Monday, August 13, 2012

Uncertainty: Fantastic Life

In his book Fantastic Life, Kevin Mutch asks the question: which is worse--nothing being true or everything being true? This comic is an intriguing blend of slice-of-life scene report, art-school take-down, philosophical treatise and horror story. It follows Adam, a college student who is also in a band, and his assorted attempts at getting laid and figuring out what he wants to do as he moves in and out of various punk circles in Winnipeg. At the climax of the first chapter, Adam is hitting on a fellow student named Anna, who's being chatted up by a geeky student. When the subject turns to reality and its possibilities, Adam is flummoxed by their claims that there's no such thing as truth, especially when the geek brings up Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which states that we cannot know know both the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. After blowing it with Anna, he hangs out with a 14-year-old girl who starts hitting on him until he passes out...and wakes up with Anna.

From there, Adam the musician is actually Adam the art student, who pulled out something called the Everett Interpretation to chase away the geek and bed feminist philosophy student Anna. From there, Adam stumbles to his art class and into and out of various realities, one of which is a frighteningly real dimension where he is being pursued by zombies. Along the way, as Adam attempts to figure out if he's going insane, is under the influence of drugs or something much worse, he continues to be intertwined with Anna. Each chapter serves the function of being another take on the way in which life can feel especially intense and surreal as a young person, as each day can have an epic or operatic feel. At the same time, one of Mutch's missions seems to be taking the piss out of art school culture, the sort of identity politics that can have a big effect on college culture as young people are trying on different ideologies and theories, and youth culture in general. The art school scenes make Dan Clowes' Art School Confidenital look like a loving tribute to his educational experiences in how vicious and over-the-top they are. The scene where Adam is pnaicking because Anna seems to be falling prey to the  Carlos Castaneda-spouting hippie he despises is hilarious and painfully awkward, especially as he tries to fend off the hippie's stoned girlfriend who may also be a zombie.

The scene where a surprising character tells him that the Everett Interpretation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which is essentially the multiple universe theory, is correct. The problem is that this "decoherence" (which allows for truth in any given universe) is collapsing, so that every universe will exist at once--including one where he is devoured by zombies. Mutch answers his overarching question by making a case that it's much worse if everything is true. If nothing is true, then the evidence of one's senses can be denied. If everything is true, then nothing can be wished away. The nightmare world where zombies are eating your flesh is somehow the same world where snotty art students are deriding your work. Worse still, the same world where one beds a pretty, intelligent woman may be the same one where she wants to eat your brains. The ending, where Adam simply holes up in his apartment, alone, is the triumph of solipsism: the denial of reality and an escape from engagement. As a storyteller, Mutch has a slightly stiff, illustrative style that looks a bit like Danny Hellman, though Mutch can't fully match Hellman's chops or fluidity. I couldn't help but think that a tad more restraint would have made this a more effective book; everything is exaggerated and on-the-nose to an almost uncomfortable degree. A more relaxed and nuanced approach (with the same story and themes) might have been even more terrifying, but then this book is a document of a time in a person's life where subtlety isn't exactly at a premium.  Mutch simply transposes the feeling that stakes seem to be ridiculously high at all times into a story where there is a lot at stake.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, as always Rob. It's long but if you have time, I did an interview with Mutch over at Graphic Eye last year. We talked a lot about Fantastic Life.