Every once and a while, a genre gets dragged up a notch by a perfect specimen. In the case of L'ascension du haut-mal, by French cartoonist David B., recently published in its first full English edition as Epileptic, it's not the comic book or graphic novel that's being redefined, it's the memoir.
David's brother Jean-Cristophe, who suffered his first epileptic seizure at age 11, appears briefly at the beginning of the book as an adult, bloated from medication, scarred and missing teeth from falling, with bald patches where he's repeatedly hit his head. This image haunts the next 300-odd pages--a stark reminder that every attempt his desperate family makes to cure him, including experimental surgery, acupuncture, spiritualism, macrobiotics, alchemy, and exorcism, will fail--but despite his omnipresence, Epileptic is David's story, not Jean-Christophe's.
It starts out as standard fare, a childhood terrorizing his small French town, banding together with other children to create maximum mischief. David tries to have a normal life despite his brother's illness, and at times, when a treatment seems to work, he does. But as Jean-Christophe's condition worsens he becomes violent and tyrannical, demanding more and more attention, until David is driven to fight him to protect the family.
Over time he creates elaborate mental armor to protect himself. His younger sister Florence gets lost in the chaos and emerges as a teenager crippled by depression and anxiety. No one but David seems to notice. "I used to be convinced that I was going to catch my brother's epilepsy and then it would be my sister's turn," he writes. "The armor protects me, but it isolates me as well. . . . It's as if I'd offered my tongue, the better to battle epilepsy."
What lifts Epileptic above a standard illness narrative is the author's curiosity. With every strange turn--the family moving to a macrobiotic commune, his father's tinkering with alchemy in the garage--he delves fully into the tangent. He researches war to explain his childish bloodlust and penchant for drawing elaborate battle scenes. He presents the history of macrobiotics, the philosophies of the religions and "great thinkers" his mother consults, and, after his grandfather's death, he digs into his family's history as well. Throughout, David's belief system develops, more Of Human Bondage than A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
David and his family are crude figures drawn in stark black and white, but the demons and spirits that populate the artist's inner life are drawn in ornate style. His work has been compared to Marjane Satrapi's, which isn't that surprising, as David B., a founding member of the influential cartoonists' collective L'association, has been her mentor and publisher in France. But his style is more accomplished, and his very basic renderings of characters only demonstrates his lack of interest in the surface of things. He depicts Jean-Christophe's epilepsy as a dragon bisecting his body, and as his brother becomes sicker and more violent, the more he's drawn as a hulking, boorish figure, while the dragon becomes even more detailed. David himself is followed throughout much of the book by the ghost of his grandfather, who is transformed from an old, crippled figure to a beautifully rendered bird-spirit after his death.
Epileptic is labeled a "memoir" on the back jacket, but it'd be a shame to see this beautiful, heartbreaking work relegated to autobiography, or ghettoized in the comic book section. It's an extraordinary coming-of-age story--a portrait of a man becoming something other than a sick man's brother. --Jessa Crispin
THE FACTS BEHIND THE HELSINKI ROCCAMATIOS
Young writers would be wise to heed the advice that can be gleaned from The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, the first U.S. edition of a collection of stories originally published in the UK and Canada in 1993. One: Never give up. Yann Martel's first novel, Life of Pi, won the 2002 Booker Prize. Two: Keep your overhead low--while honing his craft, Martel lived off his parents. And three: No matter how successful you get, you shouldn't necessarily reissue your early work.
The title novella is structured as a story within a story. The framing tale involves the 23-year-old unnamed narrator and his university friend Paul. Paul has AIDS (but he's not gay, Martel takes pains to point out--he was infected via a blood transfusion). A problem arises: how to occupy Paul's mind, distract him from the toll the disease is taking on him. The two friends hit on a smashing idea. Inspired by The Decameron, they'll tell stories to each other, drawing on historical events to spin tales of a fictional family of well-to-do Finns, the Roccamatios. It's a nice conceit, but some insufferable name-dropping ("I go in and buy The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder, and a collection of short stories by the Italian writer Dino Buzzati.") and overwrought writing ("I lie very still. I breathe. I lie very still. I breathe. I lie very still. I breathe.") makes Martel's two snoots less sympathetic. The overall effect is that of a late-night parlor game played by smug lit students.
"The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto With One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton," in which a young Canadian tourist explores D.C. and stumbles across a semiprivate concert given by a group of Vietnam vets, doesn't fare much better. Too contrived, it seems like something tossed together to support its exposition-heavy title. The next, "Manners of Dying," also comes off smelling like a writing exercise, but it's at least an interesting piece. Consisting of nine variations on a letter written by a prison warden to a mother relating her condemned son's last evening, it humanizes the doomed.
The final story, "The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last Till Kingdom Come," promises to be a real groaner, opening with the rambling reminiscences of an elderly woman. But after two pages her listener, her grandson, chimes in with a figurative thought bubble: "Man, she can go on." It's an interesting tack, and as the parallel narration continues the story just gets more inventive, culminating in the discovery of a mirror-making machine among the grandmother's things that somehow "runs on memories." Charming and fanciful, this is the most satisfying of the bunch, and the clearest indication that, as Martel explains in his author's note, the sheer act of creating work he describes as "irredeemably blighted by immaturity" slowly set the then-directionless author on his proper path. --Jerome Ludwig
It must have been rough for Sam Lipsyte to have his feisty and satirical second novel rejected by umpteen U.S. publishers. His first, The Subject Steve, came out in 2002 to generally hot reviews. But things seem to have worked out well enough in the end: Picador picked it up it in the UK last year, and there's nothing like being forced to publish abroad to lend a work a whiff of persecuted genius.
Home Land (published stateside last month) is narrated by Teabag, a bright kid and "aphorism-slam" contestant who's now drinking away his wiseass 30s. When his philandering former high school principal invites him to write cheery updates about his life for the alumni newsletter, Teabag responds with charmingly bitter rants about Life and Truth. The ex-principal--a Peter Pan named Fontana who's been relegated to newsletter duty after getting caught with his hand in the poonie jar--suppresses Teabag's oeuvre, replacing it with an update more in line with the exploits of Tea's successful, straight-arrow classmates. Teabag keeps sending the letters anyway, packed with the lurid details of Fontana's life as well as the pitiful events of his own. Naturally, the two become drinking buddies.
Witty fun follows, as does a touching portrait of Teabag's grimy yet game inner life. I'm a proud part of the choir that's expected to yell, "Right on, brother!" as Teabag, given a chance to make a speech before his former schoolmates, spews a torrent of skewed aphorisms: "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him to corner the market on fish and be thankful for the small acts of philanthropy he may perform while depriving most of the world of fish." Among the slacker-lefty manifestos that spring from the same Catcher in the Rye-meets-Confederacy of Dunces stew, this is firm, masculine stuff indeed. But though the text is rich with cringing self-awareness and crotchety critiques of Teabag's peers, and though tender lines like "He had a sad nervous hole in his heart" poke through the sprays of hilarious dialogue, I can't bring myself to jump in the hype hammock with blurber Jerry Stahl, who squeals that "writing this deep and this hysterical pretty much didn't exist until Lipsyte began pouring it onto the page."
If Lipsyte has half the sense of humor to which his text testifies, he can't fail to find this crap embarrassing. Home Land is a fine comic novel with a fair amount of substance--and that itself is a backbreaking, life-consuming accomplishment. Instead of making grandiose claims, how about we just give the man credit for structural excellence? Teabag is allowed to ramble at will, but threads I had half-forgotten wrap up prettily after the denouement--a book about the Aztecs, for instance, first appears in an early chapter, propping up a windowsill, but makes a pointed return on the sixth-to-last page. And Lipsyte's sharp, unsentimental climax allows him to slip easily into a tragic stop-and-smell-the-corpses tone without breaking comic stride.
Though Teabag would probably deny it, one thread running through Lipsyte's narrative is the diminishment of expectations. Appropriately, the novel fulfills its own humble goals with a bit to spare. --Ann Sterzinger