It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads Jerri Sher’s debut novel, The Twig Painter, that the author has a background in the film industry as both a writer and producer, as the concepts she works with all cry out for a big Hollywood production. The novel centers on a big-pharma plot to cover up the discovery of a potential cure for AIDS in the blood of a vagabond artist known only as Twig. The villains who hatch this plot, moreover, are villains writ-large, impeccably-dressed executives who shout into telephones, arrange for murders, and make metaphorical pacts with the devil — all in the name of increased profit margins and all without ever getting their hands dirty. Standing against the forces of evil is the novel’s heroine, Penny Sears, a recently widowed mother whose newly rekindled romance with an old friend becomes complicated when the CIA enlists her to return to the field after a fifteen-year hiatus. As the novel progresses, moreover, Penny begins to understand how truly complicated — and intertwined — all of the forces in her life have become. Everything is connected, The Twig Painter suggests at every turn. Whether the glue that holds it all together is greed, love, or something in between remains up for grabs.
A Rope Around Your Broken Neck, the latest one-shot comic from Attackosaur Comics, is one-part horror show, one-part history lesson, and one-part commentary on human nature. Set in the Tower of London at the height of the Black Plague, the book follows the efforts of a brooding prison doctor to make sense of the pain and suffering that surround him. His family has been taken by the dread disease, his king and countrymen have fled the city, and it appears as if God has vanished from the scene along with them. In fact, the only person who appears not to have been touched by the plague is a Spanish priest imprisoned for heresy. The problem, of course, is that the doctor can’t make sense of the priest’s apparent immunity to the plague: if God is a just God who sides with the King, then why does a Catholic priest — which is to say an infidel, as far as the Church of England is concerned — go unscathed while the truly faithful perish?
In terms of style, the book is evocative of modern classics by the likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. The mood of the comic makes it hard to shake the feeling that Dream, the lead character of Gaiman’s Sandman series, is lurking around every corner, lying in wait to confront his sister, Death. Likewise, the sinister garb of the prison doctor (pictured) makes for an immediately iconic anti-hero reminiscent of the Guy Fawkes-esque V in Moore’s V for Vendetta. (To be honest, I’d love to see a modern version of this figure fighting crime and corruption in contemporary London while wrestling with his own existential angst over the nature of justice and the difference between good and evil.)
As the title may suggest, A Rope Around Your Broken Neck is not for the faint of heart. Like much of human history, it’s complicated, dark, and violent. Yet by exploring the darker side of human nature, author Martin Ian Smith and artists R. Ricardo and Nicolas Brondo offer a thought-provoking (if somewhat grim) assessment of faith, justice, social order, and survival.
In The Gravedigger, Ilan Herman offers an extended meditation on the relationship between the living and the dead — and how storytelling serves as a bridge between both states. Adam, the novel’s protagonist, is, for the most part, a pragmatist whose earthly duties preclude speculation about the afterlife. His unswerving interest in the quotidian, however, is disrupted when the ghost of a long-dead despot selects Adam to serve as his scribe. This turn of events forces Adam to reflect not only upon the losses he has endured over the course of his life — the death of his young wife chief among them — but also upon his own mortality and the inevitable passing of everyone he’s ever loved. In short, communing with the dead teaches Adam to make the most of what remains of his life.
Stylistically, The Gravedigger is fairly complex insofar as the novel consists of three interconnected narratives: Adam’s life in the present tense, the death of his wife, and the epic life of his spectral visitor. At the same time, Herman toggles between story arcs with minimum fuss, and the novel’s setting remains mostly static: nearly all of its action takes place on the grounds of the cemetery where Adam lives and works. Indeed, Herman’s writing is so economical that the novel unfolds within the space of a little over 150 pages. Given the subject matter, this spareness is certainly appropriate and sets a tone that is both reverent and haunting.
Richard Gallin, the protagonist of Joseph Mackin’s Pretend All Your Life, is a man at a crossroads. After losing his son in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, he’s seen his upscale Manhattan plastic surgery practice hit a slump matched only by the slump in the relationship with his latest longtime girlfriend. Meanwhile, he’s being hounded by a blackmailing investigative reporter whose “research” has allegedly turned up some dirt on the doctor just as the looming specter of his own inevitable mortality starts to make the first major forays into his consciousness. In short, recent events are forcing Gallin to question everything — from his life’s work right down to his choice of running shoes.
Needless to say, the setting of the novel places Pretend All Your Life in the company of other post-9/11 meditations like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Spike Lee’s 25th Hour. What sets Mackin’s novel apart from these other titles, however, is its distance from the events. Writing nearly a decade on (God, has it been that long?), Mackin assesses the events and their fallout with a degree of intellectual clarity that’s lacking in Safran Foer and emotional intensity that’s missing in DeLillo. To put it another way, the fact that Mackin’s protagonist is an adult means that his grasp of the historic situation is much more knowing than that of Safran Foer’s child narrator. Moreover, the fact that Mackin avoids abstract philosophizing makes Gallin more sympathetic than DeLillo’s protagonist. Or, to put it yet another way, Pretend All Your Life presents the best of both worlds; it is as smart as it is heartfelt and thus, to my mind, the best reflection on post-9/11 America written to date.
One thing that makes Pretend All Your Life so complex and engaging is its focus on the tension between appearances and reality — a tension that is underscored by Gallin’s career as a plastic surgeon. Having dedicated his life to making people beautiful, the doctor has all but convinced himself that what he does is no less important than that of other physicians, that he is, in fact, making the world a better place by bringing the outward appearance of his patients into alignment with their inner beauty. The problem, however, is that for all of the outer beauty he’s created in his own life, Gallin’s inner life is a mess, a disparity that’s writ large throughout Manhattan in the wake of the terror attacks. Within this context, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers reads like the perverse opposite of Gallin’s career in that the the immeasurable ugliness of the event brings the inner turmoil of a nation to the surface. Ultimately, the novel is not only about rebuilding and healing, but also about the difficult choices we need to make about who we want to be before we can begin to start our lives anew.
With the tenth anniversary of September 11 a little over a year away, there’s no doubt that we’ll be seeing a flood of retrospectives on that terrible day over the course of the coming months. Fortunately, Pretend All Your Life is ahead of the curve, for it sets a complex tone that satisfies both emotionally and intellectually. It is, in short, a powerful and moving book on what may well be the most difficult of subjects for Americans to ponder.