other People, edited by Zadie Smith, covers by Charles Burns, Hamish Hamilton, 2007
Features (alongside prose stories): “Justin M Damiano” by Daniel Clowes
“J Johnson: A Writing Life” by Nick Hornby and Posy Simmonds
“Jordan Wellington Lint to the Age 13” by Chris Ware
19 pages of comics, plus a 5-page illustrated story (out of 296 pages), £16.99

The Book of Other People is a collection of stories and descriptions of new fictional characters, complied by Zadie Smith (author of White Teeth) and sold in aid of Dave Eggers’s charity 826 NYC, which helps children to write. It contains a number of stories by current luminaries of Brit Lit and the McSweeney’s crowd (such as AL Kennedy, Adam Thirlwell, Eggers, Jonathan Lethem).

It also contains two comic strips and an illustrated account written by Nick Hornby and drawn by Posy Simmonds of the life of a writer, told through his books’ author bios and author pictures. This is neatly done and amusing, and only a little sad (true, he does end up ghosting non-books by talent show winners, but he seems to have a rich family life). Hornby steers him through career changes that are perhaps too sharp, but Simmonds superbly captures both the author's ageing and his changing attitudes.

Daniel Clowes’s “Justin M Damiano” is a typically acute but sour piece about a self-righteous self-appointed film critic, while Chris Ware’s “Jordan Wellington Lint” also stays well within its author’s usual emotional range – at the end which encompasses sadness and despair, rather than disgust and self-contempt.

Smith’s introduction draws no attention to any differences between these and the purely prose offerings of the other contributors. But although the theme of the book is “making people up”, there are no attempts to do this in other ways which could be reproduced in print: no poems, for example, or portraits, except for Charles Burns’s cover drawings. Similarly, an anthology called War Without End, published by the Stop the War Coalition and United for Peace and Justice, and which happened to be shelved near The Book of Other People at Blackwell’s bookshop, places non-fiction comics work by Joe Sacco alongside prose journalism (and nothing else) without comment.

This is of a piece with the tendency for newspapers to lump reviews of graphic novels in with the book, and particularly fiction, reviews. It is sometimes remarked upon that critics in these mainstream outlets rarely discuss the artwork in graphic novels, but, then again, they rarely discuss the effects of the use of language in prose fiction either. They dine on the three courses of theme, plot and character, leaving the critics of visual arts and poetry to gnaw on the use of image and word.

Is this a fair treatment? Are Clowes and Ware essentially doing the same things as prose writers? Reading “Justin M Damiano”, it is tempting to think so. Clowes gives us a portrait of self-deceiving self-absorption, delineated by a particular sequence of events. There are a couple of comics techniques here that could only be paralleled clumsily in prose – Clowes shows Damiano’s lack of attention to what others are saying by obscuring their speech balloons behind his captions, and makes a point about fantasy and memory by having Damiano cast a waitress who he has just seen as his ex-girlfriend in an imaginary movie. But on the whole, the same story could be told in prose with a minimum of adaptation.

Ware is something else again. He is not attempting anything straightforwardly mimetic. His abstracted, diagrammatic approach to baby Jordan’s earliest encounters with language, for example, surely bears little direct relation to the nature of a small child’s sensory experience or thought processes. And yet it lays bare the experience in a clear and strangely affecting way.

If this highly structured, evocative, yet non-literal approach has any close relation in the land of only-words, it is surely poetry, not prose (though it would be one hell of a job to translate from one medium to the other). And yet poetry lies outside The Book of Other People’s ambit, while Ware’s comics work does not.

One last note: this book is published in aid of a charity established by Dave Eggers, the man behind McSweeney’s. It was in an issue of McSweeney’s that Michael Chabon raised his standard against the dominance of “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth, revelatory story”. But that is, on the whole, what The Book of Other People provides. Chabon is not among the contributors; nor are any of his collaborators on The Escapist comic books. I don’t recall that there was any poetry in them, either.

No comments: