Thursday, November 10, 2016

NBM: Cyril Pedrosa's Equinoxes

Cyril Pedrosa's Equinoxes is a big book featuring a lot of little stories. It's a very Raymond Carver sort of story, zipping in and out of the lives of seemingly unconnected characters, with each of its four chapters devoted to a single season. NBM went all-out in making sure the American version of this book looked every bit as good as the French original, and the hardcover treatment, huge dimensions and lavish use of color make this book look just as it was supposed to, maintaining all of its visual power. Pedrosa provides details as to each of the main characters' lives in drips and drabs, giving the reader a strong taste of an individual moment before switching to another character. What each of the characters has in common is that each has moved pass an irrevocable tipping point, a personal paradigm shift that leaves each of them wondering exactly who they are and what their purpose is--in other words, each character is in search of their new narrative.

Each season (starting with autumn) kicks off with a silent story about a neolithic man who tries to avoid being eaten, struggles to survive winter, finds a cave with drawings on the wall, and luxuriates in the joys of summer as he creates his own musical instrument. While each of those segments is a sort of thematic introduction to the rest of each chapter, Pedrosa surprises the reader by making the cave he discovers a key part of the narrative. The next characters we meet are elderly Louis and the younger Antonio. Louis is a retired political activist who is nearing the end of his life, and Antonio is one of many people that Louis has helped when they needed a place to stay. Watching their arcs intertwine was the loveliest experience of reading the book. There's a subplot in the book where a number of activists were trying to stop an airport from being built in their small seaside town, and they called on Louis for help because of his expertise and former mentorship of Catherine, now a minister in the government. Louis was great because he was at the age where he no longer cared what people thought about him, having evolved past a clear "angry young man phase" of his past. Louis knew his purpose as time started to run out for him, and he only hoped he'd have enough time left for some final good-byes and words of wisdom for those who needed it, even as he misses his long-dead son.

Antonio, on the other hand, is a character who's just starting to figure things out and feels deeply affectionate toward and indebted to Louis. Antonio is more of a cipher/supporting character, as the reader only gets to know him in quick flashes here and there, but he's important as someone that Louis can bounce ideas off of. He's more of a narrative device than a fully-fleshed out character, but Pedrosa still gave him a sort of curious, lost quality. The next major character introduced was the irascible Vincent, the orthodontist. He's the most fun character in the book while being the most emotionally broken, as he's coming to terms with a brutal and contentious divorce and a lot of time spent away from his teenage daughter. Vince is a chiseled, angular man with graying temples--a very typically masculine guy, but also vulnerable and lost, as he's totally lost his narrative. There's a difference between drifting as a young person and being older and having one's narrative yanked away from you, and Pedrosa gets at that pain that's just beneath the surface. The most compelling parts of the book were those featuring Vincent and his younger brother Damien, who had become a priest. Their interactions were fascinating as both men felt lost, even as Damien had the shelter of faith. Pedrosa nailed their sibling interactions, especially once juvenile aggression turned to honest self-reflection. As though to reward Vincent for asking himself the hard questions, providence rewards him by introducing him to a lovely archaeologist who's in charge of the dig at the local cave. Pedrosa's mastery of gesture and body language gets across that magical feeling of initial mutual reaction with a series of subtle but emphatic eye movements.

The other key character, and a sort of authorial short-cut, is a photographer whose ability to capture people so completely leads to long text sections that take that initial emotion that's been captured and runs with it. It's not so much that the text gives away vital information, but rather it provides a powerful picture of each character's interior life. Some are major characters and others are minor, but the photographer's accounts give an unexpected level of insight to each character, be they a high schooler transfixed by art for the first time or a backhoe operator who's just trying to get to retirement age. Pedrosa went to this well a few times too many, as the text stopped the story's momentum hard each time he unveiled it, but at the same time, taking these photos and trying to find a purpose for them later was a key aspect of the character.

Pedrosa's figure work is very much like other European cartoonists: angular, clear-line and naturalistic with exaggerated features. Pedrosa isn't afraid to get good and scribbly at times, but it's his willingness to dip into different styles that makes this book so exquisitely beautiful. The sequences with the neolithic man are done in a Disneyesque style that reflects his experience in animation. Other sequences lean heavily on the seasonal aspect of the story with a single color wash per sequence, from dark browns to frozen blue to the pinks of dawn to the fiery orange of sunset. Despite this virtuoso use of color that modulates emotion, Pedrosa never loses track of his line, in part because the colors never oversaturate the page or distract from the narrative. They pop out at the reader but don't assault the reader, and even the brighter colors still retain a certain warmth that makes the scenes feel intimate instead of ostentatious. The character rewards and revelations in the book are in the form of small epiphanies rather than plot-changing twists, and the story is all the better for it. The characters don't necessarily arrive at answers as to their purpose and narratives, but they at least learn how to ask the right questions. This is a long book at 300 pages, but Pedrosa mostly keeps the book moving briskly thanks to his facility with dialogue, skill with visual pacing and genuine affection for his characters. Over the course of the book, the characters go from stasis to action in their own ways, and it's that moment of true self-examination and risk-taking that gives each of them the chance to advance.

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