Wearing the Mask: James Sturm’s Off Season

Off Season, the title of James Sturm’s latest comic, refers to New England in winter, as experienced on a trip that the main character, Mark, newly separated from his wife, Lisa, takes with their kids to Maine one blustery November weekend. It’s off season: most of the stores and restaurants are closed; the beach is freezing; the kids hungry and restive. The only place open is a 7-11. Walking past an art gallery, Mark remembers that he and Lisa bought a painting there in happier days. He was shocked, and pleased, to find himself becoming the kind of guy who buys art. But now he wonders if that decision was all Lisa’s. He imagines coming back to the seaside town in the summer, to find out what he really wants. Maybe he is a guy who buys art.

Not that he can afford any. Lisa has, as he sourly puts it, “the house, the rich parents, and plenty of time to volunteer for ol’ crooked Hillary” (he supported Bernie). Mark, a contractor who can fix anything, has had to sell his truck, which means that instead of being independent, he now works for a shady guy named Mick, a Bernie Bro with a BMW who does good work when he gets around to it, but gives Mark the runaround, writes bad checks, and eventually spreads lies about him. We don’t know enough about Mick to say for sure, he’s probably a shit all the time, but Mark’s hard time, at least, is an aberration from the life he thought he had been living.

imageedit_2_9783197801

Which brings us to the second meaning of Sturm’s title.  Not the off-season, but an off-season. A spell of bad luck and despair that can happen to anyone, anytime. And not just anyone: even countries can have off seasons. Mark’s trip with his kids to the shore doesn’t happen in any old November. It’s November 2016. Trump, seen only once in the book, haunts the book: his oleaginous, bullying, smug, thoughtless bluster seems at once a threat to some basic American decency and a confirmation that the very idea of decency was a fantasy, told by a few for a few. (We can’t just console ourselves by thinking that Trump and the selfishness and hatred he’s emboldened is an aberration.)

Sturm draws Trump as a piggy-faced dog–everyone in the book is a dog. Or a person-dog. Sturm’s choice nods to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, where the characters are humanoid animals, one for each ethnic or national group. The use of animals in place of people will always prompt questions of empathy and identification—and those are important questions to ask in a time when difference is even more demonized than usual. (Sturm alludes to the issue in a chapter showing how Mark and Lisa met: they worked backstage at a summer theater on the Cape, helping with a production of Orwell’s 1984 in which the actors wore masks: from off-screen, as it were, we hear the director and actors participating in a Q & A with the audience: “Using animals as human stand-ins is as old as storytelling…” one says; another asserts, “As an actor, it’s liberating to wear the mask.” Here Sturm at once acknowledges and ironizes what he’s up to.) But where Spiegelman’s conceit is tied to the world view of his father, a Holocaust survivor, Sturm’s feels less subjective. That is, the dogs don’t symbolize Mark’s views. It’s pretty amazing how much variety Sturm gets from his dog characters, and if I knew my breeds as well as my daughter does I could hazard some connections between how the characters look and what they’re like. But that would be to miss the point. The book isn’t schematic—most of these dogs aren’t pure breeds, I don’t think, they’re mutts.

4bfb08f6740d4aed852f9d596661cd9a

Off Season is unhappy about American politics. But it has nicer, and more nuanced, things to say about Americans. This comes up in its depiction of parenting, which might be its real subject. (Perhaps the idea is that Trump’s America is an unruly, even monstrous child, and good-enough—sympathetic but firm—parenting is what it needs.) The book is filled with parents trying to do their best, and mostly but of course not always succeeding. Mark and Lisa try hard not to take out their marital problems on their kids, though they sometimes fight through them. The best parent in the book is a minor character named Kirsten, the mother of a friend of Mark and Lisa’s son, and who, it is intimated, voted for Trump. In a memorable chapter, Mark and his daughter drive through a blizzard to pick the boy up from his friend’s house. The car spins off the road: they are unhurt but by the time they’ve trudged through the snow to the shelter of the house they’re cold and wet. Mark spends an enjoyable evening playing board games and eating chili with Kirsten and the various neighbourhood children who’ve gathered at her house, while he waits for her boyfriend to get home from work.

Barry gets Mark out of the ditch: when Mark thanks him, he replies, “Thank Jesus. He has our backs whether we know it or not.” That feels a little much (it’s not a totally implausible response, but in my experience people who think like this are usually more circumspect when first meeting someone—they will, however, say “Have a blessed day” to you all the time), but the point, maybe not subtle but also not wrong, is that we shouldn’t reduce people to their political convictions or opinions, shouldn’t be so quick to pigeon hole them. Maybe Mark is, after all, both a builder and an art lover. What would be so weird about that? (Or maybe the point is that we should consider the material and social conditions that allow people to live in cognitive dissonance: generous to individuals, even ones they don’t know, but hostile to groups. Or, maybe, hostile to individuals who don’t look like them.)

Apparently Sturm first published the book serially online in the wake of the 2016 election. But his concerns here aren’t only topical; he’s been thinking about them for a while. Sturm wrote one of my favourite comics, Market Day, set in the Pale of Settlement in the early 20th century, I. B. Singer, Sholem Aleichem territory, but shorn of anything folksy or sentimental. Its Yiddishkeit is as somber as Sturm’s palette—and as moving. I disagree with the Times reviewer who finds Off Season more vibrant than his earlier books because, unlike them, it’s set in the present. That’s a spurious distinction. It’s been several years since I read Market Day, so I may be misremembering, but both it and Off Season want us to think about how people—men, really: Sturm isn’t bad with women, but they are never center stage in his books—can make a living in economies that don’t value them. (Market Day is about a rug maker who can’t sell his work anymore; machine-made rugs cost a lot less.) In both books, the main characters respond to their precarity with violence, directed at others and at themselves. When Mark loses his cool, he doesn’t hurt anyone (at least not directly) but his response (he vandalizes the house he’s been building with Mitch) is disturbing. My criticism of Sturm is that he’s not sure what to make of violence. Is it an understandable, if regrettable, response to an intolerable situation? An intolerable response? Secretly exciting and laudable?

20100312bookssturm

Off Season ends in oblique, low-key optimism. Which is maybe the best we can hope for right now. It’s a beautiful, pensive, involving work: you can read it in an hour but you’ll want to linger longer. My only wish is that in his next book Sturm thought a little more about violence, frustration, anxiety, loathing, all kinds of bad affects. Are they what’s off this season? Or are they with us all the year long?

“Hey, let me in!” Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina

A lot happens in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina. A woman named Sabrina disappears; her distraught boyfriend, Teddy, goes to stay with his best friend from high school, Calvin, who now works with computers for the military; the woman’s sister, Sandra, struggles with her grief; a cat goes missing. But we rarely see these events directly. We see instead their after-effects, which, given the extremity of the events (the most drastic of which I am eliding here so that it stays a surprise), are traumatizing. Most often, those responses take the form of an almost wordless sinking into the anesthetizing commonplaces of middle American life. Characters sit in silence—whether they’re alone or not—watching tv, playing video games, wasting time online.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

NickDrnaso-Sabrina-Illustration-ItsNiceThat-269781783784905-8pizza-1

The style of Sabrina is at odds with Calvin’s young daughter’s favourite book. (She’s in Florida with her mother as the couple experiments with a trial separation, but she’s left a lot of toys behind in the bedroom Teddy uses.) Its pages overflowing with hectic, garish drawings, the children’s book is nothing like the one we’re reading. After all, it has a key: each page lists the names of the items young readers are meant to find in its pictures. Perhaps that promise of fixed meaning is why Teddy is so drawn to it.

NickDrnaso-Sabrina-Illustration-ItsNiceThat-4

Sabrina, by contrast, feels empty. It would be easy to turn this observation into judgment, to say something like: Sabrina is about a hopeless, denuded world, “the indigenous American berserk” as a form of numbing. Or: its characters are lost, helpless, incapable of self-reflection.

But talking about the book this way—as I find myself inclined to do—is wrong. I suspect most interpretations of the book will take the form of sociological diagnoses (what is wrong with America?). Sabrina connives with this way of thinking, because of the apparent affectlessness of its presentation, and its lack of interest in interiority or psychology. (In this sense, its totemic object is the psychological evaluation form Calvin and his co-workers are required to fill out at the beginning of each shift: What is your stress level, on a scale of one to five? How many units of alcohol did you consume last night? And at the bottom, three questions about whether you want to talk to anyone about anything, questions it is clear the answer to which should always be no.) But if Sabrina leads us to read in certain ways, that isn’t because it necessarily agrees with those ways, but because it wants us to ask why we read that way.

Every text is about interpretation in some way, but Sabrina foregrounds interpretation more than most. Which might seem funny because its characters say and do so little. (What’s to interpret, you might ask.) But the emptiness I mentioned earlier has an unexpected effect. Not that we need to ignore or undo it by unduly filling it but that we have to slow down, look closely, think about this only apparent blankness. Drnaso’s emptiness is a spur to thinking, not a convenient way to shut thinking down (as would be the case if we were to dismiss these people, this world). I’m reminded of Caché, Michael Haneke’s film about surveillance, and the way it makes viewers into paranoid readers, alert to the possibility that every quotidian scene could be sinister, every seemingly empty or boring frame of surveillance video could reveal significant horror. Not that Sabrina incites paranoia, but, like Caché, it turns the very way we look at (and therefore consume) it into the thing we most need to pay attention to, instead of, as we do too often, ignoring it as simply a neutral vehicle for receiving its themes.

On Twitter, Tony from Messenger’s Booker said he was uncertain about the book. He noted how hard it was to tell characters from one another, especially early on, and I certainly agree. In fact, at first, I often wasn’t sure if many of the characters were men or women. This uncertainty bothered me. But why? What was I doing in wanting distinctions when the book apparently didn’t? For whatever reason, I found this uncertainty more of a barrier than the book’s complete lack of exposition. You only find out important information—who characters are, how they know each other, where they live, what’s happened to them—retrospectively, or sometimes not at all. And the only suspenseful sequence—a lovely bit in which Teddy finally leaves his Calvin’s house in search of that missing cat; wandering the empty suburban roads he’s eventually given a lift by a guy in a truck—resolves benignly: we expect Truck Guy to take Teddy out to some deserted stretch of highway and murder him, but, nope, he just drives him right to the Humane Society. No cat there, though.

Drasno’s way of organizing his pages is similarly unsettling. He alternates between smaller, regular shaped panels and larger ones that are two or sometimes more rows high. When that happens, do we read the top row, then the second row, and finally the big panel? Or do we read the big panel in between the first and second rows? It’s not always easy to tell.

Drnaso8

That I took these narrative and visual ellipses and involutions in stride but was bothered that I couldn’t distinguish characters surely says something about me as a reader: I have plenty of experience with narrative experimentation, after all, but my resistance to corporeal uncertainty apparently runs deeper. Yet in the end neither of these modes of uncertainties matters much in themselves. They are just two possible examples of something much more important: the book’s ability to disquiet readers.

But more than unsettled or disquieted, Sabrina made me very, very sad. Even the final pages, which (assuming they aren’t a fantasy—always a possibility) suggest something like fulfillment for one of the characters, didn’t change my mood. At first, I responded to this sadness by explaining it away. I don’t need to be so sad, I said to myself, because life isn’t as hopeless as this book suggests. Most people, I insisted, aren’t quite this unable to communicate, aren’t quite this isolated, aren’t quite this close to the brink of absolute desperation. (Most people aren’t quite this traumatized, either, we might also like to think.) But I realized that this was a lousy response. A better way was to be true to my feelings. The most accurate response to contemporary reality, the philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote, is to acknowledge all the anxiety, all the sadness, our culture legitimately incites.

Besides, exaggerated or not, the book speaks truth. I felt this most strongly in its depiction of the relationship between anonymity and communication. Connection is routinely sterile, oblique, and failed; instead we are offered the echo-chamber of talk radio, the violence of online forums, the broken sentences of people under duress. When Sabrina’s fate is revealed, Calvin and Teddy are faced with virulent, cruel, hateful responses that I might have found unbelievable were I not on Twitter every other minute.

I wonder what J. G. Ballard would have made of this book. Surely, he would have recognized its landscape of empty spaces: office corridors, housing tracts, rest-stop fast-food joints. But he would have admired, even thrilled to see those anonymous non-spaces put at the center of such a powerful work. Drnaso is more circumspect. He’s not critiquing this homogeneous world, nor the people who live in it. But neither is he championing it as unsung or transformative. Even when Calvin takes a new job, packs up his life, stops on his way out of town to visit Teddy at his own new job, and hits the road (cue more rest stops, more empty restaurants, more generic motels), it’s hard to see these developments as new beginnings.

methode-sundaytimes-prod-web-bin-30549ea8-6e4f-11e8-b8aa-6e92c706c88b

On every page, the narrative and visual point of view of Sabrina is strikingly neutral. Perhaps the very form of comics allows this to be so. We can see things that the characters cannot; we can see things from a point of view that can more properly be called omniscient than anything in ordinary fiction. Take Calvin’s cross-country journey. In his hotel he is awoken by someone banging at the door. He stays in bed, but in the following panels we see what he can’t (though presumably he hears at least some of it): a man at first apologizing and then turning belligerent when his apology isn’t rewarded. Then we see the man’s partner calling to him from down the hall. The man—maybe he’s drunk, or just drunk on anger and self-righteousness—has the wrong room, is banging on the wrong door. The woman shuts the door in his face, and we’re left with a panel of the man in an empty corridor, standing to the side of the frame, as so often in this book. “Hey, let me in!” he shouts. No response. Good for the woman, we think. But isn’t she running a risk? Will she be okay? This resistance to the man’s violence feels dangerous in a book where violence comes so often to the surface. What does the book want us to think here? Is it critiquing Calvin for huddling in his room? Or the man for being a shit? Is it valuing the brave woman? Can anything change when people can’t talk to each other? Is talking so great anyway? Couldn’t that just be another ruse for the violent to get their way? It’s hard not to read a scene in which we are grateful that loud BANGs come only from a fist on a door and not a gun to the head as anything other than a critique of America today. But maybe the real lesson of this beautiful and disturbing book is that any diagnosis of contemporary America’s ills is just part of the problem.