In Ruts and Gullies, graphic novelist Philippe Girard recounts a trip he took to Saint Petersburg, Russia, with fellow graphic novelist Jimmy Beaulieu. Though the story itself is fairly straightforward — Girard and Beaulieu tour Saint Petersburg, attend a comic book convention, and lose a passport (among other things) — the author uses the trip as a backdrop for a number of musings on life and death in the postmodern world. As is the case in any travelogue worth its salt, Ruts and Gullies does an admirable job of examining the cultural and linguistic differences between the denizens of Saint Petersburg and those of Quebec, where he makes his home. Yet he also uses the adventure to reflect upon the death of a close friend; through a series of surreal dream sequences, the narrator-cum-author makes peace with the past and gains an opportunity to move on with his life.
In this sense, Ruts and Gullies suggests that being away from home and finding oneself plunged into an alien culture emerges not just as a form of therapy, but a way of finding oneself. Not that this notion is anything new, but Girard does a nice job of helping us understand why this is the case: as he and Beaulieu struggle to understand the curious cartography of Russian street maps, they practically step out of time and space — or, at the very least, they are displaced from their normal, habitual perceptions of time and space and are forced to reorient themselves to the world at large. Likewise, explaining their own cultural idiosyncrasies to their hosts forces Girard and Beaulieu to examine their own lives in greater depth than usual — the whys and wherefores behind everything they have, up until now, taken for granted as “normal.”
Stylistically, Ruts and Gullies doesn’t take many risks. Each page consists of six square panels, and the illustrations contained therein are somewhat reminiscent of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. It is, however, interesting to read Girard’s work alongside that of Beaulieu — especially, I would imagine, for fans of the latter. Where Beaulieu tends to depict himself as uncertain and relatively timid in much of his own work, he comes off as the more daring of the two in this volume. In this sense, Girard’s depiction of Beaulieu underscores what may be the most important theme in Ruts and Gullies: the best way to figure out who we are is to look at ourselves through someone else’s eyes.
Codename Pragueis the second book that D. Harlan Wilson has asked me to review. The first was They Had Goat Heads, which left me completely baffled, and I’m still at a loss as to what to say about the man’s writing. Given that he appears to have my mailing address, however, I should probably say something nice, like the novel is a smart, witty, mind-bending techno-thriller (which is true). In fact, it’s probably the smartest of the bizarro novels I’ve read since stumbling upon the genre. Like Andersen Prunty’s The Beard, Codename Prague flaunts many of the rules of traditional storytelling to reveal that such rules are, at best, artificial and, at worse, completely arbitrary. And like Jess Gulbranson’s 10 A Boot Stomping, the novel has the feel of a whacked-out Philip K. Dick novel. What separates Codename Prague from other bizarro works, however, is its apparent literary pedigree.
Among the more “literary” touches in the novel are an (implied) army of insectoid assassins known as SAMSAs (Syncretic American Metaformulaic Stock Agents), a pair of Keatsian lab assistants named Truth and Beauty (who are ugly and tend to lie), and a psychocorporeal fusion of John Keats and Adolph Hitler known as the Sans Merci. To keep things interesting,Wilson also throws in a number of references to pop-culture icons like Michael Jackson and James Cagney. And a plot, which has something to do with an assassin (codename: Vincent Prague; real name: Vincent Prague) trying to stop the Sans Merci from being unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Or something along those lines. To be honest, I’m not really sure. At this point, I’m wondering whether I actually read the book or it was all just a dream.
Let’s just put it this way: D. Harlan Wilson’s latest novel is a highly-polished, really weird and (sometimes) really funny example of metafiction. If you’re into that kind of thing, then you’ll definitely love Codename Prague. If not, well, you probably stopped reading this review two paragraphs ago.
Kerry Byrne’s Lillian the Legend is a historical graphic novel that traces the journey of Lillian Alling from Russia to the United States and back again by way of the Yukon trail. Throughout the work, Byrne’s art is both playful and intricate. When her characters smile, they smile broadly; when they frown, their sadness is unmistakable. The most engaging art in this graphic novel, however, is that which depicts setting. Her streets of New York circa 1920 are crammed (even cramped) with fine detail and stand in stark contrast to the wide-open, almost spare, landscapes she uses to depict the Alberta prairie. Likewise, her cutaway views of things like steamships and overcrowded textile mills reveal what may be the theme at the heart of Byrne’s work: the world within a world that a knowledge of history provides.
The narrative itself is as spare as Byrne’s depcition of the Canadian countryside. For the most part, Byrne offers exposition to underscore the story that’s unfolding in each panel of Lillian’s tale. When Lillian does engage in dialogue with anyone she meets, the exchanges are brief and, more often than not, fraught with miscommunication, thus drawing attention to a second theme inherent in the narrative: that of isolation. With little means of communicating with the denizens of her adopted country, it’s no wonder that Lillian prefers the solitude of a long journey home. All she wants, it would seem, is to connect.
Just a quick note on one of the many reasons why I love small presses.
A few days ago, my friend and publisher Martin Shepard of the Permanent Press sent me a few books he thought I might like. One of them was a novel that was published in 2007 and sold about 400 copies. A subsequent novel by the same author, Marty explained, only sold 140 copies. Yet Marty and his wife, Judith, decided to go ahead and publish a third novel by the same author. In Marty’s words, “Hey, if you like a writer, no reason to give him or her up just because sales are almost non-existent.”
As someone who’s spoken to a good number of editors and agents (and who reads extensively about the publishing industry), I can say with complete certainty that I’ve never heard anyone associated with a major publishing conglomerate say anything even close to what Marty said in his brief note. He publishes books because he loves them — and loves sharing their work with the world — not because they might make a buck or two.
To me, this is what the small press movement is all about.