Thursday, May 21, 2009

Shaggy Dog: Monologues For Calculating the Density of Black Holes

Rob reviews the new collection of stories, sketches and other tidbits by Anders Nilsen, MONOLOGUES FOR CALCULATING THE DENSITY OF BLACK HOLES (Fantagraphics).


It's an interesting exercise to try to wrap one's head around Anders Nilsen's MONOLOGUES FOR CALCULATING THE DENSITY OF BLACK HOLES, which is apparently the second in a series. Nilsen is well known for his exacting work in his BIG QUESTIONS series, which is one of the few comics I read these days that has a lot of stippling to go along with its other detail. DOGS AND WATER was another book with opaque themes and a painstaking line that demanded a high level of scrutiny from its readers to tease out its meaning. That's why it caught many readers off guard when he started submitting scratched-out, stick-figure comics for MOME and for his first Fantagraphics book, MONOLOGUES FOR THE COMING PLAGUE. A number of readers were frankly baffled or even angered by that comic, given its bulging page count and slapped-off drawings. Those readers will likely want to avoid BLACK HOLES, since the style is the same.


So what is Nilsen's goal here? Like many artists whose masterwork takes years to complete, it seems as though Nilsen wanted to spend time on a project that was utterly different from his other work. Thus, the MONOLOGUES: spare and scratchy where his other work was detailed; loose and spontaneous where his other work was considered; and funny where his other work was melancholy. It's interesting to see the many influences that inform MONOLOGUES; there's a bit of absurdists like Ionesco, elements of Tom Stoppard's wit and philosophical musings, stream of consciousness dada in the style of Tristan Tzara, and oblique New Yorker type gags with the scratchy looseness of James Thurber and Saul Steinberg. Clocking in at over 400 pages, what MONOLOGUES winds up most of all as is a really good shaggy dog joke.



We meet a man who tells us about his day, where an increasingly absurd number of weird events has happened to him. He goes on Oprah, gets kidnapped by the CIA, and has all of his possessions shrink to nothing--or so he tells us. The central idea behind the book is "I'm not me", so he's able to talk about these events as though they were happening to someone else. We then meet the man in charge of his fate, with a scribbled-out head. The fact that Nilsen does not correct his scribbles is obviously quite deliberate: the omnipotent creator makes mistakes, but the characters are forced to deal with them. Immediacy and spontaneity are what he's going for above all else, not pausing to correct because he's quickly changing a punchline.

It's a risky approach because even comics with loose & scratchy art rarely include errors, and it's a big reason why so many readers have reacted so viscerally against these books. I actually see the scratch-outs as part of the joke: it's a form of erasure, leaving behind meaning even though we can't see the meaning. We can't see it as readers or know Nilsen's intent before he scratched out a word. Of course, we can only guess at what he really means even when we do see the words, which is part of the point. The spontaneity of the page makes for a deconstructive reading experience, where Nilsen forces the reader to break down each image and word.



Nilsen mockingly addresses his critics in the middle of the book, one of many tangents and side-trips in the book. Nilsen jokes that the drawing isn't crude--it took him his whole life to learn how to draw this badly, after drawing well for so many years. When the criticism is brought to his attention that he isn't funny, he simply replies "Fuck you. I don't think you are funny either." When another person notes that it's "random and incoherent", he smirks (with his blank-faced character), "Ah, my audience is finally beginning to understand me." These strips are random after a fashion, given the level of improvisation seen here, but it's not automatic writing. There are definitely story and concept threads that bind the book together.



One of the monologues is about a god-like figure looking over his creation and doubting his own decisions, while wearing handcuffs. The existence or non-existence of such concepts as god, empirical proof, knowledge and even doubt itself is discussed and then immediately lightened by a gag or an attack by killer robots. At its heart, this is a book about doubt and the ways in which it is punished and discouraged. Certitude even about doubt comes under fire in this book, as Nilsen mocks nihilism as much as he does the smugness of scientists. Nilsen lampoons science and faith alike, goes off on a tangent where he posits absurd fights ("who do you think would win--cows or pigs?"), and later has a bunch of single-page gags about masked burglars. The answers to profound philosophical questions are often solved by consulting a calculator, while the search for a note from his mother seems to be crucial to the ontological foundation for the main character. My favorite thing in the book are his absurd floorplans, where the rooms are labeled with people and things along with places (like salt pork, or machine guns).

An important note about the book is that it needs to be read in as close as one sitting as possible. There are recurring jokes as well as admonitions to pay attention to the main plot, even if nothing seemed to be happening. While there are plenty of gags, it's the shaggy dog nature of the book that form's the book's foundation, stringing the reader along as characters talk to us about what seems to be nonsense, until the end. Reading the book in smaller chunks robs the reader of that immersive experience and blunts the overall effectiveness of the joke. A second reading of the book helps remove some of that initial confusion, even allowing one to understand the bigger picture while taking in the small details a bit more closely.

MONOLOGUES FOR CALCULATING THE DENSITY OF BLACK HOLES is a lark that allows Nilsen to ask a few fundamental questions without taking it all very seriously. It's best read quickly at first, never lingering too long on a particular image (again, a deliberate move by Nilsen). Instead, one should pay attention to the rhythm of the dialogue (and monologues) as it builds and gets crazier and crazier. The experience is akin to going to a small theater with bare walls, watching an absurdist play unfold. Even the pages where the character's backgrounds are mountains or maps feel like an overhead projector clumsily creating a background instead of a more organically constructed scene. We're thrust directly into the experience with no warning or context. It's best not to have any expectations; even the author chides his assistant for claiming that the book will all make sense in the end. While there is a conclusion of sorts to the narrative, it's really just another series of blackout gags as the main character drowns himself in paper in search of the one note that will ground him in reality and gets cleaned up in a quite literal manner. It's one of a surprising number of visual gags in this comic, as Nilsen isn't just shoving words down our throats but instead uses images as the workhorse for many of his jokes. Nilsen may have been trained in art school, but he has always had the instincts of a cartoonist and appreciation for the entire depth and breadth of its history. In this book, those instincts play out in an unorthodox fashion.

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