Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Fantagraphics: Noah Van Sciver's Fante Bukowski 2

Noah Van Sciver took punches at writing, publishing and the macho, bullshit pretensions often wrapped up in both as well as himself by proxy in his satire Fante Bukowski. Van Sciver doubles down on all of this in the book's sequel, only he introduces himself as an actual character to beat up on, which was funny on any number of levels but primarily because it turned the book into a romantic comedy. At the same time, Van Sciver address a lot of issues about writing itself: What does it mean to be "good"? What does it mean to be "successful"? How do these factors influence the act of writing itself?

That's the constant push and pull of this book. The titular character is a no-talent blowhard  who nonetheless walks away from a cushy job in order to pursue his dream as a writer, naming himself after two famous masculine/sensitive writers. The reason why Fante is so pathetic is not that he's a bad writer (though he is), but that he writes for all the wrong reasons. He wants to be rich and famous because of his writing. He wants respect, money and accolades from his writing. He's bought into the American myth of the writer as the swaggering, rugged individual who struggles but ultimately succeeds because of his sheer talent and authenticity. He doesn't actually love writing; he loves being a writer and all that entails. Or at least, all that he feels it should entail, as this book is pretty much a constant smackdown on poor Fante until the very end, with a hilarious twist that reminds me a little of the Martin Scorcese film The King of Comedy.

The book begins with Fante going to Columbus, OH (where Van Sciver currently resides) to make his fortune. Soon, this poseur has his credit card cut off by his parents and he's out on the streets, desperately trying to sell copies of his self-published poetry zine. Meanwhile, his ex-girlfriend Audrey has written a spectacularly successful second novel that makes her the toast of the literary world. Her success only makes her more miserable, despite the open loathing her first novel evinced. Her publisher pressures her to sell the movie rights and to get to work on her next novel. She hangs around people wanting her opinion on things who couldn't have cared less about her before she published her book, like a sleazy agent, a starfucking fellow author and a tedious critic.

At a book-signing, she meets cartoonist "Noah Van Sciver", and they begin dating. As I noted in my review of the first volume, "Punching down is frowned upon, punching up can be pretentious, but punching yourself is always funny." Van Sciver doubles down on this idea by introducing a needy, whiny and selfish version of himself as Audrey's new love interest. He's jealous of her success and needles her to put in a good word with her agent and with critics. He won't even help Audrey with her luggage because of his delicate cartoonist hands. A running sub-theme of the book is gratitude, with each of the more successful characters in the book unable to feel it because of their need to chase something else: fame, fortune, or a return to a more innocent time. For Audrey, Fante represents that more innocent time, as she actually even based one of her characters on him. She can't appreciate what she's achieved because of the demands that have been placed on her, "Van Sciver" can't appreciate his success as a cartoonist because he wants that same brass ring that Fante wants: money, fame, Hollywood. He's also incapable of taking joy in the success of anyone around him.

Van Sciver structures this book in a way that rambles much less than the first (much of which was improvised), laying down a story template that draws characters in and out in funny ways. When Audrey starts looking for Fante, the latter is trying to get away from her because by the shambles his life has become. Van Sciver really pummels Fante, as he's kicked out of his hilariously sketchy motel room (complete with dozens of peep holes) and later burns it down by accident. He has sex with a prostitute named Lady, whom in the mythology of Van Sciver's Columbus has sex with every famous writer (of whom there are dozens) that live there or pass through town. He berates a poor copy shop worker into helping him make his zine perfect way after he was supposed to get off work (and on his birthday, no less!). His staggering lack of self-awareness in some ways is almost endearing; there's a purity to his delusions of grandeur despite his lack of both talent and work ethic.

Of course, as Van Sciver implies throughout the book, talent and work ethic aren't a guarantee for success beyond one's own satisfaction and sheer need to express oneself. The rest is often kind of random, as the end implies when a suspiciously favorable review helps Fante reach the level of hack instead of homeless person. In many ways, what led Fante to getting that review was the one truly selfless act he commits in the book (helping a famous critic get out of a jam with his wife), and it's what winds up helping him the most. The rom-com structure leads to Audrey and Fante meeting up again, with Fante's cowardice and lack of integrity putting him in a hilarious position (stuck in a bathroom window, trying to escape from her). At least this time around, Audrey gets the final word, until Fante's magical rise.

This book is very much about literary authors and their books as commodities. As such, the design serves to remind the reader of this fact at every turn, with genius book designer Keeli McCarthy basing the cover image on the Black Sparrow Press edition of Charles Bukowski's novel Factotum. The whole book is designed to give off a used bookstore feel, from the texture of the cover's paper to the sticker on the back to the handwritten "1st ed/rare OOP" inside the front cover. It's joking that it's a bust even before it came out, doomed to the dusty and increasingly rare used bookstores in town. And yet, it was published. For whatever self-deprecation Van Sciver throws at himself, the sheer enthusiasm he has for the material is palpable on every page. I've never seen his figures look more alive and active than in this book; they're expressive and big, as some of Van Sciver's time as a gag artist at MAD seems to be in operation here as well. The colors are lush and saturate every page. The figures are almost caricatures but grab on to the reader's eye and don't let go. Van Sciver even "draws funny" in an effort to get laughs on some page, something he's mostly avoided in his mature style. Here, it works. He may be mean to his characters, but it's obvious he has a lot of affection for figures with genuine (if fucked up) motivations like Fante & Audrey, and it shows in their body language, the way they're drawn and the way they interact.

No comments:

Post a Comment