BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2015): R. French’s (2014) Baby Bjornstrand

23 January 2015

Summary (TLDR Version)

Such a waste of time, it might waste too much time even to reply to it.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: R. French’s (2014)[2] Baby Bjornstrand

The more I wade through multiple books, the more often I find myself irked or scratching my head at the claims for those books found on dust jackets. I feel like I ought to get a Ph.D. in discourse analysis and take as my subject the disingenuous ad-text used to seduce readers into wasting their time on vacuities.

Having lately read three of Jim Woodring’s books (replied to here, here, and here), which one may certainly accuse often of seemingly aimless or random narrative and imagery even though Woodring (almost certainly) intends something extremely explicit in what he draws, my tolerance for actually impenetrable imagery—generosity makes me call it impenetrable; authorially non-intentional or vacuous might better express the matter—has dropped considerably, especially since the effort in the imagery also seems at a minimum. Put another way, few graphic novels over the past two years have made me feel so completely the sense of time wasted reading them.

Of course, splendid graphics or art (as a spectacle) can take the place of narrative interest. Dave McKean’s art often rescues Gaiman’s slack texts from themselves. Or Vaughn-James’ (1975)[3] The Cage, which seems to have as much narrative density as Woodring’s work but with much less hope of ever “deciphering” it, provides a world of mirrors, wires, knotted sheets, fences, and other objects to allow a reader/viewer to marvel at the visuals.

Not so here. The very short 21 chapters present very sparsely, both visually and narratively. So let’s consider the hyperbole on the book back. Warren Ellis, “author of Gun Machine, Red, Transmetropolitan” informs us of this graphic ‘novel’, “Like watching David Lynch and Samuel Beckett get mean-drunk: a demented comedy from one of the medium’s authentic geniuses.”

Presumably this means the David Lynch of Eraserhead (i.e., foggy black and white and strange imagery) and the particular imagining of a Samuel Beckett that never existed who gets taken by many talentless epigones as an excuse to deploy “meaninglessness” in a text. This imparts, supposedly, a sense of existential angst—you know: the notion that life “is” meaningless, hollow, empty. Rather like Derrida’s deconstruction, which made a kind of sense as an attack against the institutionally monolithic assertion of absolute meaning that French academia insisted upon at the time but which becomes not only incoherent but actually reactionary in a US setting where having multiple points of view (deconstruction as only one amongst them) turns out instead to politically neutralise rather than empower people, this reflexive transplantation of an imaginary Beckett to our current milieu not only fails in its project but simply represents a gesture of quietism and submission to the current social order.[4] If Beckett, at the time, challenged or wrote against a kind of monolithic culture of meaning (in theatre), his ironic gestures of negation no longer have the same meaning now, in a world where ironic gestures of negation have become the dominant norm. In a similar way, if you would think to accuse Eraserhead of meaning “nothing” (whatever Lynch did, does, or did not intend), then you might foolishly think to connect this book with that film-maker.[5]

Meanwhile, under Warren Ellis—who many might not know—a bigger name appears, Guillermo del Toro. He declares, “Baby Bjornstrand is both beautiful and brutal, warm and indifferent. Like all of Renee French’s art it hints at the innocent and the profane without missing a beat. A creature after my own heart.”

To arrive at “beautiful and brutal, warm and indifferent” would require narrative work within the book that French does not supply, accomplish, or even attempt, it seems. Random elements appear in the book instead: the characters wear masks and one has a small tail. And the situations lean so heavily on whatever “archetypal” significance they can get that the reader alone supplies all of the meaning. The reader supplies all of the art, in that sense.

Yes, yes—something of this happens in all texts, but it remains both naïve and wilfully ignorant to pretend that hundreds and hundreds of years of graphic composition studies have no bearing or import anymore on visual art. Rembrandt and other bozos like him did just flop paint on the canvass; a whole phenomenology of viewing came to bear when they painted, and even if most scribblers these days have little knowledge of, and even less ability to deploy that knowledge if known, those compositional rules and tricks, it remains the case that putting an image on a page cannot entirely excuse, erase, or disappear the scribbler’s presence. Pretending it all remains in the reader/viewer’s lap remains an untenable position, though it certainly helps to encourage readers to jack themselves off while giving the “artist” credit for their pleasure.

One can only imagine what del Toro would do with this book if he filmed it; he’d start by rewriting it, most likely.

I offer a challenge to someone. Determine in what way French has created an allegory of the 21 major arcana from the Tarot in the 21 chapters of this. The cover of the book represents chapter 0, card Zero, the Fool, of course.



[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] French, R. (2013). Baby Bjornstrand. Koyama Press, pp. 1–130.

[3] Vaughn-James, M. (2012). The cage. Toronto: Coach House Books

[4] What a long sentence.

[5] And, by the way, I say this as no great admirer of Lynch’s work. But at least one finds an indisputable effort and intention in Eraserhead; it seems hardly fair to such work to liken this book to it.


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