Also, as I mentioned in a recent post, I'm very uneasy recommending anything to anyone. I don't like that responsibility. If you buy a book I like and discover not only that you hate it but that my judgment and sanity are marginal at best, there's a fair chance you're right and I'm wrong. But I won't refund your money.
Pyongyang by Guy Delisle. Born in Canada and now living in France, Delisle is an animator who worked for two months in North Korea, where he supervised a squad of anonymous artists with the laborious task of drawing cartoons for French television. Pyongyang is a wonderfully observed look at the country that shows both keen compassion for the people and horror over the oppressive bubble in which they live.
The adjective "Orwellian" is overused, too casually applied to anything vaguely authoritarian, nationalistic, or propagandistic. Pyongyang presents a rare case in which no other word will do. I can only accept Delisle's word that the one book he took along on his trip was Orwell's 1984, because no writer would dare invent a detail so "on the nose." The North Korea he describes is 1984 realized: a country of institutionalized paranoia where neighbors vanish in the night, foreigners aren't allowed outdoors without a handler, portraits of Dear Leader hang in every room and stare from pins on every lapel, and monstrous monuments to ego consume all the meager energy and resources the country can muster. Delisle sketches a portrait of a Potemkin Village of impressive facades, empty boulevards, unfinished grand hotels, and magnificent subways to nowhere, all built to impress a world that never arrives.
Delisle has a good ear for truths that remain unspoken. Riding with his guide, he realizes he's never seen a handicapped person during his stay. His guide replies that there are none. Incredulous, Delisle reasons with him: Some small percentage of humanity everywhere is handicapped. "We're a very homogenous nation," replies the guide. "All North Koreans are born strong, intelligent, and healthy." As far as Delisle can tell, his guide believes it. Delisle doesn't have to ask and cannot answer the question that lingers in the lie: what happens to all the imperfect people?
I very much appreciated Delisle's eye for the telling detail. He knows an important foreign delegation has checked into his hotel because the lights in the lobby are on and the restaurant has fresh melon. He notes the many "volunteers" doing absurd manual labor. Studying the toothpicks in a restaurant, Delisle deduces that they're individually hand-carved. In a visit to a museum documenting the glory of Kim Il-Sung, he notices that a miner's pick displayed on the wall is not the same one shown in the photo taken at its supposed presentation, and realizes the futility of asking about the inconsistency or expecting a sane answer.
Pyongyang also captures Delisle's stir-craziness as he visits the few people (all foreigners) he's allowed to see, eats and parties at the few establishments (again, all for foreigners) he's allowed to visit, and tries to make sense of a country and people that defy rationality and are either too indoctrinated or cowed to admit it. He's going nuts after a couple of months; what must it be like to be born and raised there? In an insightful passage Delisle echoes Orwell when he writes,"At a certain level of oppression, truth hardly matters, because the greater the lie, the greater the show of power. And the greater the terror for all. A mute, hidden terror."
Despite the evident mind-bending authoritarianism, Delisle never fears for his own safety. He's an honored guest. The only dread in Pyongyang arises when Delisle realizes how his playful prodding puts his handlers, whom he regards with sympathy and affection, at risk. He loans his copy of 1984 to a man who returns it, badly shaken. Near the end of the book Delisle manages to ditch his translator and take a solo stroll through the city. He's surprised that his obvious alienness doesn't attract any attention until he realizes that everyone is afraid to be seen speaking to him. When he returns, his translator is a wreck; the penalty for losing his charge for even a few minutes is clearly dire.
Delisle's grayscale artwork (the grays look like pencil or charcoal but could be wash, it's hard for me to tell) is well done and appropriate for his subject. He uses his animator's skills to bring motion, mood, and life to simple drawings that clearly communicate their point without extraneous detail. To my mind, that's what cartooning is about. It occurs to me I haven't mentioned how funny a writer Delisle is; I very much appreciated his wry, dry sense of humor in the face of the dark absurdity of North Korea. Delisle is a good traveling companion and I enjoyed Pyongyang very much.
Epileptic by David B. Epileptic is perhaps the best marriage of form and content I can recall. Born Pierre-Francois Beauchard, David B. is a French cartoonist who tells the story of growing up with his sister Florence and older brother, Jean-Christophe, whose epilepsy dominates David's youth and proves impossible to escape as an adult.
The artwork in Epileptic is really remarkable, if probably not to everyone's taste. Stark black and white, with grays achieved only through cross-hatching, David B.'s drawings carry uncommon narrative weight. Some look like woodcuts hacked from blocks with an urgency and anger that matches the passages they illustrate. Others are delicate and detailed. Able to draw with great clarity and tenderness, David B.'s hand turns abstract, surrealistic, dark, dense, jumbled and ugly as his life does the same.
Epileptic is an ambitious, challenging, difficult book that I think is worth the effort. It has 361 dense pages (full points to David B. for endurance!) and I'd be hard pressed to describe what exactly happens in at least 200 of them. David B. dedicates a lot of room to conveying haunted mood, internal musings, and fevered memories rather than advancing his plot, but that's clearly by choice. When he does turn to plot--as when describing his parents' heartbreaking attempts to help Jean-Christophe via a series of quacks and gurus, or his struggles to escape Jean-Christophe's suffocating shadow and find his own identity in art school--he does so very effectively. And David B.'s honest depiction of his own fear, jealousy, loathing, compassion, cruelty and humor in the face of his brother's illness is remarkably brave and self-aware. He's not afraid to show himself in a very unflattering light.
I first read Epileptic perhaps a year ago, and find that it's one of those unsettling stories that won't quite lie still in my mind. Every so often a memory or image from the book bubbles to the surface and draws me back for a second look. Somehow, Epileptic always floats to the top of the pile of books beside my desk. The good ones do.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Two conflict-of-interest disclosures: First, this book is put out by my publisher Abrams, so I'm shilling for the home team. Second, I met Jeff at last year's San Diego Comic-Con, we've corresponded since, he may be the nicest guy on the planet, and I consider him a friend.
Through our mutual editor Charlie I was able to read an early proof of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is enjoying its debut at the New York Comic-Con this weekend. Printed in Jeff's hand-lettered font and illustrated with his simple but clean and evocative line drawings, Diary tells the first-person story of middle-school student Greg Heffley and his family, friends, and tormentors. Jeff developed Diary online at Funbrain.com, where it drew an enthusiastic following of young fans. His story, structured as a series of incidents loosely built around the school year, grew to more than 1300 pages (!) that Abrams plans to publish in three books (I believe the online material was significantly edited for print).
When Editor Charlie introduced me to Diary I was a bit puzzled. He told me very little except "Check this out," and I approached it as an adult expecting a faux-naive adult take on young teens, but it wasn't as knowing or arch (or "ironic" in the currently fashionable meaning of the term) as I anticipated. It was sweet and mildly subversive, meandering good-naturedly from one episode to the next without a lot of jeopardy or drama. It was understated and sincere. I didn't get it. Then Charlie explained that its fans were kids and the book would be aimed at the youth market, and everything clicked. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is too good for grown-ups.
Which is not to say there aren't layers for an adult to appreciate. What really makes Diary's story and characters work for me is how well Jeff observes and remembers the unthinking narcissism of that age. When friends take the rap for offenses actually committed by Greg, his response is unreserved relief that he didn't get caught, without a trace of guilt, responsibility, or urge to "do the right thing." Indeed, as far as Greg is concerned, his unjustly punished friends did the right thing by "taking one for the team"--the "team" being Greg. Greg's universe revolves around Greg but, because there's not a molecule of malice in his heart, he remains a very sympathetic, likeable character throughout. It's a very tricky characterization to pull off and I think Jeff does it remarkably well. Making it look easy is the mark of a skilled and thoughtful cartoonist.
As a former boy myself, Diary felt true and right to me. There's no accounting for taste and hardly any way to predict what the public will take to its heart, and less so when that public is kids. But I believe Diary of a Wimpy Kid has the potential to really catch on and become the start of a terrific series of books and more for Jeff. If it realizes the success I hope it does, it'll be well deserved.
UPDATE: On February 22, the Publisher's Weekly website posted a very nice article about Jeff and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It even quotes Editor Charlie and mentions me, which I appreciate very much. Good stuff.