David Pinner - Poetic and hallucinatory sequences: protagonist is slowly subjected to a spectacle of psychological trickery, sexual seduction, ancient religious practices and nightmarish sacrificial rituals

David Pinner, Ritual, Finders Keepers, 2011.[1967]

The original seed from which grew the towering movie enigma The Wicker Man.

"Ritual's opulent dialogue, with the sickly richness of its countryside, and Pinner's decaying village, can stand alone from the book's illustrious successor. But, be warned, like The Wicker Man, it is quite likely to test your dreams of leaving the city for a shady nook by a babbling brook." - Bob Stanley

"Shrouded in the same brand of mystery and contradiction that forms its tangled plot, Ritual, the 1967 debut by RADA-trained playwright David Pinner is commonly recognised by cult cinema fanatics as the original seed that grew into the towering movie enigma The Wicker Man. Four decades since it first hit the bookshelves, rediscover this true modern rarity and historical keystone in the well-trodden bridge between occult fiction and cinematic pop culture. Set against an enclosed rural Cornish landscape, Ritual follows the trail of English police officer, David Hanlin, who is requested to investigate the murder of a local child. During the protagonist's short stay, he is slowly subjected to a spectacle of psychological trickery, sexual seduction, ancient religious practices and nightmarish sacrificial rituals. All these fantastical ingredients were used for the cinematic rewrite by Anthony Schaffer who, along with Christopher Lee, obtained the film rights to Ritual six years after the novel's publication. Pinner's poetic and hallucinatory sequences were transformed into the rural celluloid folk story for Robin Hardy's 1973 film, The Wicker Man, which has enthralled and inspired generations of British movie patrons andfolk-pop enthusiasts throughout the world. Original copies of Ritual's short print run have been known to command price tags as high as £600, rendering reading copies, in any form, to be virtually untraceable... until now. Finders Keepers debut print run sees Ritual painstakingly reproduced fromt he authors own personal copy, including its original striking wood-cut cover artwork and a new forward by The Guardian / The Times journalist and pop composer Bob Stanley."

"Originally the plan was to film the book that the rights had been bought for, only for director Robin Hardy to change his mind and make something altogether different (and more serious) under the name of The Wicker Man, though both book and film share some similarities. Instead of being set in Scotland, Ritual is set in Cornwall, and the relatively remote locations for the two are used as a convincing and no doubt authentic backdrop for pagan activity. Both share a sexually repressed and puritanical Inspector investigating the murder/disappearance of a local girl, and the local communities both run circles around the Inspector (in Ritual his inability to see what is going on around him is served by his medical need to wear sunglasses at all times). They also feature a naked woman cavorting against a wall with the Inspector clutching desperately on the other side, and both at one point have the locals wearing animal masks. So the story has several elements that were carried on to The Wicker Man, but at the same time you can see why Hardy/Shaffer picked up the story and ran off in their own direction, tweaking it considerably into something else more cinematic and satisfying. The tone of the book has a jokey feel to it, as if the author is saying that he isn't taking it too seriously (he has said that his story was meant to be ironic), and the prose and dialogue is often flowery and downright odd. The Inspector is gradually driven insane by the locals and the twist ends with him murdering one of the children, with the explanation being that he suffers from sun madness bought on by his eye condition; he ends up sent to the madhouse; a chump all along.
Christopher Lee, Peter Snell, head of film company British Lion, and writer Anthony Shaffer all chipped in £5,000 each to pay for the rights to the book. So £15,000 in the early 70s would have been quite a princely sum. Apparently (according to the book about the making of the Wicker Man), Pinner has complained about plagiarism to the point where Hardy said he wished Pinner would shut up as he got paid well enough at the time compared to everybody else (by all accounts Lee waived his usual fee; Hardy got £4,500 for directing, Shaffer got £11,000 for his script). Little did anyone then know that the film would go on to be a sleeper hit and a cult classic that grows in stature as time goes on. A decent enough book then, once you get used to the style after the 75 page or so mark. Pinner went on to pen left-leaning tv plays." - Folk Horror Review

"David Pinner's Ritual opens in the English village of Thorn where the dead body of 8 year old Dian Spark is found by an oak tree. Suspicion is stirred by the fact she is holding a sprig of garlic and the press raise the question of a ritual killing. Enter Detective Inspector David Hanlin, a no nonsense police officer despatched from London to investigate the incident, and whose eyes remain almost permanently behind a pair of shades as he suffers from sun blindness.
Hanlin begins with Reverend White at his church who insists the village is a Christian one, but David notices the altar cross is missing, to which the Reverend insists it often disappears and reappears again. However, the holy man is outraged when David finds a monkey's head and garlic flowers on the altar.
Events cut to a seance being conducted by Dian's mother to ascertain if her child was murdered. Meanwhile, David is exploring the wood and is taken by Gypo, the local nutter, to the oak tree where Dian was found. The monkey's head is back, along with two bats pinned along side it.
Back at the seance, Mrs. Spark claims there is witchcraft in the village and some of those present are involved. The accusation stirs up hysteria among the group, until the village squire takes control, suggesting the police should be brought in. Quite conveniently, he then makes the acquaintance of David Hanlin when Anna brings the detective back to the house to give him lodging.
Hanlin initially spends his time visiting and getting to know the leading village characters. He visits Lawrence Cready, a rather camp character who had bought Squire Fenn's mansion, when Fenn had become debt ridden. Although Cready does have a witchcraft museum in his manor, he insists to David it is merely memorabilia. However, Hanlin discovers a doll falls with a pin stuck through its abdomen and the name Dian written across the back, when it falls out of the pocket of one of the local children, Fat Billy. The child goes hysterical, claiming he hated Dian and that her mother is a witch, but denies killing her. The boy is later found dead by the same oak tree.
Events come to a head when Hanlin receives an invitation from Cready to be initiated in a moon worshipping ceremony the villagers are holding. He goes. The villagers are dressed as animals, including two march hares, while Cready is dragged up as a man-woman. The proceedings end up on the beach at a bonfire flanked by an altar of stones where a white horse is sacrificed. The whole thing appears becomes hysterical, setting off a chain of accusation and counter accusation, before Hanlin eventually struggles and discovers the identity of the killer in a twist that no one sees coming.
If Ritual is famous for anything, it is as the novel Anthony Schaffer first considered for adaptation before deciding to do his own thing, which led to The Wicker Man. Ritual is very rich in its language. The problem is that, at times, this richness becomes over opulent in terms of dialogue. Virtually everyone in Thorn appears to be a budding poet or raconteur. The dialogue, at times, is amusing in its perversity ("Bullies always get their comeuppance! St. Valentine's Day is always hanging around some old garage!"), sometimes distracting ("You shouldn't gallop about in Gods house, you know!...God usually has his midday hibernation approximately now. He has to work very hard!"), often unbelievable in its absurdity ( "Who would dare, during my angelical reign, who would dare place a shrunken anthropoid's head on my high altar! This is really removing Lucifer's trousers."). It is difficult to judge whether Pinner simply got carried away or is deliberately having a laugh, given that the writer himself has stated Ritual to be "blackly, ironically humorous".
Pinner's characters are interesting. David Hanlin is a trickster, a man who is not always what he appears to be. He hides his eyes behind sunglasses, though is more for medical reasons than shielding himself from others. Throughout the book, Hanlin tells lies in order to further investigation, yet keeps telling himself he does not like lying; a symptom/prefiguring of his split personality perhaps? The supporting characters resemble a Hammer horror rep of the day, missing only the "arr, ye be stranger around here." Lawrence Cready, the main protagonist, is a wonderfully repulsive old queen of a man and is the containment of the only supernatural element of Ritual. Mrs.Spark, the murdered girl's mother, rebounds between grieving desperation and hysteria. Anna Spark is not unlike Willow in The Wicker Man; a sexual temptress.
Like language, Ritual is enriched in imagery, though not as over opulent. The novel opens with a butterfly - a symbol of metamorphosis - fluttering around the murdered Dian. Pinner plants the suggestion that the insect is Dian transformed, floating around her own dead body like a freed spirit. This is reinforced later when the butterfly lands on her Mrs. Spark's breast during the seance, the child returning to the source of maternal comfort. The insect is subsequently killed by Fat Billy. He is later accused of killing Dian, which he denies but admits he wanted to kill her. Maybe he did in killing the butterfly.
Pinner invests the novel with some memorable set pieces, such as the ritual slaughter of the horse or Cready's invasion/manipulation of Hanlin's unconscious mind. While these scenes add colour to the proceedings, they remain incidental rather than integral to the story. Cready's mind contact with Hanlin, being the only supernatural element in Ritual, particularly stands out of step with the remainder of the tale." - Princes Spider at amazon.com

David Pinner's web page


Ben Katchor - Part surrealistic travelogue and part satirical treatise on the very notion of culture, it is a book about imaginary places with enough heart to make its very real social commentary easily digestible

Ben Katchor, The Cardboard Valise, Pantheon, 2011.

"In this winsomely haunting graphic novel from Katchor—whose weekly strips have been collected into The Jew of New York and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, among others—an overstuffed suitcase becomes a ripe, comic metaphor for modern life. Set in a world tilted about 45 degrees away from reality, Katchor's story follows a number of characters through their quirky obsessions, each of which highlights a uniquely curious take on modernity. A hunt in the "Saccharine Mountains" turns a BLT into a tongue-in-cheek metaphor ("the lettuce symbolizes the cost of living"), while the citizens of "Outer Canthus" each undergo a symbolic funeral at the age of 47, after which they are "allowed to shed the burden of responsibility." In this slurry of sketchy and gray-tinged surrealism, the titular valise stands out with a certain haunting magic: a cheap and disposable thing (Katchor tracks its construction and sale with a curiously socioeconomic exactitude) that can contain multitudes. Once its contents are unleashed upon the hopelessly modernized island nation of Tensint (Katchor relentlessly skewers affected bourgeois quests for "authenticity"), things go downhill fast—it's the end of the world writ small. Rarely have books that made this little sense made so much sense." - Publishers Weekly

"MacArthur and Guggenheim-winning alt-weekly cartoonist Ben Katchor uses simple two-tiered strips to conjure up whole worlds that never existed, in under 10 panels. The Cardboard Valise collects a series of those loosely related strips into a weird travelogue, taking readers on a tour through an island famous for its restroom ruins, a two-dimensional nation that exists on the borderline between other countries, and a metropolis where citizens pine for vacations in these exotic locales. Anyone who reads just a little of Katchor’s nostalgia for the never-was each night before bedtime is bound to have some remarkable dreams." - Noel Murray

"Katchor . . . does what every great artist does: clarifies things you knew but didn't know you knew, or didn't know how to articulate. Spend some time with his work, and then take a walk." - Newsweek

“Gloriously eccentric…the reader is befuddled, though in the most enjoyable manner.” –Booklist
“Artist and storyteller Katchor has achieved the goal Borges only imagined. Exiting this oneiric, shamanic, yet utterly naturalistic and sensual masterpiece, the reader steps out into a revitalized continuum richer and more exotic than the one he or she inhabited prior to the reading, a realm full of strange, alluring and bewildering lands, populated by oddball folks with odder customs. Never again will our common globe seem like a small, homogenous, boring place…The Cardboard Valise is worldbuilding on the order of Jan Morris's Hav, Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia, Brian Aldiss's Malacia, and Ursula Le Guin's Orsinia: places that are attached to our world by extradimensional roads, down which only the sharpest and most sensitive of literary guides can lead one. Get your ticket immediately!” –Barnes and Noble Review

“A surreal travelogue…a vast panorama of humane hamburger stands, exquisitely ethereal ethnic restaurants, ancient restroom ruins and wilds tracts of land that fit neatly next to high-rise hotels.” – Brooklyn Daily Eagle

“History, humor, and a generous dose of surrealness combine to make you think you’re walking down the back streets of Oz…Katchor is plainly steeped in the tropes of his craft, but ultimately he is uncategorizable, a man apart.”–Culture Books

“Anyone familiar with [Katchor’s] work will recognize his grotesque eccentrics (or maybe his eccentric grotesques), the off-kilter angles and depths of field in every panel, not to mention the banal objects granted strange value and the wonderful prose…There is an exhilaration and freedom here—a license to invent and destroy.” –Tablet Magazine

“Katchor’s work has the unusual distinction of being known…for its startling poetry, dreamily familiar urban landscapes, and revelations about the arcane systems and inner workings of city life…provocative, moving work.” –CriticalMob.com

“Katchor has made an entire world out of his narrow domain, and it’s as rich and vast (and sad and hilarious) a world as any writer or artist working today has concocted.” –Shelfari

“The appearance of a new Katchor collection is always reason to celebrate… Katchor is a true, rare, untarnished New York treasure — the kind of artist who can concoct a fantastical made-up world, but one that ensures you’ll never see the real world in quite the same way again.” –The 6th Floor blog

“His whimsical, mournful metaphysical verbal gags and scratchy visual poems are at once the most conceptual and conversational comics being made, and for my taste the best ever made…it’s only March, but surely Katchor is the automatic writer-artist of the year.” – ComicCritique Blog

“Katchor's magically whimsical vision is sui generis… a collection of richly imagined, lovingly detailed individual strips. Each is best lingered over one at a time, an invitingly exotic world unto itself.” –Philadelphia Inquirer

“Katchor is one of America’s great prose stylists, a writer possessed of an almost unequalled mastery of word choice and the rhythm and pacing of the American language…What finally elevates Katchor above not only all cartoonists, but above most prose writers, is the sheer beauty of his prose. In his finest tales, each panel, removed from its context, creates its own context, a world of its own; each is so evocative that the single panel, removed from its fellows, explodes with melancholy. The texts are gems, and when combined with Katchor’s drawings, with their washed shadows, their chiaroscuro streets, the result is a body of work of an almost unbearable sadness, of an almost unbearable beauty.” –Jewish Currents

“Part surrealistic travelogue and part satirical treatise on the very notion of culture, The Cardboard Valise is a book about imaginary places with enough heart to make its very real social commentary easily digestible.” –Straight.com’s best graphic novels of 2011.

"Ben Katchor is the best world-builder in comics today. This is true even though he does none of the things we tend to associate with world-building, be it visual or narrative in nature. He’s no epic sci-fi-fantasist, with a wiki-worthy cultural-historical framework underpinning (or overwhelming) every person, place, and thing that ends on the printed page. He hasn’t developed a personal visual vocabulary of forms and symbols from which a wholly alien world that nonetheless makes optical sense on its own terms can be constructed. He doesn’t use tricks with layout or beat-by-beat pacing to drag us through a contiguous, continuous spatial environment alongside his characters. And those characters don’t belong to a sprawling, interconnected cast whose lives and relationships grow and change and metastasize over the years, parallel to our own.
So if he doesn’t do any of those things — if he’s not a fantasist like J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin, a demiurge like Jim Woodring or Jack Kirby, an architect like Mat Brinkman or Brian Chippendale, or a mass biographer like Gilbert Hernandez or Jaime Hernandez — how is it that The Cardboard Valise, his latest collection of loosely intertwined comic strips, feels like something you can open up, fall into, and stroll around in?
More than any other reason, perhaps, it’s because of the angle of entry he offers us. Katchor is the master of the diagonal. The entrepreneurs and officials, hucksters and glad-hands who inhabit The Cardboard Valise virtually never traverse the panels comprising Katchor’s strict eight-panel grids from back to front or side to side. They stride purposefully and gesticulate wildly from the left foreground to the rear background. They gaze up with wonder from the lower left to upper right. They follow sight lines that lead us not infinitely back into the panel but out of it, in whatever direction, even toward us. Katchor once told me that he draws his comics using the theatrical stage as a touchstone, rather than the flattened and cropped space of film or photography: “My approach is to construct a palpable space. Whatever happens in that space becomes believable.” Indeed, simply by staging his comics in such a way that the tile floors, shelf tops, ceiling fans, and side alleys of his cities are made visible to character and reader alike, he’s constructed a world that feels more livable than accrued detail could ever hope to convey.
Katchor’s micro-stories similarly expose forgotten, or more accurately imaginary, nooks and crannies of the urban experience. In the same fashion as his Julius Knipl collections, The Cardboard Valise is a catalog of made-up occupations, obsessions, and cultural artifacts just too picayune to be plausible, but only just: a seaside cellphone stand that offers paying callers the chance to hear the sounds of the shore for ten minutes at a time, courtesy of employees who walk to the water and hold the phones aloft; an heir to a reference-work empire who sells off the famous family name since its value outstrips that of the imprint’s accumulated, outmoded publications — The Marrowbone Backseat Bible of Contraceptive Techniques, The Marrowbone Directory of Commonly Dialed Wrong Numbers, The Marrowbone Desk Reference to Nauseating Food Combinations. In one bravura strip alone, a traveler discovers a panoply of unique customs observed by the residents of his island destination: black-market traders of partially eaten toast, discarded exercise equipment worshiped in fertility rituals, hotel employees who can deduce the personal traits of their guests from the dents they leave in wire hangers and who brag about the colds they catch from their charges, “an unwritten encyclopedia of postural gestures used to solicit tips.” Together these quotidian flights of fancy suggest a world of possibilities that are at once inspiringly limitless (cumulatively) and depressingly limited (individually) — a world, in other words, much like our own.
In the past, Katchor has used this technique to evoke the lost histories and specialties of the American city. In The Cardboard Valise, however, he’s tackling the theme of travel (echoed in the hardcover edition’s fold-out, suitcase-like handles), as it impacts his two protagonists—compulsive vacationer Emile Delilah, who’s so smitten with experiencing other cultures that he can hardly stand to be at home, and charismatic Elijah Salamis, a “supranationalist” who demonstrates his rejection of national and cultural boundaries by walking around in his underwear regardless of weather or disapprobation (“Today’s world market has us all in jeans and sneakers, so why not go all the way? Why not give up, once and for all, the crumbling façade of cultural diversity?”). This strips away the nostalgic veneer often found in Katchor’s comics, and reveals a sneakily satirical sheen underneath. The tourist-trap kitsch and played-up local color Delilah encounters, The Cardboard Valise argues, are merely the most obviously icky manifestation, and logical endpoint, of all nationalism — an inflation of trivial distinctions and accidents of history and geography into matters of all-encompassing aesthetic and political importance. This gives the book’s climax, in which an encounter between Salamis and Delilah leads to the public debunking of a religious charlatan who argues that it’s not our ethics or imaginations or faiths that live on after our deaths, but our acquisitiveness, real pathos and real bite. In the end, the world Katchor builds is a hall of fun-house mirrors. It’s fascinating and funny and endlessly enveloping to look at, but its delights and distortions alike are ultimately a reflection of ourselves." - Sean T. Collins

"At a dingy shop in downtown Fluxion City, you can buy, for only $29.95, the suitcase of a desperate man. It's no Samsonite: 56 inches but made of cardboard, staples and glue, guaranteed for a mere six weeks, it's a valise for people who need to get out of town in a hurry and need a case big enough, yet light enough, to carry all their belongings. Full, the enormous bag is so difficult to steer that it pulls the walker slightly sideways as it swings forward with each step.
"The Cardboard Valise," the new book by the wonderful cartoonist Ben Katchor, takes its name from this suitcase and is similarly overstuffed. Less a sturdy, self-contained graphic novel than a pleasantly flimsy repository for an inexhaustible imagination, "The Cardboard Valise" follows in the tradition of Katchor's long-running comic strip, "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer," introducing us to a whimsical city and its logorrheic inhabitants, each with an unexpected story to tell. Like the traveler lugging the cardboard valise, the reader finds herself pulled in a new direction with every page, deep into a city far more interesting than our own, full of urban decay, old-world philosophizing in invented languages, and besuited men striding with purpose in and out of absurd workplaces.
In fact, perhaps the easiest way to acclimate readers to the pleasures of the Katchorian style is to provide a brief and incomplete list of the made-up companies and organizations appearing in "The Cardboard Valise." Sinkside Steel Wool. The Kanale Clinic for Prenatal Restitution. The famous public-restroom ruins of Tensint Island. The Sans Serif League, who picket offending businesses with signs reading, "Cut 'em off!" 1-900-CONCH, where sunburnt college kids hold the phone up to the roaring surf ($10 for the first 10 minutes, 75 cents for each additional minute). The Tre Colore fresh-salad truck, stuck in traffic, its siren wailing, as restaurant-goers impatiently await the crisp salads they ordered.
They're all rendered by Katchor in his simple pen-and-watercolor style, the angular faces of Fluxion City's inhabitants blending into each other, the backgrounds teeming with detail. Open to any page and you'll be surprised anew.
The free-for-all inside "The Cardboard Valise" stands in sharp contrast to the inevitable downward spiral depicted in "Special Exits," underground-comix pioneer Joyce Farmer's memoir of her years spent managing the decline and deaths of her elderly father and stepmother. At one point, her father, Lars - explaining how his wife became so immobile and dependent on him that she hasn't left the couch for a year - says, "Things get worse in such small increments that you can get used to anything." It's a potent description of the aging process itself, one that takes away tiny pieces of our independence and dignity until we no longer recognize ourselves.
Does this make "Special Exits" seem like a downer? Good. It is a downer. It's also funny and touching, and gratifyingly cleareyed about the messy emotions involved in caring for aging parents.
Lars and Rachel live in a ramshackle, cluttered house in south-central Los Angeles, and in busy, black-and-white panels, the book observes as their daughter, Laura - a stand-in for Farmer - cares for them through the late 1980s and early '90s. At first, the couple muddles along, making it through bad falls, a car accident and even a 44-hour power outage during the L.A. riots. But as first Rachel's and then Lars's health deteriorates, Laura arranges Meals on Wheels, cleans up "Hoarders"-worthy piles of junk and helps her parents reminisce about their pasts - and make tough choices about the future.
It's no spoiler to reveal that "Special Exits" doesn't have a happy ending. After all, no one gets a happy ending. But thanks to the hard work and loving care of Laura - and some heaven-sent hospice workers - her parents die more gracefully than many. And thanks to the thoughtful writing and art of Joyce Farmer, their lives and deaths will be a comfort to readers beginning to consider the end of their parents' lives - or their own." - Dan Kois

"I am feeling a little overfed, a bit unsettled, woozy even, as after a large meal of many dishes, all different but equally rich, none of which I could refuse. I have read through the new collection of what must be named comic strips, no other term available, by Ben Katchor, called The Cardboard Valise. I toss down the napkin, push away from the table cross-eyed, and swallow effortfully, trying to formulate a useful thought.
Of course it’s wrong to have read it all in a gulp, or even five or ten. Katchor has himself warned against this. The pages of the book are intended, or at least made, to be read one a week, with time between one and the next for digestion, reflection, eructation. They appeared thus in different papers from Miami to Baltimore to Philadelphia and on to the West, but living as I do in a hinterland, I saw none of them. Amuse-gueules could be found on Katchor’s Web site, alongside glimpses of four other of his continuing narratives, each as chock-full as the one here between covers. The man could have not one but two MacArthur grants, given all the value he produces.
The Cardboard Valise has handles inside the covers, which if folded out turn the book into a metaphorical valise, opening to allow its contents to be metaphorically unpacked, as so many different kinds of things are unpacked within it. It commences as young Emile Delilah, inveterate tourist and one of the book’s three protagonists, takes a brief airplane flight out of Fluxion City to see if his newly acquired valise is up to the rigors of airport luggage handling. For this test, he tells the cab driver, he has filled it with “a hundred pounds of old medical textbooks, back from when they were printed on that heavy, coated paper. I found them in a dumpster on Pitgam Avenue.” And indeed in a full-page frontispiece we have seen lucky Emile coming upon that dumpster outside the Cough Conservatory and leafing through a volume on “The Amatory Cough and its Cure” (“removing the patient to an open-air terrace where the object of his excitation is removed and his mind can turn to other less stimulating thoughts”).
On the next page we learn how Emile earlier purchased the valise, a $29.99 Fitzall “Ahasuerus” model; then we learn how the valise was made, “assembled amidst the glue fumes and staple-gun salvos of a loft in Cachexia, New Jersey.” Emile and his enormous suitcase head for Tentsint Island, with its pervasive dry cleaning industry and far-famed public-restroom ruins (“a lost world of glass soap-dispensers and electric hand-driers”). An enraged bellhop at the Two-Ply International Hotel, where Emile is checked in, rants against island visitors and their pointless impedimenta—“winter coats, pocket dictionaries, bottles of dried typewriter correction fluid, cut-rate multiple vitamins, monogrammed belts, zippered bibles and loose change”—and urges his fellow bellhops to revolt:
A young tourist has transported the entire contents of his home to our fair island. . . . our children are already addicted to ketchup and chewing gum . . . . Do you want your wives and daughters, in their capacity as cleaning women, to be exposed to the sight of this fellow’s accumulated bedtime reading matter going back to 1970?
While Emile tours, the bellhops relieve him of all his belongings except the valise and a change of underwear. And within a few pages, the soil of the island, “permeated by the accumulated runoff of twenty years of dry cleaning fluids,” suddenly turns to vapor, and the island “like a stubborn stain upon the face of the earth, is removed without leaving a trace.”
Only when you reread it do you see how this beginning establishes an opposition, a wrestle, between a delight in stuff—more possibilities, more complications, more things, more names—and a revulsion against the idea of more in itself, or indeed any: at bottom, against the idea of anything at all existing. This tension will at length create something more than a series of funny ideas vaguely connected in sequences long or short.
The origins of Katchor’s art, as he has said himself, lie in the city—not only the city of his upbringing, Brooklyn and the rest of New York, but in the past of that city. Most of the faraway places in The Cardboard Valise—from Tensint Island to Outer Canthus to Fluxion City—seem also located in a recent past, recent anyway to someone my age. To Katchor, ten years younger than I, such places were at least lying all around in his youth, the years when the visual and imaginative worlds of many writers and artists are built and where the lives that they imagine take place. And while the Katchor world is a visual world, it is as much a verbal world. Katchor’s city streets and shops would be flat without the thousand signs, appeals, ads, warnings, and dreams overwritten on them: Discards International, Mal-Grand Drugs, Mortal Coil Mattress, Puncto League, Play-Tink Toys.
The made world has for a long time been a world of words, of messages; Hazel Hahn in her book Scenes of Parisian Modernity notes that as advertising in the press and in public spaces became universal at the turn of the twentieth century, parodies of advertising began appearing, too, in comic papers, often indistinguishable in their absurdity from the absurdities of the real thing. Katchor’s eye and ear are attracted to the basement levels of this universal messaging, where the appeals are hopeless, the warnings outmoded, the ads for things no one could want, the names at once fatuous and poignant. I do not desire to eat in the Exegete Bar-Grill or in the Inamorata Coffee Shop, I am not glad to find the Lucky Stiff pancake house, I hope I never need a gray room at the Gravamen Hotel.
I used to believe that Katchor’s visual style, or, to be frank, his level of artistic skill, lagged behind his proficient and elegantly explosive language-spinning. He had limited success drawing bodies in action; his line seemed hesitant, scratchy, infirm; interesting and necessary details were constantly suggested rather than actually rendered. But I have come, over time, to see a closer fit between the words and images. His drawing has gotten better—the faces more varied, even verging on the expressive, and the panels more composed. Like many comic artists, Katchor draws on the vocabulary of German expressionist films as filtered through Hollywood noir, a mode particularly appropriate for his dark city blocks and industrial sites and gloomy hotel rooms, the spaces seen from low or high angles, reaching inward toward far corners and streets as though in deep-focus cinematography.
Substantively, though, his pictorial work is unchanged; the islands and towns of purported tourist destinations in The Cardboard Valise are like those false getaway places in crime films, black-and-white palms and verandas full of un-escaped threat. They continuously creep or migrate away from the beach to the same old shabby streets we have known since Katchor’s first collection, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: streets lined with the dim low-rise buildings and failing but persistent enterprises that Julius Knipl spies on and eavesdrops in. But unlike the American night city of the crime film or crime comic, the streets of The Cardboard Valise are safe, the populations harmless as moths. Though hilariously boring, depressed often, frantic occasionally, or full of mad but ineffectual excitement, Katchor’s visual world is somehow never sinister: maybe because every panel is so crowded with thinking and speaking, with so much this and that.
The inventiveness is in itself exhilarating. Katchor’s list-making and thing-producing is unceasing, rational in syntax and prim in grammar but only tangentially or abstractly connected to what we know as reality. Your gullet strangles in irrepressible laughter before you are halfway through one of his riffs, and you can barely make it to the end, only to find there is another on the next page, or the next panel. Emile, seized with intestinal trouble, occupies a stall in one of Tentsint Island’s restrooms and there “considers the dinner he just ate: A salad wreath, cemetery soup, grilled sardines in-the-net, and for dessert, a Health Dept. pudding, with horse-whipped cream.” In Fluxion City an observer stands baffled at the hopeless stuff on offer at Discounts International: “Sweat-suits in small sizes, ‘God Bless This Home’ acrylic doormats piled waist-high, . . . Cadillac-style video rewinders, doorknob cozies, tuxedos for infants, cans of ‘Danish’ butter cookies . . . . The list is endless.”
There are comic strips that are replete, whereas others are plain. Peanuts and Dilbert are among the plain, and so, long ago, were Nancy and Henry. Katchor’s are among the replete: those strips whose panels are crammed with amusements, odd people coming and going, wacky knickknacks on shelves and tables, pets or vermin underfoot, whimsical signage. In Walt Kelly’s Pogo, if a character is holding a book we are sure to be allowed to read the title (“Girl of the Limberwurst”); the walls in Smokey Stover were hung with pictures that changed from panel to panel, as well as punning or nonsensical remarks (“Notary Sojac”) from the artist.
Strips stuffed with stuff are often also stuffed with words (but not always; see early Little Nemo episodes). Katchor’s words—like those in Gene Ahern’s Our Boarding House, which Katchor has named an early influence—often use up more of the panel than the drawn things. In Katchor’s work, even when the speech balloons are sparse, the narrative bands at the top of the panels proffer elaborate descriptions and explanations in his refined and queerly learned language. Fans of the word, over on this side, roll around in it like delighted puppies, while the purist picture fans on that side shake their heads. It might be better if Katchor practiced his lettering a bit more assiduously, but the subtle match between picture and word, which is the highest goal of a comic strip, is perhaps aided by the slightly slovenly look of it above or within the seemingly slovenly drawings. No one, after all, is going to letter and draw the way Walt Kelly did in his prime, word and picture melded in exquisite complementary effects; that world, and those draftsman’s skills, are not so much lost as long-surrendered.
The Cardboard Valise also places Katchor’s work on one side of another distinction in comic-strip artists, the one between the jokesters and the storytellers: in the first, each day’s strip is a self-contained, punch-lined entity, a variation on a standing circumstance (Blondie, Beetle Bailey); in the other, a part of an ongoing adventure with at least a tentative conclusion, followed by another (Li’l Abner, Pogo). An intermediate form sets afoot a problem or dilemma that lasts a few days before evaporating, as in Peanuts or Krazy Kat. Katchor’s breakout strip Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer was organized, if that’s the word, only by the wanderings and curiosity of Mr. Knipl, and even he and his investigations vanished for pages at a time. Each weekly unit unfolded a little moment, told an anecdote, and though bits and scenes recurred, nothing really developed. The Cardboard Valise at first seems to be the same sort of thing, and indeed it is prone to idling and wandering, but as the pages turn it evolves, or coagulates, into true storytelling.
Maybe it was the experience of creating The Jew of New York—which was a graphic novel rather than a continuing strip, and a novel indeed, as chock-full of characters interwoven and bound together by shifting destinies as a Dickens doorstopper—that trained Katchor in the arts of integration, reflection, opposition, and entwinement that deepen The Cardboard Valise as it goes on. As in a Dickens novel, three or four characters generate around them, often by their occult connections to one another, a quasi-endless but actually endpoint-driven story.
First to be put in place is Emile, who, despite his desire to run off to far places and escape the circumstances of his life, is always dragging those circumstances with him where he goes or imagines going, accumulating experiences like new possessions. Weekly readers may well have forgotten that Emile was believed to have been lost in the Tensint Island disappearance when, much further on, his grieving parents turn his apartment (actually a more fitting and slightly better-furnished substitute) into a museum of their son’s life and wanderings (“All of his trips were planned in this very armchair—the macaroni and cheese encrustations attest to his monastic life-style.”) Emile’s not been dead, of course, but rather has been drawing on the lifetime paid account at Hoopus Travel his parents gave him as a boy. Emile-believed-dead is going to pay off in the accounting that makes a well-made tale.
Practical philosopher Elijah Salamis, on the other hand, never leaves home and is progressively shedding every permanence in life. His single room is painted “U.V. Blue No. 75—a color devoid of all historical connotations.” He has recently changed his name to Pylon Zoon: “Why associate oneself with hundreds of generations of Salamises—it’s time for a fresh start.” Rather than obey the meteorological dictates of Fluxion City, where he resides, Salamis dresses year-round in thin T-shirt and shorts—“Who looks anymore at an open fly? The missing buttons of the world belong in archaeological museums”—and believes in the dissolution of all qualities, distinctions, names, nations.
Just as nuts as Elijah but not so blithe, Calvin Heaves gathers “world-weary” crowds at the Quiver Tabernacle for his weekly “Sermon from the Mouth.” Calvin believes that the mountains of unsold and unsellable goods piled up at Discounts International reflect the unappeased and unappeasable commercial longings of the dead; he preaches man’s continued existence beyond death, but not the usual supernatural kind:
Upon death, the human appetitive urge departs from the body in the form of a twelve-inch-long section of colorless sausage casing. . . . This immaterial gullet, or soul, finds its eternal home in the shadow of the street curb where it continues forever in its peristaltic contractions.
For “demonstration purposes,” Heaves employs a realistic battery-operated toy esophagus, “The Voracious Maw,” manufactured in faraway Buccal Mucosa for the Sowtoy Company of Liebestraum, Ohio, and once shipped by the hundred-gross to Tensint Island for the spring Diarrhea Festival. With Tensint obliterated, they are snapped up by the Heaves cultists as their aegis.
The triangulation of these three, the opposition of their stances toward appetite, need, and the ceaseless proliferation of things, comprises the structural members of the work, though this isn’t apparent at first (how did Dickens’s first readers, getting his monthly installments, keep his plots straight? Did they take notes, or just not concern themselves with it?). But “structural members” is really too spatial a metaphor, because the essence of all fictional creations beyond the one-joke-a-day comic strip is movement through time.
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer maintains to the end the dreamlike slippage between topics, the cabalistic or fractal branching-by-repetition, that can proceed nowhere. The Cardboard Valise, however, trends ever more visibly toward a solidly novelistic conclusion, in which (1) opposed persons, acting out the compulsions of their characters within the constraints of their social world, reach (2) resolutions of abasement or transcendence in (3) a carnivalesque climax, followed by (4) the promised though not completed instauration of a new-old world—in this case by means of a cardboard valise identical to the one we began with, the Fitzall “Ahasuerus” of New Jersey, Emile’s self-chosen burden and trust. The last image in the book is of it, as was the first.
So, in E.M. Forster’s well-known terms, while the earlier book’s a story, provisional and potentially endless, the other’s got a plot. I even wonder if it would be proper to reveal its ending—to perpetrate the spoiler that readers are now ubiquitously alerted to in reviews and blogs. It includes some rather non-Katchoresque elements, such as sudden death (“six deadly capsules of potassium chloride . . . he washes them down with a Cherry Swallow”) and violent overthrow (of false prophet Calvin Heaves: “The assembled crowd is awakened as though from a delusionary stupor”).
I am moved by the thought of Katchor brooding so long over the matters he has broached that the sense of an ending arose in him, and by his courage in carrying it forward. Simultaneously, I feel a reader’s common dissatisfaction in the closing up of a fictional world. As Forster perceived, the last third of a novel tends to disappoint even as it compels, because it must make its way toward the wrap-up, shedding possibilities as it goes: thus it becomes less lifelike, because actual life always opens up further, never shuts down, never aims toward a final paragraph.
It’s strange to think of Katchor’s work as lifelike, but there it is. Its lifelikeness is partly a function of the felt possibility of ongoing randomness inherent in the comic-strip mode. The Cardboard Valise finally refuses that mode, and that is perhaps why—delightfully full though it is of notions, places, and people—it’s not likely to displace the first Julius Knipl collection in my affections. That collection ends with what I still consider Katchor’s most sublime invention, the Evening Combinator, a city newspaper that chronicles not the daily events of life but the nightly dream-life of the citizens (“Mosquito Gives Birth to Sentient Safety Pin”). A band of Katchor’s obsessive crusaders, led by muscle-bound Ormond Bell at his Stay-Awake-A-Torium (“hot coffee, hard chairs”), opposes the creeping surrender to the pointless inventions of dreaming. But rather than pressing the story even to a provisional conclusion through this conflict, the volume just takes a deadpan turn around one more strange corner and draws to a close, like night." - John Crowley

"Ben Katchor is the Joseph Mitchell of contemporary comics. Mitchell, along with his close friend A.J. Liebling, was a pivotal early New Yorker reporter who famously made a speciality of describing the peripheral rascals, layabouts, and oddballs of the Big Apple, ranging from the denizens of McSorley’s saloon to Joe Gould, the often homeless bohemian who claimed to be working on an “Oral History of the Contemporary World.” With their cockeyed street-level view of New York and propensity for profiling loopy souls, Mitchell’s works were important precursors to the early Katchor who, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, meticulously chronicled the wanderings of “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer” in the pages of the New York Press (and, later, syndicated in alternative weeklies across the country). The Knipl strips were mournfully muted surveys of a New York where you could still feel the ghostly presence of the older city described by Mitchell in the 1930s and 1940s.
In his new book The Cardboard Valise, Katchor pays direct tribute to Mitchell’s “The Mohawks in High Steel,” published in the September 17, 1949 issue of the New Yorker. In that article, Mitchell regaled readers with lore about the Caughnawaga Mohawks, “the most footloose Indians in North America,” many of whom worked as riveters building skyscrapers all across the continent. The Mohawk affinity for highrise construction can be traced back to the building of a cantilever bridge across the St. Lawrence River near their Canadian reservation in 1886. Mitchell quotes a letter from an official from the Dominion Bridge Company who noted that
as the work progressed, it became apparent to all concerned that these Indians were very odd in that they did not have any fear of heights. If not watched, they would climb up into the spans and walk around up there as cool and collected as the toughest of our riveters … These Indians were as agile as goats.
Katchor’s version focuses instead on “ceiling workers.” It opens with a paean to the music of shopping malls and elevators. “Today, no business can be conducted without a decent sound system,” the narrator informs us, and the group whose labor makes this Muzak possible, “the men who scale these high ladders to install our modern speaker systems all come from the village of Tufarwan in North Western Slippur.” An off-panel voice offers dubious anthropological explanations as to why Tufarwanians dominate this trade: “In addition to being fearless ceiling workers, they are completely deaf to the charms of western music.” Like their Mohawk counterparts, the Tufarwanians are nomadic craftsmen: “Most leave their families behind and live in the company of their fellow tribesmen in short-term studio apartment sublets.”
Spoofing a six-decade-old magazine article, even one as memorable as “The Mohawks in High Steel,” is not something that a typical cartoonist would do, but then Katchor has never liked dawdling down familiar pathways. He’s a brilliant artist but also a baffling one, supreme in his idiosyncratic creation of a baroquely dense fictional universe that has its own internal coherence while fitfully mirroring, in a fudged and misshapen way, the consensual reality we inhabit. As you read a Katchor strip, it is hard to ignore the tone of droll burlesque while being unsure about what, exactly, is being made fun of. This makes reading his work a heady experience, at times even surreal or psychedelic, since his strips induce a pleasant mental buzz even as they unmoor us from reality.
While respectfully evoking forebears like Mitchell and Liebling, Katchor abandons their romantic modernism for a more skeptical post-millennial perspective. Throughout The Cardboard Valise, Katchor questions the idea of authenticity, be it ethnic, geographic, or historical. In many of the strips, tourists head to far-off fictive lands like the Tensint Islands (home of “the famous restroom ruins”) in the hopes of making a tangible connection to the vanishing remnants of the historical and natural past. Katchor clearly sympathizes with their yen for the good old days, but raises doubts about whether, in our globalized world, it’s still possible to make sharp distinctions between the past and the present, local and the international, the natural and the technological, or the primitive and the modern. In one strip Elijah Salamis — a typically eloquent Katchorian obsessive — rants against a concert devoted to the folk music of Pelagia. “But it’s all a sham,” Salamis laments. “These out-of-work restaurant musicians may have had the poor fortune of being born on Pelagia Island, but grew up listening to rock-and-roll, eating imported goods and watching satellite TV. They’ve heard some old 78s, looked over a few 19th-century travel books, and cooked up a saleable semblance of Pelagian culture.” The strip ends with the sly Salamis, camera in hand, ready to expose the pretend-Pelagians as they enjoy an after-show snack at a local club.
The younger Katchor of the Julius Knipl strips was even more of a nostalgist, albeit more wistful and wry than schmaltzy. The nostalgic instinct, of course, runs strong in alternative cartoonists; it can be observed in everything from Robert Crumb’s collection of old blues records to Art Spiegelman’s loving tributes to precursors such as George Herriman and Harold Gray to Chris Ware’s celebrations of the architecture of Louis Sullivan. In his introduction to Katchor’s 1996 volume Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories, the novelist Michael Chabon astutely noted that the nostalgic impulse was being subverted by a plethora of knock-offs: “The mass synthesis, marketing, and distribution of versions and simulacra of an artificial past, perfected over the last thirty years or so, has ruined the reputation and driven a fatal stake through the heart of nostalgia,” Chabon argued.
Chabon’s observation helps explain the shift in the late Katchor’s work from the sensual indulgence of nostalgia in the early Knipl stories to the strenuous interrogation of false authenticity that permeates The Cardboard Valise. Hitherto, Katchor had not been an especially political artist. As the cartoonist once noted, his father, “a Communist Yiddishist from Warsaw, was so political that he used up all the space for politics in the family.” While The Cardboard Valise is hardly a polemical work, it is informed by a powerful anxiety about the relationship between the local and global, and Katchor, although still not straightforwardly a political artist, is a very civic-minded creator, and in quite literal sense: he’s obsessed with the fates of public spaces, be they restrooms, restaurants or trains.
In the end, all these abstractions — nostalgia, authenticity, politics, civic-mindedness — only have meaning and force because Katchor embodies them in pleasing cartoon forms. He remains the master of the ineffable, an artist who can bring to life ideas and experiences that exist at the sub-atomic level of consciousness. The sensibility of a Katchor strip is as hard to pin down as a quark or one of the hypothetical constructs of string theory. Who else but he could give us a convincing tirade against fortune cookies? (“You can get away with anything if you print it on a little slip of paper and then stuff it inside of a cookie! No one has the guts to say they’re all lies – barefaced lies! Nice way to end a meal!”) Elsewhere, Katchor plausibly theorizes that shower curtains are evidence of “the embryonic formation of a true world culture.”
Along with Krazy Kat’s George Herriman, Katchor is the only cartoonist whose language achieves the pitch of high artifice that deserves the name of poetry. As with Herriman, you have to read Katchor’s strips slowly, savoring every word and also that constant layered interplay between the art and text. And like Herriman, Katchor is emphatically not a graphic novelist: his strips shouldn’t be read from beginning to end as a continuous narrative, but rather in small doses of about four or five pages a time. You can overdose on Katchor’s richness if you don’t pace your reading.
Charmingly ungainly and obeying their own laws of perspective and lighting, Katchor’s drawings are a perfect counterpart to his words: both the language and the art are stupefyingly off-kilter. Gravity seems denser in Katchor’s world than in ours. How else to explain how low to the ground his people are, as if tugged ever downward? Katchor eschews the bluntness of conventional cartooning line drawings, achieving instead a murky, smudging effect by drowning his figures in a delicate gray wash. To appreciate his drawings you have to linger over them and suss out how they are linked to the words.
The Cardboard Valise is a worthy addition to Katchor’s already distinguished oeuvre, but it’s also a sign of an accomplished artist deepening and developing his core themes. Katchor-watchers should enjoy the book not just for its unique pleasures but also for evidence of the unexpected new direction in which a familiar artist appears to be heading. Like a Mohawk on a girder or a Tufarwanian on a ladder, his sense of balance never fails; he was born for this." - Jeet Heer

Interview by Malcolm Jones
Interview by Sam Adams

Interview by Alexander Theroux Ben Katchor's web page

Alfred Kubin fits loosely within an Expressionist/Decadent/proto-Surrealist tradition. The Demiurge is a hybrid: It’s almost as if the novel channels Apocalypse Now by way of Hieronymus Bosch

Alfred Kubin, The Other Side, Trans. By Mike Mitchell, Dedalus, 2000. [1909.]

"Alfred Kubin (1877-1959) was one of the major graphic artists of the 20th century who was widely known for his illustrations of writers of the fantastic such as Balzac, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Gustav Meyrink and Edgar Allan Poe, of whom he illustrated at least 50 books. In his combination of the darkly decadent, the fantastic and the grotesque, in his evocations of dream and nightmare, his creation of an atmosphere of mystery and fear he resembles Mervyn Peake."

"One day as I was searching around the internet minding my own business, innocent and unsuspecting of any imminent peril, I stumbled upon a webpage called The Strangest Books Ever Written. There was a list for strange fiction and a list for strange nonfiction. Right there close to the top of the strange fiction list was The Other Side by Alfred Kubin.
After a bit of research I discovered that he was an early twentieth century expressionist artist and illustrator. He had a very gloomy life to match his macabre artwork. The Other Side was the only novel he wrote and it was widely considered to be one of the most unusual and macabre books ever written.
I was hooked, so I ordered it. It was available in a new english translation by Mike Mitchell from Dedalus Books.
In the beginning of the story a mysterious stranger arrives at the Munich home of a artist and his wife. After introducing himself the stranger explains the reason for his visit.
"I am not speaking in my own name, but for a man whom you, perhaps, have forgotten, but who still remembers you well. This man has at his disposal what is by European standards, untold wealth. I am speaking of your former classmate, Claus Patera. Please do not interrupt me! By a strange chance, Patera came into possession of what is probably the largest fortune in the world. Your old friend then set out upon the realization of an idea for which access to fairly inexhaustible financial resources is absolutely prerequisite. He resolved to found a dream realm. This is a complex matter, but I will be brief.
First of all a suitable tract of some 1,200 square miles was acquired. One third of the area is mountainous, the rest consists of plains and hills. A lake, a river and large forests divide up this small realm and add variety to its landscape. A city was established, villages, and farms. The latter were sorely needed as even the initial population was 12,000. The present population of the Dream Realm is 65,000."
He goes on:
"Patera, he continued, feels an extraordinarily strong aversion to all kinds of progress. To be precise, to all kinds of scientific progress. Please take this literally, for in it lies the main idea behind the Dream Realm. The Realm is shut off from the rest of the world by a surrounding wall and protected against any attack by strong fortifications. There is a single gate for entry and exit, facilitating strict control of people and goods. The dream realm is a sanctuary for all those who are unhappy with modern civilization and contains everything necessary to cater to their bodily needs. It is not at all the intention of the lord of this country to create a utopia, a kind of model state for the future. Although provision has been made to ensure there are no material shortages, the whole thrust of the principal aims of this community is directed less towards the maintenance of property and goods, the population, individuals. No, definitely not! ...But I see a smile of disbelief on your lips. It is difficult I know, almost too difficult for mere words to describe what Patera hopes to achieve with his Dream Realm."
The artist and his wife think it over and decide to go. They make a very long journey to the far east ending up finally at the outer wall of the Dream Realm. They pass through the single gate and board a train that takes them across dismal swamps and forests to Pearl, the capital of the Dream Realm.
On their arrival in Pearl, they immediately discover that all is not right in the Dream Realm. To begin with the sky is always overcast. Never can you see the sun or the stars. Everything looks drab and dingy in dreary shades of greenish grey. Nothing is new here. Everything from buildings to silverware is old and worn.
We later find out that all the buildings have macabre and violent histories. Structures where horrible crimes were committed have been moved to the Dream Realm from all over the world. Even the everyday objects seem to have an unwholesome past. It seems as if an unseen force is controlling both people and events in this bizarre place.
A village adjacent to the city is the home of a tribe of blue eyed holy men who are the Dream Realms original inhabitants. These people seem all to be in a perpetual trance. We learn that Patera visited these mystics before conceiving the Dream Realm.
Things become increasingly bizarre. People start becoming violent. Murders are committed with increasing intensity. Many people die of mysterious illnesses. Plagues of insects inundate the city. Wild animals start invading the city and attacking people. Then even domesticated animals become vicious and turn on their masters.
When our hero finally does find Patera, he seems to be in a trance, and his face keeps changing into first one person then another and another until finally it seems as if faces from all over the realm and even the entire world are passing across Pateras skull.
"His eyes were like two empty mirrors reflecting infinity. The thought crossed my mind that Patera was not alive at all. If the dead could look, that is what their gaze would be like."
Any attempt to escape from the dream realm is futile. The violence continues to escalate as the evil force controlling everything consumes the city of Pearl in a chaotic apocalypse.
The book ends with our protagonist finding the "real" world too much like the Dream Realm for comfort.
"When I ventured back into the world of the living, I discovered that my god only held half-sway. In everything, both great and small, he had to share with an adversary who wanted life. The forces of repulsion and attraction, the twin poles of the earth with their currents, the alternation of the seasons, day and night, black and white - these are battles.
Kubin adds a drawing of an eyeless morbid Patera like face on the final page with the cryptic phrase:
"The Demiurge is a hybrid."
The dystopia described in this book, published in Austria in 1906, closely predicts events that occurred in the decades following it's publication, with often uncanny and disturbing similarity.
The rise of militarism and nationalism resulting in the first and second world wars, the rise of Nazism, Hitlers omnipotent god like influence on millions, the holocaust, even the horrible final hours of der fuhrer in his bunker in Berlin are closely foreshadowed in this prophetic book.
Analogies may easily be drawn to ideas like Jung's collective subconscious, the cycles of change of taoism,and the karmic principle of hinduism and jainism, and alarmingly to events in the present.
This book is a definite must read. It should be required reading in the hope that the warning signs of violent psychosis shown by an entire society may someday be heeded preventing future bloodbaths and perhaps accomplishing homosapiens next great evolutionary step into a truly self aware being, no longer controlled by ancient demons and evil forces." - dxsuperpremium.com

"The work of Austrian Alfred Kubin (1877–1959) fits loosely within an Expressionist/Decadent/proto-Surrealist tradition. A highly praised artist, he produced only one major work of fiction: The Other Side, published in 1908, and excerpted in our The Weird compendium as an early precursor or influencer of modern weird fiction. Although still underrated, the novel has managed to retain a cult status simply because it has long been a favorite of a variety of writers and artists. It would be hard to believe, for example, that Mervyn Peake had not read Kubin prior to writing his Gormenghast novels. (The Other Side is perhaps most akin in tone to Peake’s Titus Alone.)
The details of Kubin’s life relevant to his fiction are these: his mother died when he was ten, he had a sexualized relationship with an older, pregnant woman when he was eleven, and his father was a tyrant whose death in part triggered the writing of The Other Side. Kubin, in his nonfiction, is amazingly frank about all of these personal issues, giving us rare insight into motivation and influence.
These events, as well as unhappy romances, contributed to his uneasy, melancholic state, which manifested itself in unique visions, which then manifested in his art as the truest way of portraying the nightmares occurring in his head. Kubin had no internal editor telling him “no, this is too much.” Moreover, he may not even have realized that what he was creating might startle people. Did it amuse or horrify him when gentlemen and ladies who viewed his art reportedly fainted?
There’s the sense, too, in reading the praise of Kubin’s contemporaries that they found him too rough, too flawed, and yet it’s impossible to separate out the “good” from the “bad” – a condition common to some of the best “weird” writers and artists. As Austrian critic Richard Schaukal noted in a 1903 review, “He has not studied drawing. That is clear at a glance. But what does that tell us when confronted with this stunning oeuvre!” Given these underpinnings of Kubin’s inspiration, it’s perhaps remarkable that The Other Side has as much story as it does; not merely a series of images strung together, it is a true masterpiece of rising tension and horror.
The Other Side tells the tale of a Munich draftsman asked by an old schoolmate named Patera to visit the newly established Dream Kingdom, somewhere in Central Asia. Patera rules the Dream Kingdom from the capital city of Pearl. The wealthy Patera has had a European city uprooted and brought to its new location, along with sixty-five thousand inhabitants. The narrator, after some hesitation, agrees to visit and travels with his wife through Constantinople through Batum, Batu, Krasnovodsk, and Samarkand—Samarkand being the last of any identifying landmarks on their journey.
The narrator soon finds that the Dream Kingdom is, well, a kingdom of dreams. People experience or live “only in moods” and shape all outer being at will “through the maximum possible cooperative effort.” A huge wall keeps out the world and “the sun never shone, never were the moon or the stars visible at night….Here, illusions simply were reality.”
Over time, strange rituals and aberrations have sprung up. Pearl also shifts in odd ways, and in this sense has a kinship with M. John Harrison’s far-future Viriconium, which also functions from more of a metaphorical than a chronological foundation. This doesn’t bother the narrator at first, but as the city’s changes become more and more grotesque, it’s clear that the Dream Kingdom is faltering, descending into madness.
Despite the claustrophic atmosphere and unseen horrors that form the emotional foundation of the novel, The Other Side is remarkable not just for its vivid imagery, laden with surrealistic subtext, but for how the relatively modern aspects of the novel—American tourists, for example—are perfectly integrated into a timeless, festering milieu. The battle that occurs between the irrational and rational as the Dream Kingdom disintegrates takes on an updated Grand Guignol quality that oddly enough has the texture of modern-day war. It’s almost as if the novel channels Apocalypse Now by way of Hieronymus Bosch.
Where did The Other Side come from, other than from Kubin’s visionary art? Consider this tangle of influence: Kubin had been commissioned to illustrate a book of Edgar Allen Poe novellas by a Munich publisher in 1907. At roughly the same time, Kubin met with Gustav Meyrink to discuss illustrations for Meyrink’s novel-in-progress The Golem. When Meyrink hit a snag in finishing The Golem, Kubin took his preliminary sketches and found ways to use some of them in The Other Side. Not long after publication of The Other Side, Franz Kafka read and enjoyed it, and then later used elements from it in the creation of his own The Castle. (Kubin might have been aware of Kafka’s early work, as well.)
Labels like “outsider artist” aside, Kubin was definitely connected to the creative communities of his day. Indeed, when Kubin arrived in Munich,Germany, to study art as a teenager, who should he be discovered by than the iconic Franz Blei, who was also one of Kafka’s friends.
Blei gives us a semi-amused description of Kubin as a “frail young boy who was always dressed in black and had a pale face that was always straining a little to grow dark and pretending to be as shy as a young world that had been dragged from a hollow into the light.” (Blei was a bit mischievous, his bestiary of modern literature describing Meyrink, for example, as “the only mooncalf who dropped to earth and which is now in captivity…Officers of the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Army and German Deputies wanted to ban the public exhibition of the Meyrink because, so they said, it gave a distorted reflection of them in its one big eye.”)
That Kubin was a creator who either “was compelled by forces that guided his hand,” or trained himself to be so compelled, is clear even from his description of his reaction to an exhibition of Max Klinger’s etchings in Munich in 1882:
I grew moody…And now I was suddenly inundated with visions of pictures in black and white – it is impossible to describe what a thousand-fold treasure my imagination poured out before me. Quickly I left the theater, for the music and the mass of lights now disturbed me, and I wandered aimlessly in the dark streets, overcome and literally ravished by a dark power that conjured up before my mind strange creatures, houses, landscapes, grotesque and frightful situations.
In that context for Kubin’s inspiration, there’s perhaps no finer evocation of the effect Kubin achieves in his art and in The Other Side than this 1903 description from the Berliner Illustrirte: “This art always dreams of the last things in apocalyptic fantasy; its beings and forms are not of this world, and you cannot measure them by the ruler of correctness or anatomical possibility; they are complete distortion, total gruesome exaggeration; just as their landscapes dream away in the eternal twilight behind time and space. But you will always find one thing in this art, which dispenses with every depiction, every illustration of being, it has a convincing power to make things present and will grip you and sweep you away, conveying to you ideas and moods of uncanny reality that will burn themselves into your brain as if with hot iron punches…the suggestion of this foreboding art of the soul, the rare, the distant, the lustfully dreadful…is always powerful and enduring.”
The Other Side still appeals to a modern reader because of these qualities, after many novels initially seen as more enduring have faded from memory." - Jeff VanderMeer
"A stunning exercise in subconscious dementia that preceded Kafka and the surrealists by nearly two decades. It was the only novel by the German artist Alfred Kubin, an adherent of the fantastic and grotesque best known for illustrating the works of Poe, Hoffman and Gustav Meyrink. THE OTHER SIDE, ably translated by Mike Mitchell, recalls all of those writers, but contains an aura that’s very much unique.
The concept is a grabber: Claus Patera, a deeply eccentric, supernaturally endowed individual, creates a dream-city in a remote region of Asia. I mean this literally: the city of Pearl is a dream-based community governed by the laws of the subconscious.
The story is told from the point of view of an artist, a former colleague of Patera who is invited to live in Pearl. The artist agrees and after a lengthy journey finds himself in a perpetually murky environ--the sun never shines in Pearl--with cobbled-together retro architecture and a populace of eccentrics. The protagonist quickly finds employment as a cartoonist at the Dream Mirror, the official newspaper of Pearl. He has trouble, however, affecting a meeting with Petera, who spends his days secluded in a maze-like building.
More immediate troubles include the “Great Clock Spell” that inexplicably grips Dreamlanders, and which the artist comes to share; it refers to a mysterious spell that draws Dreamlanders into a clock tower. There’s also a psychic disturbance called the “Brainstorm” that collectively afflicts the Dreamlanders, in addition to a plethora of miscellaneous sounds and hallucinations.
But things are changing. An American man turns up in Pearl and causes enormous discord. This individual may or may not be Patera himself in a different guise, as it’s established midway through that Patera can change his facial features at will. He also psychically controls the Dreamlanders and their surrounding environment, and is evidently losing his mind.
This latter fact causes the Dream Realm to grow increasingly irrational and nightmarish. Eventually the place implodes in a riot of violence, orgies and wonton destruction, not unlike a surreal variant on THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII. It’s in this section that the Poe connection is most evident, with the narrative overtaken by all manner of horrific grotesquerie.
But in my view the novel’s best portions come earlier, in the artist’s mundane yet baffling observations of day-to-day life in Pearl. These sections powerfully evoke the flavor of existence in this dream-country via a kind of subconscious travelogue, evoked with such astonishing imaginative vividness I couldn’t help but wonder if Alfred Kubin had actually visited this city and then reported back on what he found. " - Fright

"My knowledge of European weird and fantastic fiction is scanty, to say the least, and I haven’t, so far as I know, previously encountered Alfred Kubin. Based on this extract, I am already eager to read the rest of The Other Side, and I am curious as to how this extract fits into the broader picture.
Here we have the city of Pearl. We’re told that Pearl is ‘strange and oppressive’ in the introduction, but given no clue as to what form that strangeness and oppression might involve. However, we quickly learn that there is some sort of political struggle under way, and that Pearl’s inhabitants are also succumbing to ‘an irresistible sleeping sickness’, something that is implicitly linked to the political situation. An inexplicable desire to sleep often suggests either an unwillingness to act, or else an extreme retreat from a situation as it is; either way, one speculates that the sleeping disease is a communal response to the situation. It is notable, for example, that animals have not been affected; also, at least some animals seem to work alongside the humans.
But the sleeping disease is only a precursor to what comes next, though perhaps the catalyst, given that sleep is the relaxation of the grip of the conscious mind on the world. The sleeping mind can run riot in dreams, and at the same time, while the people sleep, the rest of the inhabitants of the Dream Realm (surely no coincidence there) also run riot, with animals of all kinds, the unseen denizens, suddenly becoming vividly visible, with plagues of insects sweeping through, large carnivores invading the houses. The presence of animals, literal as it seems to be, is inevitably also a symbolic embodiment of the fear of the townsfolk. Kubin’s narrator is very matter of fact about these invasions, and in that matter of factness perhaps lies the deepest horror. The factual recounting of this invasion, this sudden and ongoing super-abundance of animals renders the abnormal normal momentarily, before the reader mentally overbalances, trying to deal with the thought of suddenly finding fourteen rabbits in one’s bed, or snakes everywhere.
The encroachment of nature is, in science fiction, usually a more gradual process, but nonetheless is usually a signal that humanity is no longer in the ascendant. People vanish from the picture, buildings gently begin to decay; there is something picturesque, almost nostalgic in the return to pre-civilised conditions, with maybe a few people hanging on, living once more in sympathy with nature. In ‘The Other Side’, however, the speed of the changes, their simultaneity, is part of what makes this so terrifying, accentuated by the way that the human inhabitants of Pearl accept the situation, perhaps because they can do nothing else.
After the invasion of animals comes the ‘sickness of inanimate matter’, the decay of building materials, textiles, ceramics, those things that we invest so much in, without which life seems impossible. And the next threat is to life itself, as the narrator realises when he stops to consider the fate of his own body.
Is he assailed by madness as he runs through the palace, seeking Patera, to plead for his life? Or does madness lie in believing in the existence of Patera in the first place? Can one place all one’s hope in such power? The narrator’s realisation is that, effectively, it doesn’t matter what he does: ‘I took strength in the consciousness of my own impotence’, and this is the point at which he shuts out ‘doubts and anxieties’. This is where the extract finished, and I find myself wondering what will happen to the narrator; what will he choose to see or to ignore in the future, having calmly recounted everything so far. Indeed, what are the other inhabitants of the Dream Realm seeing?
This is an interesting story to start this collection, particularly the matter-of-fact tone of the recounting of extraordinary events, and the moment when the narrator realises he can no longer simply observe and narrate, but is a part of the story too, the abstract becoming personal. What does it all mean? It is unclear, except insofar as the whole extract is obviously a metaphor of sorts for the collapse of a regime, society, civilisation, a strange mixture of hope and despair." - Maureen Kincaid Speller

"Every time a man is begotten and born, the clock of human life is wound up anew to repeat once more its same old tune that has already been played innumerable times, movement by movement and measure by measure, with insignificant variations. - Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation
While it has become quite an obscure book these days, The Other Side was pretty revolutionary at the time it was written back in 1908. In his narrative, Kubin combines philosophical ideas with decadence themes and both surreal and weird images to form the vanguard of early European Weird, predating both Kafka and Meyrink (who Kubin knew), and the French surrealists. The story revolves around a mysterious city in Asia built by its almost godlike ruler, but at the core it is really about both human nature, anxiety and the absurdity of existence.
The novel begins when the protagonist is visited by a man working in the employ of one of his old school friends, Claus Patera, who comes bearing a message. He tells him that since they were in school together, Patera has become rich through adventuring and has built his own city in Asia, Perle, within his Dreaming Kingdom, where the protagonist and his wife are both invited to join him. Despite being initially sceptical, he agrees to move after being shown a picture of Patera and is written a generous cheque of one hundred thousand marks. He and his wife travel over land and sea to start a new life in the city of Perle.
When he arrives in Perle, he finds that things are not like they are in the outside world. Firstly, the sun never shines there (it is only two years after the city is destroyed the he sees sunlight again), creating an atmosphere composed of browns and greys reminiscent of Kubin’s art. Under Patera’s wishes, nothing modern is allowed to be taken into the city, only old things, and progress is expressly banned, setting the city back over fifty years from the standard in most European countries. All of the buildings in the city have been bought from cities across Europe and as the protagonist later discovers, they all have rather sordid histories. They are provided with a place to live, money and the main character is provided with a job at the local paper (as he is an artist) but their initial good fortune doesn’t last. His wife, who was never a well person in general takes ill (eventually succumbing to her illness) and he learns that fortunes can turn from good to bad in a drop of the hat as absurdism seems to hold sway. A wealthy man can find himself destitute after a visit from city officials demanding he pays debts he has no knowledge of, and vice versa should a poor man find himself the recipient of some unexplained windfall. Those who retain their wealthy status have to suffer other forms of unseen misfortune, such as Melitta, the doctor’s wife, who the protagonist discovers begging in squalor on the street.
As Patera hand picks the people chosen to receive invites to the Kingdom and the borders are closed, the city’s population is composed of people predisposed to the strangeness of Patera’s new world. His neighbour is a good for nothing who terrorises them, being a general pain and banging on the door late at night. Under their apartment is a barber who is also a stoic and discusses philosophy with anyone who is nearby at the time, including his helper monkey. The doctor’s wife, Melitta, is quite scandalous as she cuckolds her husband with whoever she feels like and later in the novel takes to stripping in an erotic show. It is not unreasonable for see in her the unresolved feelings Kubin has about women due to his early experiences, as after the protagonist seduces her after his wife dies, it seems to be the first symbolic act of his decent into nihilism. Brendel, a friend to the protagonist, is obsessed with finding the perfect love and subjects each woman to a number of tests to see if they are worthy. He eventually falls for Melitta (despite her promiscuity) and continues to love her even following her death, removing the body from its grave. These are just a few of the interesting people who make up the city’s population. There is something about each of them, they are in some way disaffected, tainted, that serves as almost a precursor to the events that follow the arrival of the American.
Claus Patera himself is somewhat of an enigma. On arriving at the city the protagonist does everything possible in order to gain an audience with him but discovers that the administrative system in Perle is purposely an absurd bureaucratic nightmare. His wife claims to have seen him lighting lamps shortly before she becomes fatally ill and while he does not believe it is possible, when he finally manages to meet Patera, the ruler tells him that he has been watching him all along. One has to wonder how much of Kubin’s own father we can see in Patera. He is overbearing, controlling and all powerful as a father must seem to children when they are young. His absence and the anxiety that is causes the protagonist also seems like a common thread. After some begging, Patera agrees to help the protagonist in regards to his wife’s health and shortly after she dies, proving that you have to be careful what you wish for, and considering what follows in the novel her death may actually be a blessing after all. The extent of Patera’s power is ambiguous, but it is seems that he exercises an almost Nietzschean feat of will to create the city, both in the physical sense and the metaphysical. It is suggested that he is able to control the actions of everyone in the city and this is backed up by the fact that he is able to make everyone in the city (with the exception of his adversary the American) fall asleep at once. He also seems able to perform feats of almost godlike stature, although it is unsure if the things that happen to the city after the American’s revolt are caused by Patera, or if they are caused by the fact the population no longer see him as a god. Considering the influence of Schopenhauer on Kubin, it also gives us insight into an interesting occurrence when the protagonist finds him. Patera is a very handsome man and described as beautiful by Kubin in the novel, but when the protagonist eventually finds him, Patera’s face constantly changes from beauty to strange images that the protagonist finds threatening. It isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that Patera represents in some way the sublime as a symbol of turbulent nature, both in himself and the absurd way in which he runs the city.
As mentioned earlier, the arrival of the American, Hercules Bell of Philadelphia in the chapter The Adversary (perhaps a reference to the Hebrew Satan) acts as a catalyst for the destruction of the Dream Kingdom. The protagonist himself believes the only reason he is able to survive is that because after the shock of seducing Melitta on the day of his wife’s funeral, he ceases to care about anything and becomes almost nihilistic. Bell despises Patera and wants the Kingdom all for himself, his arrival causes an influx of immigrants and he lobbies to turn the people against their master. Bell’s rebellion leads to a plague of wild animals, the physical decay of the city itself and a descent into hedonism and grand scale violence as the city’s population destroys itself. Patera’s observation of the destruction, as well as the protagonist’s, may be an experiencing of those even fuller levels of the sublime in the realisation of the destructive force of nature and the insignificance of the individual in the face of existence. When all is said and done, there are very few survivors and Claus Patera is no more.
The Other Side is a very interesting book, as Kubin is clearly grappling with existential problems through his stand-in in the protagonist. One enduring feature for weird fiction seems to be the idea of the sublime, something beautiful but at the same time alien and utterly horrifying. Through Kubin, it is acted out in a tragic farce with almost Grand-Guignol scenes through the eyes of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and the decadents. It remains in my eyes a key text of the Weird fiction cannon and while it has been mostly forgotten by history, it seems to be having a little bit of a resurgence at the moment. It has been cited as an influence by Michael Cisco, was mentioned by China Mieville as one of the books that influenced The City and the City, and was recently announced of having the pride of place of being first in the VanderMeer’s upcoming Weird fiction anthology. Deserving to be read more widely, a great novel by a great artist. Currently out of print, but cheap enough to pick up an older copy; certainly worth both your time and your money.
After all, the demiurge is a hybrid." - Paul Charles Smith

"Alfred Kubin‘s The Other Side is one of the maddest things I’ve read in a long while. It’s mad in the way that Gogol’s The Nose is mad, or Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. That is, at times it seems normal, almost allegorical (you begin, at least, to feel there might be some meaning behind it all), but then just as you feel you’re getting a grasp on it, it leaps off again into incomprehensible madness.
The plot? – Well, it’s this. A man is persuaded by an old schoolfriend, Patera, who has since become immensely wealthy, to come and live in a closed society he has constructed, somewhere in northern China, called the Dream Kingdom. Billed as a sort of paradise which has forsaken the modern world, when he goes there he finds it doesn’t quite measure up to expectations. He becomes increasingly uncertain how (or if) the society is being governed, can never seem to meet with his friend Patera, and – well, after that things start getting rather weird: waking dreams, doppelgangers, unexplained plagues of animals, and a complete collapse not merely of moral fabric but seemingly all kinds of fabric.
What are the themes here, the ideas? – Maybe it’s about religion and the enlightenment, the lack of a guiding spirit in the world and how man can cope with its absence, the collapse of the ruling classes and the emergence of democracy, the revaluation of all values – yeah, that sort of thing.
Here’s a random passage, where he’s trying to get to meet with Patera:
Unfortunately, every sort of thing interfered, exactly as though some devil of mischance had taken a hand. First I was told that the Master was so overloaded with business that he could see no one. Another time he had gone on a trip. Then I heard that tickets for audiences could be obtained at the Archives. I went there. I walked through the gate, decorated with coats of arms, feeling as guilty as an anarchist. The doorman was asleep. I tried to find my way alone and entered a spacious antechamber. About a dozen officials were there.
For probably a quarter of an hour, no one noticed me at all, as though I were invisible. Finally, one of the functionaries asked me gruffly what I wanted. However, he did not wait for my answer but went on conversing with his neighbour. A somewhat pleasanter character bowed to me and inquired about my business. His wrinkled yellow face fell into severe furrows, he took a few puffs at his long pipe, and then motioned with it towards the next room. “In there!”
On the door was a notice: Do not knock. Inside, a man was asleep. I had to clear my throat three times before any sign of life came into his completely rigid, deeply reflective pose. Then I was favoured with a glance of majestic disdain.
"What do you want?” he growled. “Have you a summons? What papers have you brought with you?”
Here there was not the same curtness as outside; on the contrary, information came bubbling out.
“To receive your ticket for an audience you need in addition to your birth certificate, baptismal certificate, and marriage certificate, your father’s graduation diploma and your mother’s inoculation certificate. Turn left in the corridor. Administration Room 16, and make your declaration of means, education, and honorary orders. A character witness for your father-in-law is desirable but not absolutely essential.” Whereupon he nodded condescendingly, bent once more over the desk, and began to write with, as I could see, a dry pen.
If anyone’s thinking at this point that this all sounds very similar to a highly original and revered Czech writer who happened, like Kubin, to write in German, I would point out that these similarities must be found to be false, and for this very simple reason: that this certain Czech writer was highly original – possibly the most original writer ever – certainly the first person to write about the things that he wrote about – whereas Kubin’s novel was published in 1909." - Obooki's Obloquy


Andrew Zornoza - A prose-photo book: a cryptic collection of random thoughts, experiences, and photographs of the author's fictional journey through the Western US and Mexico

Andrew Zornoza, Where I Stay, Tarpaulin Sky, 2009.

"In the process of constantly disappearing, the unhinged, unmoored and unnamed narrator of Where I Stay travels through a cracked North America, stalked by his own future self and the whispers of a distant love. From Arco, Idaho to Mexico City, he flees along the highways and dirt roads of a landscape filled with characters in transition: squatters, survivalists, prostitutes, drug runners, skinheads, border guards and con-men. Where I Stay is a meditation on desperation, identity, geography, memory, and love—a story about endurance, about the empty spaces in ourselves, about the new possibilities we find only after we have lost everything."

"Consider Andrew Zornoza’s Where I Stay a loose retelling of Werner Herzog’s 1974 march from Munich to Paris to try to save a dying friend—only set in the arid, ominous nowherescape of the contemporary Southwest and composed by a strung-out W.G. Sebald. Zornoza dedicates the book to “all those he's lied to” before prosecuting a narrative in stark photographs and crisp, lurid text that will make you wish we had more liars like him in the world." - Matthew Derby

"A gifted journey through borderlands between text and image, glassy prose and suggestively indirect prose poem, facts and fictions, sanity and the other thing, but most of all those borderlands crossed and recrossed on the West's back roads—the kind that always exist just off the grid, just below the radar, and always in beautiful pieces." —Lance Olsen

"Andrew Zornoza writes with the precision of a poet and delicately creates a haunting, glowing world of dreams and beauty. The language and images of "Where I Stay" make you want to step inside the pages, to travel down the road with the author. Books like this remind us of what true art really looks like." - Martin Hyatt

"Andrew Zornoza's Where I Stay bills itself as a "photo novel," meaning that text and images are combined here to produce one unified fictional narrative tale. And I have to say, although I found the written part only so-so (a sort of rambling Jack-Kerouac-meets-Studs-Turkel tale about the freaks and losers who populate the great rural areas of the US), as a publication I found it one of the greatest little basement-press photography books I've ever seen, which just by itself earns this book a decent score and recommendation. It's almost a case study of what smart yet cash-challenged publishers can do with a little forethought and some good design skills, something to be studied by fellow photographers as much as it is to be simply enjoyed." - Jason Pettus

"The movement of people and lives; chance meetings between strangers destined never to cross paths again; moments that can never be recreated; the uncertainty of people, place, relationships — all collide across culture and class, gender and race to form an anthem of displacement. The author deftly — and in spite of himself, seamlessly — weaves common threads that, by the end of the book, form a recognizable whole. Where I Stay is a story of a search for a home, for permanence, and ultimately for meaning." - Cynthia Reeser

"Open Andrew Zornoza's novel Where I Stay anywhere and you will be presented with a spread of two facing pages, each wider than they are tall. Given the amount of text and the subject matter—a hitchhiker traveling the American West—you may find them somewhat reminiscent of postcards: On the left will be a title consisting of a date and a location—"Aug. 2, Cheyenne, Wyoming," perhaps, or else, "Oct. 15, Deschutes, Oregon"—and below it a single paragraph composed of a couple hundred words, some slim sliver of experience related by a narrator as poetic as he is desperate, as much a seeker as he is someone trying to finally get truly lost. There is little narrative in these micro-scenes, but lots of resonant images and phrasings. Here is the entirety of one such section, "Sept. 28, Three Forks, Montana":
Two roads meet like a cross upon the earth and there stops a middle aged man and his father and their truck. A dog squirms between them, its tongue dropping pearls of spit upon the upholstery. the younger man gets out, jerks his thumb to the bed of the truck where a sofa is lashed to the floor with heavy chains. The chains are spray-painted gold. The old man runs his liver-spotted hands through the dog's thick black fur, his eyes not leaving the windshield. You'll be king, he says. Alright, I answer. The younger man lowers the bed door, tests the chains. He's right, he says, you'll be king for now. King of the road.
Each right-side page of the book contains a single black-and-white photograph, sometimes seemingly related to the block of text on the left, sometimes not. These too are accompanied by text, evocative captions generally only a line or two long—"I worked at a toy factory, I worked at a restaurant washing dishes. People gave me money. I was ashamed, but I took the money. I never did not take the money"—but sometimes ballooning to paragraphs of their own:
I went to the only friend I had. His parents were Mormon. With his family and other families we drove across the country in a caravan of mini-vans. We camped near the Teton Mountains. There was a three-legged race. I won a medal, printed on the tin, "favorite stranger: favorite new family member." Next year I got another medal, "Best loved hitch-hiker." One of the men worked in vice for the Salt Lake City police. At night he drank beer and I smoked cigarettes and his daughter plucked away at a plastic guitar while she sat on a log away from the fire.
More often than not, Zornoza leaves it to the reader to place these disparate pieces into mental order, to fit them into some understandable arrangement of narrative and photo and caption. The headings on the left, with their dates marching from August to November provide a linearity to the slim paragraphs below them, but this seeming five-month journey is contradicted by paragraphs like the one above, with their claims of a journey lasting not months but years. Without more full-bodied clues as to how the book should be experienced, each reader will invent their own system: Like me, you may find the captions making unbalancing claims to fact from their proximity to the photographs, which make their own claims to truth even in this age of digital manipulation and computer graphics. And so what? Are we faced with a fictional novel on one side, and a factual photo-narrative on the other? Or are there two novels here, one made purely of text, and one of photographs and captions? Or has it been one novel all along, but one in which the narrator is less than reliable, is int the end as fractured as the America he's traveling?
Even if it is a blend of fact and fiction, does that impact the truth contained in the book? Does the presence of the factual increase the truth content of the fiction, or does it detract?
Are these the right questions to ask? Are any of these questions even close?
I'm not sure that Zornoza has put the answers to these questions in the book for us to find. Or rather, I think that it's more likely possible that he's erased the answers, has lost them for us in the same way that this narrator seems to be trying to lose himself. "There are places I keep returning to," he says, in one of the captions from the middle of the book. Later still, the narrator sees a map taped to a wall, one where "lines have been drawn from spots on the map to the margins, each line ending in a crowded scrawl of letters and numbers, coordinates and temperatures, illegible words." The narrator says, "I wonder how long he has been out there."
The narrator says, "I don't know."
He says: "It all gets jumbled together."
He says: "It's all about to be swept away again."
He says: "[The] little home that I had had moved along without me."
He says: "There was nowhere to go, as long as I was myself."
The book closes. The left side—the fiction, the invented narrative beneath the forward march of dates—it folds into the right side, into the photographs and their captured truths, into the captions that illuminate or obfuscate that truth so that it matches or else denies the fiction that faces it.
And then what?
And then the book is inside of us, or at least its contents are, emptied from the fine container Zornoza has built for all of his narrator's contradictions and complications, his precise phrasing and beautiful mistakes. Like any long trip, the months of the narrator's journey and the years of Zornoza's photography that were compressed to make the fiction will probably not stick with you as a cohesive story, but rather as a series of fleeting images: A white dress wet from a river, a drawing taped to the side of a cave, a girl sleeping in an overturned refrigerator, and then many more beside them and also between them. And what's left in the cracks left between? The memory of a person trying to lose his identity a mile at a time, only to find it waiting for him at every destination, on the other side of each one of America's empty spaces as wide and yawning as the ones inside ourselves we spend so many of our years attempting to escape." - Matt Bell

"The ‘road novel’ might be one of the most maligned forms in storytelling, in that for a mold that by in proper handling could be kinetic, shapeshifting, and packed with an uncontainable kind of light found only in certain kinds of travel, too many books get caught up in minutiae and joking, leaving out the language and the true moving meat.
Thankfully, Andrew Zornoza’s Where I Stay, just out from Tarpaulin Sky Press, manages to not only wield that rare light while avoiding those common pitfalls, but to do so in a refreshing, pitch-perfect kind of steering that is innovative not only for the genre it might get called into, but for experiential and language-focused texts of every stripe.
Immediately striking for its beautifully designed horizontal 8”x5” shape, Where I Stay is a dual kind of amalgam. Each two-page spread consists of a one paragraph prose block tied to a sequentially moving date and location, as well as photo concurrently associated with the text, and a caption for the photo that often extends the prose into a further direction. There is violence and desperation. There is music and shithole buildings. Dirt. There is sky. Moments told for how they are and how they were in sentences that for their unassuming aura moreso sting:
“Laughing, joking with the children, they haul the garbage bags into the trucks, lifting the children by their armpits into the flatbed, everyone now laughing joking.”
While each graph and location could be self contained for Zornoza’s striking lines, meditative and rhythmic in the mind of Mary Robison mashed with William Vollmann, the prose in sequence forms a narrative of seeking, of looking for something familiar in so much splay. The unbounded point-to-point of the narrator’s surroundings, in which he works strange crap jobs, meets roadside strangers, deals with his life, contains no abject want for summation, and yet therein reaches beyond the narrative in beautifully and concretely rendered fragments evicts a true sense of drift, though within the drift, the body.
“I worked at a toy factory,” one of the images’ caption reads, just after a passage about a man finagling him for gas, “I worked at a restaurant washing dishes. People gave me money. I was ashamed, but I took the money, I never did not take the money.”
And yet for something seemingly so everchanging, there is a center here. A lock. The moments of pure human magic are abound. Certain page of Where I Stay, in their collision of texts and image, move in such a precise and startling way that at certain points it seems necessary to stop and close the book, to let its image sink deeper, strong in the head. Zornoza’s knack for rendering the momentary in timeless, syllabic lines, to cut to the blood of the line in an effortless, truly fevered sort of way, is not only refreshing, it is unforgettable. Though he is smart enough to keep the moment by moment phrasing quick and vivid, line by line, there are no exits pulled in the overall collage that results from all the wanting, from the haunting viscera there contained." - Blake Butler

"Where I Stay opens with a description of a stark landscape in movement: grain, threshers, wind, a hand raised in wave from a tractor, a girl who appears and disappears in the same instant; a barren image of an America we all know or have seen in a photograph. The few humans who populate this land acknowledge the narrator with minimal gesture, interpolating the poised but desperate voice that will insistently, though always somewhat privately, lead us through a road trip squarely situated between the ethos of Jack Kerouac and Walker Evans. Where I Stay is a novel of almost pure voice, told in diaristic fragments coupled with photographs whose captions are drawn from other moments in the time of the narrative. Here, nothing is anchored. Even the black borders of the photographs, those supposed documents of a reality experienced, are themselves unhinged and moving on a trajectory. The story, barely narrative, told to us by this voice, is of a young man moving aimlessly through an America moving violently through him. In and out of cars, of the arms of lovers, looking for someone he lost, for a moment of rest, the novel slides, falters and picks itself up again in the margins, the out of frame, the side of the road, the memory, the coming word. A year passes, days and weeks omitted, blank spaces where the lives of criminals, kind families, abandoned dogs and factory workers continue to be lived. By the end of this short novel, the voice of the narrator, not surprisingly, is failing. Those who filled his world he can now find "only in the cracks." The novel, in danger of never being written, becomes a letter, composed to one who may never receive it, for they may also have moved on, pulled by some love, some violence, some journey. But we, for the moment, are here, resting a bit before the next move." - Michelle Tupko

"How to impress me:
■Do something new.
■Do something unexpected.
■Break with convention.
■Do it well.
Andrew Zornoza‘s photo novel, Where I Stay, does all of these things and more, so, needless to say, I’m very impressed with it. In a nutshell, the book is about an unnamed wanderer traveling through the Great American West. To say it’s “about” a wanderer, however, is to belie the book’s complexity. As with Cesca Janece Waterfield’s Bartab, Where I Stay leaves to the reader much of the work of stitching together a narrative. Throughout the proceedings, Zornoza provides the reader with snatches from the wanderer’s life — a day on the road, for example, or a moment shared with a stranger — along with a series of photographs and their captions. Sometimes the photos complement the text. Other times, the connection may not be so apparent. The end result is that the reader is engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the book, and each successive reading has the potential to carry with it new meaning.
As haunting as it is gritty, Where I Stay has the feel of an impressionist watercolor and underscores the value of the small press in literary culture. Indeed, I hesitate to simply call it a book; its ambitions, beautifully realized, make it a hybrid of textual and visual arts. Like all of my favorite works of art, Where I Stay has the capacity to evoke something akin to an out of body experience, to propel the reader into unfamiliar territory and, in so doing, to make the quotidian world new again upon the reader’s return. To put it more plainly, Zornoza’s talent is to take us out of our day to day lives and to show us the world from a new perspective that allows us to see our own lives in a new, ever-shifting light.
If I have one suggestion for Zornoza, it’s to implore his publisher, Tarpaulin Sky Press, to come out with a deluxe edition of this book. While the photographs that appear throughout the current edition are certainly compelling, I can only imagine what a glossy, high-resolution edition might look like. Yes, the volume may be a bit pricey, but this is art we’re talking about. And who can put a price on that?" - Marc Schuster

"Andrew Zornoza's marvelous first book is hard to pin down. With dated and place-notated prose on one page and a captioned photo on the facing one, it seamlessly shifts its delivery from straight-ahead to a possibly unreliable photographer with captions that either expand on the text, or further question the reality and relationship between prose and picture.
In action that takes place between August 2nd and November 25th, the unnamed narrator wanders throughout the American Southwest and Mexico. Perhaps action is too strong a word, as everything seems to come across as notes written on unsent postcards. Even the dedication, "To all those I've lied to," says something about the veracity of everything that follows.
Here, in the middle of nothing, is a rusted bronze plaque: Incinerated Forest (Tree Molds). Taped to the plaque is a purple flower and a piece of paper. I pick up the paper and put the tape and flower in my pocket. A boy with a crown sitting on a rock orbiting the earth is drawn on the paper. Written underneath the drawing are the words, "What makes a desert beautiful, says the little prince, is that somewhere it hides a well."
Small moments like this one (Nov. 4, Craters of the Moon National Park, Idaho) give Where I Stay its authentic voice. The narrator repeatedly finds the last shred of humanity in the modern wasteland. If Chris McCandless, the ill-fated true-life wanderer Jon Krakauer wrote about in Into The Wild, had met up with shadier characters, and decided that instead of searching for a way to live true to oneself realized that no matter how one lived it was true to them, Where I Stay could be a smarter companion to his adventures.
Zornoza manages to capture that wanderlust that has caught anyone who ever read On The Road, or realized you can get on Route 80 West and drive from New York to San Francisco. It's sad and searching, filled with the desire for experience for reasons we may not even know. As Antoine de St. Exupery wrote in Le Petit Prince, "Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them." And Andrew Zornoza does it with style and grace." - John Findura

"Tarpaulin Sky Press has just published a new work of fiction by Andrew Zornoza, Where I Stay, which includes numerous embedded photographs. Unlike W.G. Sebald and most other writers that have scattered images in a sporadic manner throughout their texts, Zornoza’s book places a snapshot on every right hand page, setting up a visual rhythm with two sets of text. The left-hand page is a diary entry, complete with date and place, while on almost all of the right-hand pages, in addition to the photograph, there is an italicized text that is usually briefer than the diary entry. Part of the puzzling pleasure of reading Zornoza’s novel comes in attempting to triangulate these three components.
The book opens with a 1938 quote from photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975), perhaps most famous for his Farm Security Administration photographs of the American Depression and for his collaboration with writer James Agee on the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).
These anonymous people who come and go in the cities and who move on the land; it is on what they look like, now; what is in their faces and in the windows and the streets beside them and around them; what they are wearing and what they are riding in, and how they are gesturing, that we need to concentrate consciously, with the camera.
In spite of its title, Where I Stay is a restless book that moves all across the American West and even into Mexico. Time flows from August 2 to November 25, but otherwise there is no discernible progression. The narrator drifts, struggles, observes, and writes regular diary entries about day jobs, drugs and alcohol, death, loneliness, and brief attempts at friendship.
Compared to the diary entries, the italicized texts on the right hand page are generally more meditative and reflective.
Sometimes I wrote things down, fragments. But then I looked at them and they did not seem real and there seemed to be no purpose in writing them. There was nothing in them, other than things I did not want to remember.
The photographs, which are credited to five people other than the author, depict the bleak anonymous locales familiar to every hitchhiker: roadsides, truck stops, bus stations, laundromats, gritty streets. There are a few snapshots of people, none of whom receive the heroic treatment of Walker Evans’ sharecroppers. Only the occasional landscape image offers a possible solace – the open sky, the sunset, the forests that consume the old shacks and abandoned automobiles – but even those moments are undercut by the text." - Terry Pitts

"This is an cryptic collection of random thoughts, experiences, and photographs of the author's fictional journey through the Western US and Mexico. This definitely isn't the scenic route: Zornoza's travels take him to the edge of urban life, mainly concentrating on the rough roads and deserted highways that have been left in the past by time and progress. The landscape is grey, gritty, and jagged: much like the words he chooses to describe his interactions and his reactions to it all.
His observations are sometimes funny, sometimes tense, and often a bit obscure. You get the impression that he has x-ray vision and sees beneath the surface of the locations, as well as the hardened exteriors of the people he meets. He encounters the most diverse group of people imaginable, all lingering on the outskirts of city and suburban life, some intentionally and some without choice. The black and white photographs heighten the sense of distance and reminded me of a Dust Bowl migration. There's sadness within it all, yet the traveller continues. Much like an epic quest, he keeps pursuing that which he cannot identify.
"There are cracks in the country-in its families and highways, houses and rivers, factories, cellar windows, truck stops, in the sounds of chattering televisions, in the plexiglass booths of pay phones by bus stations, in the crushed glass of parking lots..."
"The prairie was my cellar door. I had removed everyone I knew or the people had removed themselves. I replaced them all with a vast plateau, then mountains, dry desert, broken pieces of landscape that didn't quite fit together. I found people in the cracks."
Zornoza's gift in this collection is the little surprises he throws out amid the descriptions of the raw landcape. In his diary-like entries, he may explain what happened and where, but he may also throw out a mysterious phrase: "because if someone was making a movie of her, the movie would not be good. She was a bad actress, but there was no movie, there was no acting." I really enjoyed the photographs but more the pictures his words composed. Sparse, with no unnecessary details or dialogue. An excellent collection....It reminded me somewhat of Sam Shepherd's Day Out of Days." - Amy Henry

"A couple of years back, Blueberry Nights, a film by Wong Kar-wai was released and it sucked. Kar-wai is known for his dreamy, gauzy, sensual films, which obsess over love, lost, place, identity and time-- all delivered in fragmented narratives. Blueberry Nights was his first Hollywood film so what better to make than a “road movie?” The movie not only lacked vision and contained some awful acting, it really showcased how the obsession with the road has become another cliché of Americana. If I think of the road as a literary trope I think Steinbeck, Kerouac, and McCarthy. So my question was whether Zornoza and Peet’s books could make the road feel fresh again. These are two drastically different texts yet both are united in the necessity of search and that ability to be in a place, or of a place, to pass through a place, but not possess or change the place—i.e. the anti-capitalist imperative, that is if Huck Finn sets off down the river to find a freer and wilder America does it exist? According to Zornoza and Peet the answer is yes and no.
Where I Stay is a prose-photo book, which sets up a rhythm by wisely having photos on every right-hand side of the page. This strategy allows for Zornoza to have a nuanced and complicated reading of his book because although the photos relate (sometimes quite loosely) to the text the photos tell their own story. So you have the opportunity to get one story from the text, another from the photos, and a third reading by combining text and photos. This allows a certain emotional resonance and mood to permeate throughout the book while challenging your intellect and intuition. Where filmmaker Wong Kar-wai failed with Blueberry Nights, Zornoza succeeds. Part of the success of Zornoza’s book is that he allows it to roam—despite it’s title this is a restless book traveling the American West, Mid-west, and Mexico. The prose gives us just enough information to remain engaged in both character and place, but Zornoza doesn’t try to define, instead allowing the reader to make associative leaps from Sept. 17, Albuquerque, New Mexico which begins,
My older son don’t write me, but he’s a good boy, she says. We park in a diner parking lot and tilt back the seats to sleep. When I wake in the morning,she’s sewing shut the end of a pillow. A pocket with a tooth embroidered on it has been stitched in one corner.”
The next page has a photo collage of a pillow, photos of people and a newspaper. Below the photo the caption reads, “I worked at a toy factory, I worked at a restaurant washing dishes. People gave me money. I was ashamed, but I took the money, I never did not take the money.” The page after this it’s Sept. 20, Boulder, Colorado and the narrative begins,
“A man on a motorcycle with a Yorkshire terrier in the sidecar, a woman in a Volvo, and finally a water fountain, shade, a field of green grass.”
One of the reasons why Where I Stay is so successful is because of Zornoza’s ability to navigate and weave together fully fleshed sentences along with airy lines of staccato. Zornoza’s prose has range, which is what makes this book at times so beautiful and at other times so devastating..." - Steven Karl

Andrew Zornoza's web page

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