Summary (TLDR Version)

Nostalgia in publishing doesn’t make for convincing work.

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: F. Santoro’s (1995)[2] Storeyville

As usual lately, an acute awareness on my part of ad-text for a book upstages this graphic novel’s content.

Here, a work from 1995 gets bracketed by foreword and afterward both by different figures from the comics industry telling us in much gush how meaningful their experience of reading this text felt when it first came out.

But at least they also do, along the way, manage to make some claims about the graphic style of the work, but no shortage of it hinges on amazement over the use of a technique that by now—whether through Santoro’s influence or not—no longer seems striking.

Most of the back of the book gets similarly occupied with forms of nostalgia. Chris Ware’s confession about his first encounter with Storeyville gets repeated; Brian Chippendale assures us “Storeyville is … classic”; Seth begins by saying, “Of all the graphic narratives to appear in the last few decades …”; and Lauren Weinstein points not only to the bygone era of the Great Depression (where the book occurs) but also likens the art-style to the past of Matisse and Grosz. As a 2005 reprint, the book itself (now in a hard-bound cover) already reflects a retrospective look. And if an essential part of nostalgia involves homesickness for the place of one’s youth, then Weinstein’s expostulation, “Plus [Santoro] made it when he was just twenty-three” while the plot itself, the summary informs us, “follows the arc of a youthful adventure at the dawn of the twentieth century” both point to the past in that way that smacks of a desire to recapture one’s (lost) youthfulness.

We should do the artist the courtesy of assuming he means for the style to get blurry after a certain point, and not simply read it as laziness—though one might. Whatever else Ware reports from a long-time collaborator with Santoro about this change of style, it reads at its most obvious as the story (or narrative) becoming unclear for the protagonist. The key moment, Ware insists, occurs where the text reports, “I realize now that I, unsure of my own future, longed for the stability and camaraderie of their lives” (16). Ware claims the style radically changes after this, but that seems a hard sell to me. Things seem more consistently “unclear” or “blurry” more like twenty frames later after, “I was no longer sure in which direction my future lay” (17).

But whatever we might make of that, this blurriness does not linger. Soon enough, and without any clear development of narrative, the drawings have no more blurriness than at the outset. And Santoro then resorts to an abrupt point of view change, having the protagonist’s “saviour” (Rudy) appear gradually in four frames, intermixed with some drawings of birds, and in an otherwise empty page.

Ware remarks that “Will’s own relationship to the friend whom he’s chosen as his savior have been entirely subjective, if not illusory” (ii), which one could read as suggesting that the subsequent encounter between Rudy and Will happens only in his head. I don’t think Ware means this, but it at least makes artistic and narrative sense of the point of view break.

Yeah, you say: who cares about point of view violations? Besides that they seem to account for a very great number of cases where readers checkout-of or abandon a text? Besides that they most often read as simple errors? But seriously, if you simply want to insist that the text can have no errors, that it constitutes immortal genius worth of Matisse (forget Grosz), then why say anything at all?

An equal part awkward decision involves the reveal on the past disaster that befell Rudy and Will. The elliptical suggestions around this at the beginning do a nice job of seeming weird and unsettling and difficult for the main character. And if an author, having established this expectation, really can’t fail to make clear what did happen, it needn’t appear in a drunken reminisce by the main character. It would have come out more compellingly, I’d venture, if related to another person, even a stranger.

The main problem, however, comes out in the timing of the disclosure. To set up some of the dramatic irony in the text—and simply so we have some orientation for when Will and Rudy actually interact—this forces Santoro to plunk this narrative exposition down where he does. It comes after he has introduced us to Rudy (in the point of view break) and then has to happen before Will finds him—assuming, in fact, that we actually have to know the backstory. I doubt that, especially as it raises a number of logistical questions that seem to need answering, i.e., what prison or jail were Rudy and Will in that they escaped from, and why were they chained together at all. &c.

In a work so hemmed all about by nostalgia, a flashback like this at least makes a kind of formal sense (for the work generally), but flashbacks don’t move the story forward, they usually serve to clutter the narrative with exposition not at all necessarily necessary, and their “thematic” use in the text rarely comes out.

Santoro has already established Will remains haunted by the role Rudy had in his life; why actually doesn’t matter, not for the reader and not for the characters. The entire interaction between Will and Rudy consists most of all of Rudy saying, “You don’t need me anymore,” and only a little of Rudy implying, “Don’t talk to me now; I have to protect the secret of my/our past.” The specifics of their past interaction don’t bear on the scene, and finding out about it actually lessens, rather than exacerbates, the charge of the book.

Of course, ad-text can only misrepresent the book it plumps it seems. The striking thing involves less how relentlessly it lies as how the gesture persists. Maybe someone will read the book expecting “a perfect match of form and content” from Storeyville (as the ad-text claims); or maybe such a bold-faced lie functions to induces readers to read the book to prove such nonsense wrong. In advertising, whether an ad appeals or offends matters less than that you simply remember the product. Maybe something like that operates with book-text: whether it seduces you with outrageous claims or tweaks your nose in a way that makes you set out to prove it wrong, either way so long as you buy the book (never mind reading it), nothing else matters.


[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] Santoro, F. (2007). Storeyville, Brooklyn: PictureBox, pp. i–iii, 1–50.