You Are There
Jean-Claude Forest, writer
Jacques Tardi, artist
196 pages, hardcover
Wow, what a turnaround I made on this book in the space of a few pages. One of the perils of being so hung up about spoilers that you go into a book without even knowing what it’s about is that oftentimes it turns out you’ve got an idea in your head of what it’s about anyway, and that idea can be wrong. My only experience with Tardi was his adaptation of Jean-Patrick Manchette’s daylight-noir West Coast Blues, so when I saw a guy in a bowler hat standing there in a graveyard on the cover I figured “okay, a period-piece crime novel, like The Black Diamond Detective Agency or something.” Instead, right from the first page, you just get smacked with this torrent of verbiage from this daffy annoying tall skinny guy as he runs around atop the walls of some crazy little village opening gates for people. What the fuck is this?
It’s an absurdist satire, is what it is, and a pretty terrific one. And good God is it French. Once I realized what was up, my dim memories of Jarry and Ionesco and Beckett flickered one by one back to life. Delusions of grandeur, farcical authority figures, goofily symbolic names, talk talk talk that says nothing, all atop a fundamentally ridiculous premise.
Arthur There, the heir of a long-defunct line of aristocrats, has lost his ancestral estate but gained the legal right to erect walls between the properties of all the people who now live on it and control their comings and goings. Only by “control” I mean “run when they ring a bell for him to open the gate.” A Strangelovian element is injected when the president of France, on the verge of losing his bid for reelection, settles upon the unique legal status of There’s labyrinthine fiefdom as the perfect pretext for setting up a rival government-in-exile. He’d heard of the place thanks to Julie Maillard, the squint-eyed and slatternly daughter of the neurotic There’s chief rival–she once had a watersport-heavy affair with the President, though now her sights are set, for reasons obscure even to her, on There. And some other dudes too. It’s easy to picture it as one of those long-form fourth-season Monty Python episodes, with Eric Idle as There, Michael Palin as the President, and Carol Cleveland as Julie, if that helps.
So like I said, once I figured out what was up–once I realized that the dialogue was overwhelming and annoying on purpose, once I realized that the characters were deliberately ridiculous and their motivations purposefully flimsy and absurd–I was all the way on board. Kudos for that must go to Jean-Claude Forest’s full-bore commitment to writing like that. After a while it feels like the most natural thing in the world to watch There talk to himself on the verge of hysteria for paragraph after paragraph. But the real magic is in watching what Tardi does with Forest’s set-up. The fool’s kingdom of Mornemont is an unforgettable comic-book locale, and the riot of walls and fences and gates that crisscross it provide a perfect visual hook on which to hang the similarly profligate dialogue and nonsensical story. Tardi’s lanky design for There; his recurring motif of vertical stripes everywhere from the gates There opens to the wallpaper of his comically tiny house; his use of tall rectangular panels and layouts that emphasize the page’s verticality; truly masterful rainstorms and snowstorms–it’s seriously a master class on creating a sense not just of place but of a claustrophobic, chaotic, unsustainable state of mind. It isn’t hard to see this on your bookshelf next to Brian Chippendale, Mat Brinkman, or Hans Rickheit: environment and emotion are one and the same here as there. What’s more, the main effect is so clear that the contrasts are all the stronger: Mornemont’s white walls with the President’s black curtains; There’s googly eyes, stovepipe limbs, and funereal suit with Julie’s bovine expressionlessness, swooping curves, and frequently nude white body; the sealed-off snowglobe isolation of Mornemont throughout the book with the sudden border-smashing invasion by the outside world at the book’s climax. It’s a parade of comics effects astutely selected and deftly executed. Killer stuff, and more fun than you remember it from French class.