Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Rhythms of Desire: The Lagoon

Rob reviews the new book from Lilli Carre', THE LAGOON (Fantagraphics).

Lilli Carre' is a young artist who has quickly developed into someone to watch closely. Even in her first collection of strips, TALES OF WOODSMAN PETE, one could see the way her line and style matured from the beginning of the book to the end. Those changes can be summed up in terms of tone and restraint. The earlier strips were a bit "louder"--sloppier and more all over the place. The jokes were a bit more overt and the pages lacked precision. As the book went on, one could see her true style starting to emerge, both in terms of character design and page composition. The details left out of her stories began to become as important as what she did reveal.

In her recent short story, THE THING ABOUT MADELEINE and her new book from Fantagraphics, THE LAGOON, one can see Carre' tackle the same theme in different ways: desire. The former is about desire and its relationship to identity, while the latter is a more complex exploration of desires that are hidden and their consequences. The plot of the story is simple: three generations of a family living in the same house all have a different relationship with a song they hear coming from a nearby lagoon. The tune is sung by a humanoid creature, one whose precise motives are difficult to fathom. The song has a seductive quality; for some, it was a lure for a watery doom.

For the family we meet in this issue, it represents something different for each member. For the grandfather, it's a connection to youth. Nearing the end of his life, he notes to his granddaughter that "The creature just doesn't sing all that much anymore"--an indication that this manifestation of longing has ebbed as he's become an old man. Singing the song is a way of reconnecting not with the desires of adulthood, but the freedom of childhood. Upon hearing the song again, he proceeded to pick flowers the next day.

For his daughter, the song and the creature represent the desires of young adulthood. With a husband and daughter of her own, the potent lust that the creature's song meant could no longer be fully embraced. Yet when she heard the song again (played again by her daughter on a piano), she not only couldn't help but become obsessed with it, she amusingly invited the creature into her bedroom after she had had sex with her husband. She shares secrets with the creature, whom she greets as an old friend. When the creature leaves, she can't help but follow, needing to hear the song again.

For her husband, upon finding his wife gone when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he hears the song and follows it to its source. Upon seeing his wife there, rapt with bliss, among many others listening to the song in the lagoon's reeds, he reacts with dismay. In short order, the creature disappears, his wife is pulled under and then him. Desire here is a dangerous thing, and secrets can be destructive. There was a fundamental disconnect between the husband and wife, a gulf in communication that doomed them.

For the daughter, the song represented the unknown of adulthood. She didn't quite understand why the song was so alluring, even if she admitted that it sounded nice. She was young enough to be afraid of monsters and still wanted to be put to bed at night, but old enough that such questions were starting to become relevant to her (her reluctance at "looking younger" after a haircut is a clue to this). It was fascinating seeing the parallels between her and her mother, and how they interpreted different sounds differently. For her mother, a tapping on her window was the creature inviting her attention. For the granddaughter, she was afraid of monsters. For the grandfather, the tapping was him beating out rhythms in his sleep--but also a way of noting that he was still alive, still vital. The granddaughter is afraid of monsters under her bed, while her mother literally told the creature to get under her bed when she saw that her husband was about to wake up.

In the end, when the creature inadvertently sets a pile of wood on fire, the grandfather advises the granddaughter that "It'll put itself out, but let's keep an eye on it, just to make sure". Fire is another clear symbol of desire both alluring and dangerous, and both watched it slowly wane on page after page until all was black. With the creature walking away, both the danger and allure of its song were gone, for both good and ill. For the grandfather, who took joys in other rhythms of life (like the yowling of cats), and the granddaughter, who was more interested in living in the present like a child should, it seemed that neither was quite aware of what was potentially lost.

Comics was an ideal format for a story about a song that means something different to everyone that hears it, and Carre' used the rhythms of sequential storytelling to her advantage. Her heavy reliance on black (especially as the story went on) gave the book a stark beauty, but it was her use of the physical and typographical qualities of sound effects that sold the book's themes. I especially liked the way the notes of the song had a sort of ropey quality, literally pulling in the woman into the lagoon. Panel-to-panel transitions were another key element of the book, especially on the two pages where we see moment flow into moment and we "hear" the sounds of the house at night--until a fateful leaf blows in and triggers the husband's fate. Carre's eccentric character design (triangular, shaded noses & wavy-lined hair), her restrained line and stunningly beautiful book design make this an impressive sophomore effort.

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