Monday, April 7, 2014

Off-Beat Fairy Tales Week: Safari Honeymoon

I am kicking off a week of off-beat fairy tales, weird fantasy and strange sci-fi with Jesse Jacobs' Safari Honeymoon. If his book By This You Shall Know Him was Jacobs working at the macro level in detailing how the gods capriciously created the earth, then this book is all about the micro level of how a particular jungle environment works on an everyday basis and how it deals with intruders. There are three protagonists: a husband and wife on their honeymoon and their guide who protects them and feeds them on this "extreme" vacation. It is most certainly a riff on white colonial safaris in Africa as a symptom of colonial aggression, exploitation and ignorance. Jacobs lets the satirical implications of his story speak for themselves without hammering these themes home. Instead, he simply concentrates on the matter at hand: detailing a host of visceral, squirming, and frequently horrific forms of life that the trio must encounter. As per usual, his publisher, Koyama Press, spared no expense in making this book look beautiful.

Jacobs actually preceded this book with a mini called Young Safari Guide. In it, we meet the guide character as a younger man, as he details hunting one of the jungle's bizarre creatures and roasting it over a spit. To his horror, he realizes that the creature was pregnant and that her progeny were both multitude and voracious. Jacobs has the guide narrate his own story with a touch of officiousness, a distance  that heightens the weirdness of the story and contextualizes it with a colonial point of view. That satire becomes especially effective when the guide has to detail all of the gross details that go along with survival. It must also be said that Jacobs is simply great at thinking up different kind of monstrous organisms and how they might survive in a particular ecosystem.

Back to Safari Honeymoon, each of the three characters faces their own set of challenges. The husband is older and obviously a captain of industry of some kind, the sort of person who would relish putting up the head of a hunted animal up in his "condo". He knows all too well that his wife, a kind and curious sort, is far too good for him. While she's as complicit as he is in simply agreeing to go on this kind of trip and getting excited by all the action, she has a compassionate streak as well. The guide is matter-of-fact, super competent and doomed. In talking about the many parasites that inhabit the jungle, the guide notes that one of them jumped in his throat, ate his tongue and then locked itself in. However, it also gave him a heightened sense of taste, allowing him to become a gourmet chef. It's one of the funnier, grosser revelations in the book, but one that speaks to Jacobs' genuine curiosity and ingenuity in imagining as many species as possible and how they might thrive. At one point, the guide has to beat the husband around the head in order to dislodge one parasite and then asks them if they've been wearing their butt plugs at night.

Jacobs draws his environments and creatures with a level of neurotic detail that is overwhelming at times. There are also pages consisting of nothing more than taxonomic drawings of plants, animals and meals prepared, telling a story within a story of how many millions of lifeforms there are that humans cannot perceive. Jacobs' intent for the reader does seem to be to overwhelm them at first but also force them to take a closer look at the drawings in order to really see what's there. Take the cover, for instance. It's meant to look like the couple are kissing in a clearing shaped like a skull. Focus on any particular strip of the "head", and one can see a number of clearly delineated creatures, each one constructed in that looping, spiky and tentacled style that Jacobs favors. Jacobs heightens this contrast by drawing his human characters as simply as possible; except in the case of extreme close-ups, they don't look like more than stick figures. Nude, they look even more distorted, with huge legs and squat torsos. That makes them look less substantial and real than the creatures and plant life surrounding them--especially given Jacobs' use of a light green monotone. When even the badass guide proves to be susceptible to the jungle's many predators, the couple must find ways to adapt or else become victims themselves. Jacobs subverts jungle fantasy tropes by presenting just how precarious life is in the wild without the virtue of a total technological advantage and details that the only way out is to understand how the dominant species manages to adapt. The couple gets their happy ending, but only because they were forced to change.

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