Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Crimes & Punishments: Low Moon

Rob reviews the new collection of short stories by Jason, LOW MOON (Fantagraphics).

LOW MOON feels like a sharp right turn from Jason's other recent work, both in terms of content and presentation. The previous Jason books from Fantagraphics have been softcovers, all done with a design sense that made each volume look similar. Debuting with a hardback seemed to be a bit of an unusual departure. Either artist and publisher wanted to start a different look for these volumes, or else perhaps Fantagraphics wanted to capitalize on the story "Low Moon"'s appearance in the Sunday New Times Magazine. It's certainly a move that makes some sense if that's the case, especially for the bookstore market.

The book itself is a strange read, with a number of tonal & emotional shifts that are sometimes jarring. There's always a touch of melancholy in everything that Jason writes, but there's a bleakness in some of these stories that I haven't seen since HEY...WAIT. For example, "Emily Says Hello" has a grim noir feel to it in a tale about a woman delivering a series of escalating sexual favors to a man in exchange for him murdering several men. Part of the deal involves the killer telling the victims, "Emily says hello". The story's structure is unusual for Jason in that he witholds more information than usual from the reader, and obviously quite intentionally so. We never learn how and why the couple made the deal, why the woman wants revenge, or even whom Emily is. We're introduced to a situation, are quickly made to understand the nature of the deal, have tension escalated through variations on the situation, and then are given an ambiguous but downbeat ending. There's no comic relief, no jokes, no turning ideas on their head like in all of his recent books--just a bleak and brutal set of power relationships. This is underscored by Jason's use of color in the story. Set solely in the woman's apartment, we see that all of her walls are painted black. This underscores that for all intents and purposes, she's already dead.

"Low Moon" is an extended bit of silliness, riffing off wild west tropes turned on their heads. This story was much more in the vein of books like THE LAST MUSKETEER, THE LEFT BANK GANG, and I KILLED ADOLF HITLER in that it mashed together several genre conventions and then flipped around a couple of key elements for comedic effect. In this instance, the haunted sherriff and the black hat riding back into town had a memorable showdown over a chessboard. A fight breaks out in the saloon over a bad cup of espresso. Horses are replaced by unicycles. Jason downplays all of the ridiculousness with a deadpan emotional narrative; every character approaches every (laughably cliched) situation with deadly seriousness. The pacing of the story in book form is a bit different than in its original format, which breaks up the jokes a bit more. It doesn't ruin the story, but it is a bit jarring for someone who read the strips in the Times. That said, the ending of the story actually scans better in the book than in the Times, where it fell a bit flat as a big final episode. Without that sort of external temporal pressure, the ending in the book feels natural.

"&" feels like a story whose genesis came from its ending: two strangers, sitting in a bar next to each other. With that image, one might ask: how did they wind up sitting next to each other, with such weary expressions on their faces? The story as such involves the two men taking desperate measures to achieve their goals. For one man, it's getting enough money to pay for an operation for his mother. For the other man (with a Chaplin-like moustache), it's getting a particular woman to marry him. The story, much like "Emily Says Hello", stacks gag on top of gag as the first man bumbles his way through a robbery and the other man resorts to increasingly byzantine schemes to kill off the woman's various suitors. When they finally attain their goals (and the woman exasperatingly saying "Sure, why not?" after a story's worth of flowery denails and appeals to friendship was a nice touch), they find things didn't quite work out as they expected. Both men were in a shaggy dog story and didn't realize the joke was on them until the end. This story was amusing but emotionally flat. Jason seemed more interested in the gag than in making the reader care about these characters, which felt a bit out of place for one of his longer stories. In something like SHHHH!, that thinner characterization didn't seem to matter much, but it made this story neither fish nor fowl.

"Proto Film Noir" is another story that works much like "Low Moon" in that it very deliberately deconstructs a cliched genre and puts it back together with several weird twists. Here, we are introduced to a caveman who happens upon a house with a lonely wife, and they inevitably (rather quickly, actually) have sex. In classic noir style, the interloper decides that it's time to kill the husband...only it turns out to be much harder than expected. Jason then pulls off another example of escalating repetition of a joke until we're rewarded with a punchline that's not only the best in the book, but it's also a last bit of metacommentary on the subject of film noir. Note the bright, cheery colors in this tale of repeated homicide, underlining the humorous nature of this story--as opposed to the grimness of "Emily Says Hello".

The final story in the book, "You Are Here", doesn't have much in common with the rest of the entries. Sure, there are genre elements (an alien kidnapping a man's wife and his subsequent, life-long effort to build a rocket and find her), but they're more background fodder than something Jason's commenting on. The centerpiece of the story is the son of the couple in question, and the way's in which his father's obsessiveness first alienated him and then later drew him in when he faced the same sort of relationship woes. The father's obsession clearly derived from guilt (he and his wife had quarreled before her abduction) an emotion he felt to the exclusion of anything else. I liked Jason's use of word balloons here: the arguments we're shown have just black blogs in the balloons, signifying that what they were arguing about wasn't relevant; indeed, such screaming matches frequently find two people arguing past each other anyway. The ending, unsurprisingly, was heartbreaking, even if there was a shaggy-dog character to the way the story was paced. What made this story so much more affecting than the others in this volume was that each detail the reader was shown added to the emotional weight of the narrative. When we see the boy avoiding taking girls back to his house, or quickly suggesting that he move in with a girlfriend, then avoid his father altogether with a variety of excuses, we can feel the character's alienation that was never acknowledged or healed by either party. It was those moments that packed more of a wallop for me than the actual conclusion of the story, the sort of moments that enriched books like I KILLED ADOLF HITLER.

"Low Moon" and "You Are Here" were both top-notch Jason, while the other three stories faltered at times in terms of execution, purpose, emotional depth and/or tone. I liked everything about the way Jason set up "Emily Says Hello", but it lacked the emotional resonance of his darker stories. "Proto Film Noir" was a goof of a story that was redeemed by its punchline. "&" didn't always seem consistent in the kind of story it wanted to tell. The stories are somewhat tenuously linked in that they depict crimes and punishments in various forms. The first and second stories are directly about both topics; the third story punishes the crimes obliquely, while the fourth story punishes the crime ironically. In the last story, both crime and punishment were a bit more abstract: the crime was alienation, the punishment was loneliness. All told, this is still a book every Jason fan should read, but it's one that I perhaps wouldn't recommend to a reader new to the Norwegian's work.


  1. Whoa, quick on the uptake with the review! Only saw this in stores today... May pick it up when I get paid. New Jason is always cause for celebration.

  2. It truly is; this isn't Jason at his best, but it's still very much worth reading.