Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Books: Quimby the Mouse


Quimby the Mouse
By Chris Ware


Available now from Islington Libraries
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I mean - when I first wrote this I hadn't really read Quimby the Mouse. Yeah - sure - I had flicked through a few pages and stopped here and there to read a page or two: but come on - I was just starting out on to the road of Comic Bloggism (or whatever) and man - from that first page of immense text: acting as a sort of immense wall [1] (with the crying sideways cartoon mouse in the centre) it's pretty obvious that this wasn't a book that was gonna be - you know - easy to read (perish the thought! - right?).

So yeah: my first attempt was pretty - well - lukewarm [2] and didn't really offer much in terms of giving the reader a sense of what to expect - it's kinda funny reading back over it now and seeing the reference to "dedicated monks" - seeing how I said something similar in my Jimmy Corrigan write-up: I guess (for whatever strange (good) reason) it seems that my brains thinks that the ideal reader for a Chris Ware book is a guy with a shaved head and a itchy brown robe: you know - someone who wants his comics reading pleasure stirred in with a pinch of masochism (or whatever): I mean most comics (and maybe this is what's good about them? I dunno) are the kind of thing that you can pick up halfway between whatever else it is you're doing: and dip-in-and-out-of like a tortilla in a tub of guacamole: you know - thoughtlessly, easily and - (*crunch*) yum! - deliciously. I think it was Alan Moore who said in an interview once [3] that comics are the best medium for dropping information into your head as quickly and as easily as possible: which - on one hand - makes it good for it's clarity and it's directness but also (I guess) makes it a little bit - I dunno: junk foody. Something that's easy to consume mindlessly in big doses: or however you want to describe it. But with Chris Ware. Well: with his stuff - it's just not possible (for me at least) to read his books halfway between doing other stuff. Nah: with him: it's more like settling down with a Russian Novel or something [4]: you need to make sure that your desk is cleared from all distractions and you're ready to devote your full attention to it - with any notions of pleasure or fun banished to the far reaches of your mind: because buckle up - this is going to be hard work and tough and difficult and all the rest: but just maybe by the end of it - you're going to be a better person (or something).

But - hell: I managed to scale the immense towering heights of Jimmy Corrigan and found delight and beauty somewhere near the summit: so I figured I should give Quimby the Mouse another looksie (I was going to say that Quimby the Mouse seems much thinner - but then it's like four times the surface area of Jimmy Corrigan (why you always got to be so different Mr Ware? Can't you just make normal A4-sized books like all the other boys and girls? I mean - speaking from the perspective of the librarian that has to shelve this bloody things: they're a little bit awkward - you know?)).

But yeah.

Starting with "Introduction and Apologies" (that immense wall of text) the feeling sinks in very quickly that this isn't going to be a book of your typical cartoon mouse adventures (and I mean: it also doesn't do much to boast your reading confidence when the middle section loudly proclaims that it's full of "immature, generally ill-conceived, and fairly sentimental students efforts... Which, quite honestly, it is not recommended that you purchase.") And with lines like: "I've never been able to shake the feeling - it masquerading in the sensation of genuine conviction - that somehow, somewhere, all of my memories and experiences, though "in the past," are all still really there, somehow, and if I can find some way to get to them, wherever it is they are, I'll be happy again." [5] it's pretty obvious that pratfalls and silly animal giggles are a long way off: in some brighter, more compact and much more easily shelved book.

There's a whole lot of stuff about his grandma (who I must admit does sound pretty kick-ass "Even in her last days, dying in the care unit of the retirement home, she'd announce to the chaplins that she was a "reformed druid."") before we start to get to the actual comic book stuff that you were hoping for when you first picked it up (I mean - if you wanted loads of text - you'd read a proper book - right? Right). But - he's sneaky that Chris Ware in that he starts slipping it in quietly - round the edges - while you're still tied up with the text (I thought it was just a single page: but - nope - it keeps on going for quite a while (and - oh my goodness - is that - a letters page?)  before it finally gives up [7].

And so then: now we can look at the pretty pictures? Yeah?

Only: the first thing (the right way up) you get on Page 2 is this: "The Fun is Over. See! Raw Regret Gnaw Away The Core of His Hollow Accomplishment. Hear! His Inner Voice Vainly Attempt To Block Out The Lonely Truth. Witness! His Failing Flesh Mock The Very Notion of Hope! It's a Snappy Time from Start to Finish!" which - wow - was almost enough to make me give up right there. But - damnit: I had managed to scale the treacherous atmospheres of the introduction: so no way was I going to give now. No sir.

But yeah: what do I get for all my perseverance? Well: lots of comics about the cold, about sickness and above all: about death [8]. All delivered in a seemingly simplistic Gee! Whiz! fashion that is then completely uncut by the harrowing voids within: like a child's breakfast cereal with the taste of bitter tears. And then - ha: we get some Jimmy Corrigan (that was quick): only in proto-form where his tagline of "Smartest Kid on Earth" actually seems fitting: only (oh man) - that smartestness isn't been used for some light-hearted caper or jolly adventure - nope (of course not): it's just more cold sickness and death and (mmmmm - delicious) that familiar taste of bitter tears again (I imagine the slogan would be: "They're salty!" as delivered by a cartoon elephant: or something).  

After I had finished reading Jimmy Corrigan I had been bragging about it to one of my occasional comic-reading friends because - well hey: it had felt like I had accomplished something and I wanted the world to know (which is fair enough right?) and - well - I guess it must have made an impression because when I mentioned to the same friend that this weekend I was going to clear my desk and make a go on Quimby the Mouse he mentioned that he had just started reading Jimmy Corrigan: which lead to a brief discussion as to what he thought of it so far and if we was enjoying it: which lead to him saying something like: "Well - I'm not sure if enjoying is the right word. I mean - it's good but it's actually pretty - depressing to read. No. Wait. Depressing isn't really the right word. It's more that it's just - sad. It's all just really sad. Does that make sense?"

Well. Yes. Yes and yes again. In fact - I can't think of a better word to sum up the experience of reading Chris Ware than "sad" - only not the small sad that comes when you open the biscuit tin and realise it's empty: nah - this is more the all-encompassing suffocating sad that comes when you step back from your life and realise that we're all ultimately frail, lost and alone: the sad that crushes your skull like a metal pickle barrel under the tremendous weight of lakewater.

Of course: I realise that by saying that I may be putting off a lot of potential readers because - hey: who wants to read something that's going to crush your skull like a metal pickle barrel - right? Most of prefer our skulls uncrushed and our pickle barrels to be used to store - well: pickles.

Well: I guess the first reason you should at least try with Quimby the Mouse is that it's a unique reading experience (and I don't know about you: but I like furnishing my life with unique experiences: it makes it more pleasing to the eye): I mean - yeah you are going to have to strain and struggle at quite a few points along the way as your brain does it best to translate the vast inhospitable pages of (in places) seemingly the same image repeated over and over and over (with only a few minute changes here and there) into something it can digest. (And man - yeah: before I started reading it properly I will admit that flicking through it - it was like (I dunno) pages of circuit diagrams or something: designed to be actively hostile to human consumption: but that's like walking around the swimming pool and getting worried about how deep it is: all you're going to do is make yourself scared to get in - and really the best course of action is just to jump in (head first) and submerge yourself beneath the water.

Because not only is the water actually (wow) warm and strangely soothing once you're in [9] but (as maybe stupid as this sounds): but there's lots of pin-prick wisdom in there too - that is: truths that hurt. How love and pain and hate are intermingled in all sorts of peculiar ways and how thoughtlessly we can end up hurting the ones we're with (and - most awful of all: that sometimes we just do it because we think it's funny).

And I realise that I'm treading on some pretty iffy ground here seeing how Kafka has a name that's been thrown around so much that it's pretty much lost all it's meaning [10]: and man I haven't even read (hardly any) Kafka anyway: but what the hell here it goes anyway - there was a lot of Quimby the Mouse that reminded me a lot of the way that Kafka would kind of write this strange little parables where the "moral of the story"was always somehow (tantalisingly) out of reach: like the way your grandmother would put the sweets all the way on the top shelf so you couldn't get at them. Only in a way that doesn't make you feel frustrated: but more the opposite - strangely happy that there are things out there that are built to actively resist easy translation and understanding.

Which I guess leads in to the main difference (for me) between this and Jimmy Corrigan: and that's Quimby's mesmerizing dream-like atmosphere. I don't mind that it's all strange and surreal and stuff like that (altho - what is it with Ware's obsession for decapitation? It's properly unnerving: if I ever meet him I'm going to wear somesort of metal protection around my neck just to be sure...) it's more like (somehow) it manages to capture the other-worldly ebb and flow of a dream state. And while Jimmy Corrigan built towards several culminations of slapping you around the heart: Quimby (for this reader anyway) was much more about the journey - being pulled along from place to place: moment to moment with weird motifs (two-headed mice anyone?) repeating themselves again and again and again and then fading away into nothingness: like a memory of the dearly departed slowly being washed away by time.

So yeah - I won't lie to you: this book took a lot of effort and a massive-amounts of determination and isn't really comparable to any of the other books mentioned on this blog: but if you're willing to do the work: it's an experience that I would recommend.

[1] Seemingly designed - to my eyes at least - to keep people out. I mean: I guess he skipped the bit that said  "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" because there wasn't enough frigging space left. 

[2] Quote (this being the original post): "From the obsessive mind of Chris Ware comes Quimby the Mouse a collection of his early strips and musings. Starring a cartoon mouse in a Micky Mouse and Felix the Cat kinda vein - only full of neurosis, depression and dread and ponderous existential questions about love, loss and death this is a comic for those with a keen eye and strokey chin. Published in extra large format with an attention to each small minute detail that boogles my mind: this isn't a book for causal readers - this is a book for dedicated monks who have the time and mental ability to dedicate their lives to teasing out the small hidden depths and layers hidden away in every page (check the blood stains that soak through the page!). Worth getting lost in for those that have the time."

[3] Actually I think he said it in a few interviews: but here it is from a (pretty good) Wired interview: "One thing is that with the comics medium, it has been proven—I believe by Pentagon tests in the late '80s—that comics are actually the best medium for imparting information to somebody in a form that they will retain and remember. That's not just me saying that, that's the Pentagon. I personally feel—and this is just pseudo-scientific hippie bullshit—I feel this might be because the unit of currency of what used to be called our left brain is the word. Our left brain is what goes about speech and rationality. The unit of currency for our right brain, conversely, would be the image, because the right brain is preverbal. So perhaps it is because of the combination of words and images in a readable form that comics does have this unique power. Now, of course, movies are a combination of words and images, but they have a completely different structure and completely different way of working. With a movie you are being dragged through the scenario at a relentless 24 frames a second. With a comic book you can dart your eyes back to a previous panel, or you can flip back a couple of pages to check whether there is some reference in the dialog to a scene that happened earlier."

[4] Not that I have read many Russian Novels. In fact - the only (proper) Russian Novel I've ever tried to read was In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (I was trying to impress a girl a liked): and I only got about 30 pages in before I gave up.

[5] I tried to find this quote already written somewhere on the internet so that I didn't have to go through the effort of writing it out myself: and although (damn it) I couldn't find it: I did notice that Chris Ware (it seems) has a problem shaking feelings and dealing with the past as evidenced by this quote of his that's - like - hanging around all over the place: "Lately, I can't shake the feeling that I've been living a dream for the last 10 years or so; I can't account for most of my 20s, and I have to continually remind myself that certain people are dead now and many of my friends have children." Also (damn it) at this point I really wanted to send you over to an article ("The Film Worlds of Wes Anderson") by Michael Chabon in the New York Review of books that's pretty insightful about the motives behind Chris Ware's work (even if it's actually talking about Wes Anderson and Vladimir Nabokov) but - oh well: it's locked behind a subscribers paywall ("Please choose from one of the options below to access this article" etc) but still you can get the general idea from the first few paragraphs that (what the hey) I'll quote in full for you (because - like I said - it's relevant and basically (unknowingly) manages to capture Chris Ware's whole raison d'être [6]:

The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”

There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.”

The feeling haunts people all their lives. Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness. The question becomes: What to do with the pieces? Some people hunker down atop the local pile of ruins and make do, Bedouin tending their goats in the shade of shattered giants. Others set about breaking what remains of the world into bits ever smaller and more jagged, kicking through the rubble like kids running through piles of leaves. And some people, passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.

Two difficulties with this latter scheme at once present themselves. First of all, we have only ever glimpsed, as if through half-closed lids, the picture on the lid of the jigsaw puzzle box. Second, no matter how diligent we have been about picking up pieces along the way, we will never have anywhere near enough of them to finish the job. The most we can hope to accomplish with our handful of salvaged bits—the bittersweet harvest of observation and experience—is to build a little world of our own. A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half-remembered. Of course the worlds we build out of our store of fragments can be only approximations, partial and inaccurate. As representations of the vanished whole that haunts us, they must be accounted failures. And yet in that very failure, in their gaps and inaccuracies, they may yet be faithful maps, accurate scale models, of this beautiful and broken world. We call these scale models “works of art.”

[6] (Hope I dont lose any cool points for use of fancy French words?) And yeah - ok - fine: another reason of including the big long-ass quote is that it also boasts my word-count and makes it look like I've written way more than I actually have - but what the hey right? (Don't tell anyone: just be our little secret). Also: seeing how I don't know where else to say it (so what the hey I'll say it here) that  
"I've never been able to shake the feeling - it masquerading in the sensation of genuine conviction - that somehow, somewhere, all of my memories and experiences, though "in the past," are all still really there, somehow, and if I can find some way to get to them, wherever it is they are, I'll be happy again." line really reminds me of this Michel Gondry short film called "I've Been 12 Forevever" (which for some unholy reason I can't find online but you can find on the The Work Of Director Michel Gondry DVD - available from all good stores etc) where he talks about having his memories of his walk to school being literally embedded inside his brain. But yeah.

[7] Wait - did I say gives up? Oh no. Actually - with a harmless looking "(continued on page 42)" the son-of-a-bitch keeping rambling on - dragging through a book that you haven't even had a chance to read yet - flicking through the stupidly labelled pages (note to those who should know: the page you're looking for is "[ 4 2 . ]" which (to the unweary eye) kinda looks like 1 4 2 . 1 - so yeah: be warned) before dropping you off right on the final page: like a vistor to a museum that didn't actually get a chance to look at any of the exhibits: knocking on the glass saying: "Excuse me? Can I come back in? I didn't actually get a chance to... Hello? Hello?"


[9] I would opt for saying something about the comfort in being sad here but wouldn't want you to think I was just trying to drop in Nirvana lyrics.

[10] This says it better than I could.

Further reading: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, Meanwhile, Breakdowns.

All comments welcome.

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