A Gallery of Grotesques

Ludovic Debeurme’s Renée

(Interrupting our erratic programming in honor of the impending Comic-Con, I’ll be taking a detour from the follow-up to my piece on Marcel Brion to discuss, this week and next, two comics — a graphic novel and a series — forthcoming this fall.)

Ludovic Debeurme will be the first to tell you his work isn’t “fantastical,” and that he doesn’t like the word. Certainly, on first glance, when Top Shelf came out last summer with Lucille, his first book to be translated into English, few people thought to label it fantastical, so compelling was its all-too-real recreation of adolescent despair in a rural setting, and its unsparing depictions of anorexia and parental abuse, which could be read as fierce engagement with social issues (something fantasy is often blithely assumed to lack). Yet occasionally the word will pop up in reviews , largely for Debeurme’s liberal use of surreal, grotesque imagery, especially in earlier, less narratively driven books like Céfalus (2002), Ludologie (2003), and Le Grand Autre (2007).

Lucille caught notice early on in France, winning the Prix René Goscinny (named for the creator of Astérix) and the “Essentiel” designation at the 2007 Comics Festival in Angoulême, the largest international event of its kind. There is Arthur, a tortured young fisherman’s son, and the titular, anorexic Lucille; their troubled romance gives them the impetus to escape their gray native Picardy, and provides what little light there is in a relentlessly grim book. When the pair run away to Italy, a fresh breeze of hope seems to riffle through its pages, but in the vineyard where they find work, the owner’s sadistic, spoiled son tries to rape Lucille, and Arthur stabs him to death. Debeurme has said both characters were based on people he knew (Lucille on a former girlfriend, in fact), and that the book is “an essay on the idea of transmission,” what families pass down, “legacies of neurosis.” When we first meet Lucille, she lives in suffocating codependency with her single mother, her low self-esteem a bequest from a passive, powerless parent she both loves and despises. Similarly, a taciturn, abusive father and his violent death hang over Arthur like a curse, like fate circumscribing his choices and horizons. John Cheever, in his oft-taught tale “Reunion,” has his narrator describes his sire, his pater and begetter — that hale, bluff, hostile alcoholic — thus: “my flesh and blood, my future and my doom. I knew that when I was grown I would be something like him; I would have to plan my campaigns within his limitations.”

Debeurme has said his work is often informed by psychoanalytic theory; certainly his imagery sometimes flaunts overtly disturbing Freudian aspects.

When I had the chance to speak with him at the comics festival last year in Angoulême, he explained his aversion to “fantasy”: the word was limiting and dismissive. The trading lanes were closed; there was no barter with another world; nothing could be meaningfully imported from make-believe to real, and he dealt in the real. At no point did he mean to suggest the physically impossible, except as an emotional landscape. “Oneiric” is another word often applied to Debeurme’s work, and indeed, the patently unreal parts of Lucille are clearly delineated as dream, or else parody, a shift in narrative style arguably easier in comics than prose (a two page spread presents Arthur’s family curse as a Popeye cartoon). Debeurme tries, in art both sequential and single-panel, to chart states of mind, to convey them as directly, viscerally as possible, and if the best way to do so is with recourse to the surreal or fantastical, he uses it freely. Debeurme’s dream imagery is a confluence of two tendencies: expressive freedom and, he admitted in conversation, a fondness for illustrative pithiness. An admirer of how concisely illustration, even in the most mainstream or commercial venues, can exploit the impossible to symbolize or sum up an elusive idea, Debeurme hails from a tradition of black humor and baleful quasi-horror, claiming influence by other illustrators of the dark psyche, from Roland Topor

to Hieronymous Bosch.

Dreamscapes, then, serve a clear function in expressing psychology: but is it possible their content, often obscure, unclear, or unsettling, can reference, give rise to, extend into another dimension, cosmic or existential, of irresolvable dread? To what extent is Charles Burns’ Black Hole irreducibly weird beyond any intended metaphor of adolescence? Where and how can irruptions of the Weird exist in or undermine an otherwise realist work? Is it possible to read Renée, Debeurme’s sequel to Lucille, as something that, in the words of Stephen Graham Jones, “destabilize[s] (your perception of) the world, leaving you less significant than you thought you were”? And in Renée, what causes this: his refusal of closure, his use of the grotesque, his use of horror imagery, the increased bleed (compared to Lucille) between segments of dream and reality, the way he sets the two apart through heightened style and use of detail? Some statement of despair verging on universal decree? For as in Kafka, guilt is assumed. “There is hope, but not for us,” or Debeurme’s characters.

I wonder these things in part because translating Renée was a grueling experience. I’m not generally one to blame my moods on what I’m reading. Outside, the L.A. sun is likely shining, and maybe that book I ordered is waiting in the mailbox. Then again, that very SoCal sun is pitiless in its scrutiny of hypocrisy and disrepair, and every turquoise pool seems an open-mouthed howl of unalleviated failure. Renée just cast a pall over every day I worked on it, and the days to either side, before and after: a cloud over my brain that just wouldn’t go away. Imagine having to read Jimmy Corrigan really, really slowly, then check to see if you read it right.

It’s not that Debeurme’s pace is plodding, though as many have noted, he favors a decompressed pacing like manga. It’s more that the pace at which a translator must proceed through a book while translating makes it seem longer than it is. In this case it exaggerates the emotional effect of the book’s misery. Lucille was 540-some pages, Renée is 450.

To judge from reviews, if you’ve read Lucille, you’re probably eagerly awaiting Renée, if only to find out what happens. This is some of what you have to look forward to (SPOILERS, I guess: though I don’t reveal how any storylines end, I do reveal major midway developments, as all storylines advance slowly, broodingly enough over the lengthy book that this summarizes most of what happens):

Arthur, in prison, finds something of a father figure in his cellmate Eddie, an old con soon to be freed. Arthur manages to lodge Eddie with his mother, where he soon passes away. Arthur’s new cellmate Denis may be a child molester. Other inmates pressure Arthur to assault him, but the man protests his innocence, claiming he’s merely an embezzler who owes them money. In a quandary, Arthur slowly begins to torture his hapless cellmate.

Outside in the world, a middle-aged jazz saxophonist leaves his companion of seven years for a girl half his age with self-esteem issues, the titular Renée. They have a disastrous relationship; I mean Richard Yates-ian levels of neurotic self-deception, misery, miscommunication, rape fantasies, and fleeting relief. Lucille’s mother reaches a breakthrough in her therapy that brings her closer to her daughter, as both are plagued by memories of a man — husband to one, father to the other — who abruptly left them. In Arthur’s absence, Lucille, adrift and alone, grows uncertain of their love, though it’s really all they have to hang on to in their lives.

When subjected to such unremitting misery, American readers often experience a native rejection, like a host rejecting a transplant organ. That book, we like to say, is just too depressing (to be believed). Yet among the torturer’s most powerful tools is relief. By book’s end, Debeurme achieves the sort transcendent abjection that defies our disbelief, that in another age might have been called naturalism: characters put through the wringer of merciless social forces arrayed against them that constitute the architecture of their fates.

Lending the plot forward momentum is how little authorial or narratorial information we’re given to connect episodes disparate in time, space, tone, and/or reality. Pieces are laid out for readers to puzzle together. At the beginning, a pathetic and zombiesque boy with matted hair, sometimes in a striped shirt, seems to be haunting the suicidal Renée.

When she methodically cuts her forearm, he crawls from the slits. Although eventually the book provides explanation, the image is jarring, enduring; its ability to unnerve both precedes and outlasts that explanation.

This lack of segue between dream and reality is one of the main ways Renée differs from Lucille. When, out the window of Renée’s room, we see giant woman trampling pedestrians in the park, are we in her point of view, seeing a projection of an interior landscape of obscure import, or the author’s, drawing some sort of exaggerated comparison grounded in her perceptions? The blurred transition makes for hesitation. At one pinnacle of Renée’s self-disgust, pedestrians waiting to cross the street give way to a sketchbook-like sequence in which they are all caricatured and deformed. For these pages the story comes to a complete halt.

Imagery straight from horror movies often stands in for scenes of physical or emotional violence, drownings and despair.

While these grotesques are hyper-real in a way that only heightens their repulsiveness and convinces with an intensity of detail, Debeurme presents his realist scenes in the exceedingly spare style for which, in Lucille, he was praised and compared to Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown. He presents many scenes in long shot; even those in close-up have few features. It’s revelatory to see how much emotion he can wring out of so few lines:

Also of note is how much time Debeurme’s characters spend looking away from the reader’s gaze, adding greatly to the book’s atmosphere. Sometimes the weight of guilt makes them not even face each other. At other times, the “camera” deliberately stands outside a discussion. We are, on one hand, privy to very private moments, and on the other, denied the facial expressions that might provide something like a key to those moments, or some emotional release.

Is this authorial modesty? Are we being made to feel invasive, even prying for wanting to know see the characters’ faces at these times of anguish? Are we, or his beleaguered characters, being spared some final gruesomeness or violation? Or is it an act of narrative confidence: are we supposed to have been brought by story to know, anyway, what the characters are feeling at such moments, so that the confirmation of facial expression is irrelevant? I do think it deprives us of a confirmation — I can never be sure my understanding of what the characters are feeling is what they’re feeling, and it makes the misery, like the story itself, lack closure. Seeing all these people looking down and away bows my own shoulders with some sympathetic weight. When you do see their faces, it’s usually quite surprising, moving, and pivotal.

Oddly enough, the hyper-real grotesque, reliant as it is more on figure than face, icon than expression, can sometimes seem a relief, an expressive catharsis from the implacable human pain of the spare realist style. Sometimes the change from one style to the other is gradual. The thickening of the lines and their increase in number becomes almost dramatic, part of the storytelling much like a change in sentence length, sound, or rhythm would be in prose. Arthur has a recurrent fantasy of escaping from jail, but to do so he repeatedly imagines himself as an insect, first finding refuge in a sleeping Lucille’s hair:

And then later, with nowhere to go:

Among Debeurme’s many achievements is how fluidly one style merges into the other. The lyrically grotesque interludes can inspire any an array of emotions from tenderness to loneliness, torment to melancholy, and yet taken together, they present a truly fearsome portrait of existence, in which the human form is brutalized and diminished, made to face the horror of life in a world fundamentally inhospitable to it.

Top Shelf has not yet set a release date for Renée.

The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, Clarion alumnus Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright foundation, the Centre National du Livre, and the American Literary Translators’ Association. His volume of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud’s selected stories, A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award. Other publications have appeared in F&SF, LCRW, Podcastle, Pseudopod, Postscripts, Subtropics, Conjunctions, Tin House, and PEN America. He is the contributing editor for Francophone comics at Words Without Borders, and translates comics for Top Shelf, Archaia, and Self Made Hero. 

2 replies to “A Gallery of Grotesques

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