Saturday, May 2, 2009

Unreliable Narration: George Sprott, 1894-1975

Rob reviews the revised "graphic novella" by Seth, GEORGE SPROTT: 1894-1975 (Drawn & Quarterly). This is an expanded version of the strip that originally was serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

As seen in the New York Times Sunday magazine, Seth's GEORGE SPROTT was a sort of distillation of the storytelling techniques he used in his delightful (but slightly melancholy) WIMBLEDON GREEN combined with the same sort of themes found in his current long-running serial, "Clyde Fans". The original 20-part serial was composed such that each page could be read as a discrete unit but also fit as part of a larger narrative. That narrative, such as it was, contained frequent digressions into the history of certain buildings and long interviews with people who knew the titular character. The handsome new release for Drawn & Quarterly fleshes out certain aspects of Sprott, provides a bit more breathing room with incidental illustrations and even concretizes them with photos of Seth-built cardboard buildings.

Seth is labeled a nostalgist in the way he tends to idolize the past. I've always thought that for him, it wasn't so much idolizing past values, but rather a sense of immersion in an aesthetic that always felt tied to a particular time and place. That's why the buildings of importance in GEORGE SPROTT are given so much development and "characterization"; to Seth, they are crucial pieces of the story. These buildings are both repositories of specific experiences at specific times and aesthetically beautiful in and of themselves. George Sprott is just one man living in the fictional Canadian town of Dominion, a town so real and vibrant to Seth that he felt compelled to recreate it as a series of models. For Seth, his aesthetic battle is between generic and specific. One gets the sense that through mass production and globalization, the individual aesthetic of local communities is being obliterated, and along with it the quirky panache that Seth reveres. This theme of the shrinking importance and influence of individuals in the face of an increasingly bland culture resonates throughout GEORGE SPROTT, recapitulating the themes that have always been present in Seth's comics.

What separates GEORGE SPROTT from other slice-of-life studies is the apologetic, sheepish narrator who is far from omniscient. While the narrator does move the story forward (with a number of digressions) as Sprott's last day on earth is detailed, they apologize not only for leaving out details, but for failing to pithily explain who Sprott really was to the audience. The reality is that all narrators are unreliable, with none moreso than those who narrate their own stories. Putting together a biography is an act of trying to overlay a narrative on top of a life--but a story is not a life lived, but rather a retroactive interpretation of that experience. One can talk about a life, around a life, give facts, figures & dates--but such an approach doesn't really provide true insight. Having a narrator who knew all sorts of stuff about Sprott but who wasn't in any real position to tell us what it all meant was a refreshing approach, and one that allowed the reader to approach the story more on their own terms.

Following the visual style of WIMBLEDON GREEN fits nicely with that approach, because as the narrator is constructing the story of a life out of overly-simplistic parts, so does Seth the artist draw his figures as simply-drawn geometric figures. Circles, squares and triangles make up nearly every figure and building as there's a minimum of rendering, an interesting departure for an artist whose dense brushwork creates so much atmosphere. By simplifying his figures, Seth reduces the reader's tendency to linger too long on individual images, instead propelling them along the page as we follow the simple figures. At the same time, the reader is immersed in the atmosphere of the piece, as the use of color is crucial in creating mood. Seth masterfully evokes this atmosphere with that brush, giving the simple figures a certain power, all while creating a total environment where every element is designed to convey the overall emotions of the piece. The effect of the metallic blue and the reddish brown color overlays feels like we're looking at an old photograph, starting to fade. The new material in the book consists of anecdotes that can run a few pages long, and these are all done in tan, as though we're looking at a crumbling piece of newspaper. Of course, the slickness of design, the way the colors pop and the quality of the paper add a certain tension to this illusion; it's somehow both new and old.

If the reader is kept at a distance from Sprott, it's because the character deliberately pushed aside troubling feelings by adhering to a strict set of daily rituals. The irony here of course is that Sprott as a younger man fancied himself an adventurer, a rascal and a lover--a man who lived by his whims and felt no compunctions about spontaneity, even if that wound up hurting others. That robust, handsome man had become obese, living in the past as his employment with a TV show and weekly lecture had him constantly recounting his younger, more vital days. His only remaining skill was that of raconteur, trying to entertain but never to interact. Like all of Seth's characters, he's now a man trapped in the wrong time who squandered his opportunities to make the lives of others better and is now trying to chase away demons of guilt.

Of course, Seth makes sure never to make it that simple. We get all kinds of accounts about Sprott, from intimates to those who only knew him from his TV show or lectures. Those stories wind up telling us little about Sprott but lots about them, especially since so many of the accounts seem to contradict each other. The sharpest comparison is between his illegitimate daughter, who never knew him, hated him for this and then perpetuated her feelings onto her children; and his niece, whom he heaped affection on. His niece was the one person still taking care of him late in his life, and it's implied that Sprott heaped affection and attention on her because he realized it was too late with his daughter. Whatever the reason (guilt, regret, a desperation to connect), a connection was formed; there's one remarkable drawing of his niece as a child sitting in his lap, an utterly contented look on her face.

There's never a real sense of mystery to be found in this story, another deliberate move by Seth. We understand early on why Sprott feels regretful and whom he hurt and how. There's something about details being revealed to the reader that concretizes the experience all the more, making us both pity and feel shame for Sprott. In the end, the narrator doesn't pretend to try to wrap things up or make sense of his life. We don't know if George's affection for his niece proved to be some form of redemption, or if that concept has any meaning at all in this context. From a purely materialist standpoint, the strip about a collector TV ephemera proudly showing us his Sprott collection was both touching and pathetic. Touching in that in some small way, Sprott won't be forgotten--but pathetic that he will only be remembered as a sort of trivial fetish. The scattered array of panels toward the end that represent Sprott's last moments recapitulated the way his life was represented in the book: fragmented, episodic and filled with meanings that are not easily teased out.

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