cambridge book review

Make it Stay

Joan Frank
The Permanent Press 2012

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Joan Frank’s Make it Stay is a brief novel, but it skimps on nothing under the sun, particularly the lush sun of Northern California where the story is set. This tale of aging Boomer marital discord is so thoroughly embedded within the sensuality of the natural world that it seems sprouted rather than written. In Frank’s lovingly rendered vineyard town of Mira Flores (“the fresh sharp smell of pines in the warm sun, the drifty morning fog, heavy sweetness of roses spilling over fences in Popsicle colors, faint salt scents of ocean”), impulsiveness and passion are as intuitive as the Pacific Coast tides forty miles away.

Impulses, like stories, are renewable resources that can turn destructive if we refuse their lessons. It seems appropriate that Rachel, the narrator of Make it Stay, is a writer. Whether or not this better equips her to deal with the serial adultery of her husband’s best friend is not so easily answered. “Why must this be the story, over and over and over,” she laments in italicized dismay. Rachel, we discover (somewhat to our discomfort as readers), is not so much an unreliable narrator as a recognizably flawed one overcome by self-doubt and jealousy. “Lord,” she confesses to us after making one of several breathtakingly cruel observations about others, “what an unkind thought.”

The first half of Make it Stay is a stylistic tour-de-force with chapters alternating between dinner-party preparations overseen by Rachel’s husband, Neil, a Scottish-born legal aid attorney and amateur gourmand, and the backstory of Neil’s friendship with the adulterous Mike and his alcoholic wife, Tilda, both due for dinner that evening. In Joan Frank’s energetic telling, this set-up becomes a page-turning psychedelic Wayback Machine as we’re transported to Mira Flores in the 1970s: Mike, a marine biology dropout, owns an aquarium shop in town called Finny Business; Neil, waiting to pass the California bar, interns two blocks away at the Legal Aid office. There are diving excursions to the Polynesian Islands in search of rare tropical fish for Mike’s shop. A near-drowning bonds their friendship for life.

The novel takes a decidedly darker turn in its second half. Joan Frank refuses to judge her characters even when her characters are quick to judge one another. Rachel’s wisdom, by novel’s end, is real and hard-won, but it is also world-weary and not necessarily built to last. Like the marriages splayed and dissected with such scalding precision in Make it Stay. Readers whose sympathies fall in one direction early on, may be surprised to find their hardened hearts reversing course as Frank skillfully and tough-mindedly overturns our expectations and rattles our complacency. Rachel’s writerly indignation is as up-to-date and CNN-ready as it is timeless and universal:

Crazy shit—and I don’t mean pissy little Jamesian drawing-room slights, but atrocity—bombards folks with no warning every day; decent, forthright, shoelace-tying folks. If they have shoelaces. Look at Neil’s clients; look at the news. Anything that’s functional, that’s actually been good for us? Passable health, freedom from pain? Something to eat, clean water? Nobody pull a weapon today?

When the phrase “make it stay” is finally spoken—haltingly, painfully—by one of the characters, it is a cri de coeur not of nostalgic longing but of something deeper, an animating force submerged and mysterious, seldom glimpsed, as elusive as the rarest tropical fish, but most assuredly captured in the pages of Joan Frank’s memorable novel.


Bob Wake is editor of Cambridge Book Review and author of Caffeine and Other Stories.

June 1, 2012 Posted by | fiction | , , , | 1 Comment

The Pale King

David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown 2011

Reviewed by Dwight Allen

 How to Levitate

It is almost impossible to read David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, posthumously published novel, The Pale King, and put his death out of your mind. The awful fact of his suicide (in 2008, when he was forty-six) has been “incised” (to use a word twice used in the opening two-page chapter, a kind of Midwestern aubade full of death, an anti-pastoral pastoral) in the forefront of your head long before the author, in the second chapter, introduces us to the first of his crew of Internal Revenue Service employees, a low-level auditor named Claude Sylvanshine, who is flying from Chicago to an IRS post in Peoria on “a terrifying thirty-seater whose pilot had pimples at the back of his neck.”

And then there is the problem, if one is the sort of reader who might want to attempt strict textual analysis, of the presence of two “David Wallace”s in the novel, both IRS employees in the Peoria office, one of whom is also the “author” and who is said to have, in addition to other afflictions, a “severe/disfiguring” skin condition, which, of course, causes people to stare at him. (The actual Wallace was somewhat ambivalent about the attention paid to him.) Wallace may have come to regard metafiction as a “permanent migraine,” but he made extensive and often hilarious use of it in The Pale King. It’s even possible to imagine that he took some pleasure in writing the long “Author, here” chapters, in which he does, among other so-called tricks, coruscating send-ups of memoirists and some wonderful bits of slapstick comedy (see, for instance, in Chapter 24, a scene in which an IRS employee tumbles from a parking lot road into a drainage ditch outside Peoria headquarters, a moment observed by the “author” from within an AMC Gremlin packed with other sweating IRS personnel). The notion that Wallace died of boredom with himself, advanced by his friend Jonathan Franzen in a 2011 New Yorker article (reprinted this spring in an essay collection called Farther Away), seems off, if the pleasure that Wallace gives us is any sign of how he felt about his work. (It is a more serious misperception to assert, as some admirers [not Franzen] wishing to confer sainthood on him have, that late-period Wallace—they are thinking mostly of the Wallace who gave the Kenyon College commencement speech—was “against” irony; it could be said that he was “against” snarkiness and cruelty, but nothing he wrote, especially The Pale King, could have been written without a highly developed sense of irony.) Wallace was an honest writer, honest about the demons that pop up in every corner of his work, and despite his public modesty and private self-loathing, it’s difficult to imagine that he didn’t experience, during the many years of his struggle to write The Pale King, any of the joy his writing so often gives his readers.

The Pale King was lovingly and painstakingly assembled by Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, from, in Pietsch’s words, “an unorganized [i.e., unsequenced] heap of writings” found on Wallace’s desk and on computer disks. Two hundred and fifty manuscript pages, or twelve of the fifty chapters, Pietsch considered to be polished and finished. (Among these were the two “Author, here” chapters, and the near-one-hundred pages of Chapter 22, a kind of conversion story about a Chicagoland “wastoid” named Chris Fogle who is moved by a Jesuit professor’s lecture on Advanced Tax accounting to join the “Service.”) About a fifth of the novel Pietsch took from handwritten drafts, and to all of this, he appended some of the notes Wallace had made regarding characters and plot matters. In the paperback edition of the novel, published this spring, Pietsch, with the help of Wallace’s agent, Bonnie Nadell, has added four drafts of chapters not included in the hardcover version. Pietsch told me that he had decided that these four pieces, while “interesting enough,” were too “confusing or provisional” to fit into the hardcover edition, and he has not now attempted to shoehorn them into the body of the novel.

In one of these newly added scenes there is a reference to a revenue officer named Shane Drinion, a character who does not appear at all until Chapter 46, almost 450 pages into the book. Though Chapter 46 is one of the longest chapters in the book, it was not among the dozen chapters that Pietsch considered polished and finished. Pietsch told me that even though Wallace had done some editing on a typescript of the chapter, he concluded that the chapter was “still pretty raw for [Wallace]” and “definitely not finished and polished by his standards.”

Chapter 46 is set during a Happy Hour in a Peoria bar that attracts a certain grade of revenue officer, including Shane (Mr. X) Drinion, whose dweebish, blank exterior leads some of his co-workers to refer to him as “possibly the dullest human being currently alive.” (Mr. X is short for Mr. Excitement.) He is “a bit of a mouth-breather” and “there is a kind of ambient unsonic hum about him.” During the Friday afternoon Happy Hour (drink specials are “indexed to the approximate cost of gasoline and vehicle depreciation involved in the 2.3 mile drive” from the IRS office to the bar, Wallace writes with a straight face), Drinion sits across from an officer named Meredith Rand, one of the two central female characters in the novel. (The other, Toni Ware, the child of a trailer park liaison who is “begat in one car and born in another” and raped in yet others and who, like every other damaged character in the novel, eventually finds work in the IRS’s Peoria branch, inspired Wallace to write perhaps the weirdest chapter in the novel, set at a Peoria Quik Stop, and also the most brutally violent one.) Rand, who is said to be “wrist-bitingly attractive,” sees more in Drinion than others do. What she sees is a version of her husband, Ed, who worked as a “ward attendant” in a mental institution where Rand had landed as a teenager because she was a “cutter.” Rand regarded her prettiness as an affliction, a box she believed she couldn’t escape, and in response she repeatedly cut herself.

It has been often said that The Pale King is “about” boredom—Wallace’s IRS employees, each laboring in total obscurity and each beset with one wound or another, are us—but boredom is a given for Wallace, a given that he nonetheless anatomizes with brilliant, hilarious, clinical precision. (The novel is set in the mid-eighties, prior to the digital revolution, which freed Wallace from having to write about contemporary IRS agents who might, for instance, fall into drainage ditches as the result of trying to play Angry Birds while walking narrow access roads. It could be said that Wallace’s pre-iPad characters experience more varieties of boredom, including the sort that Bartleby the Scrivener experienced a century and a half ago, than do those of us glued to our screens today.) The question for every bored but somewhat self-aware character in the novel is how to come unstuck from boredom (or terminal self-absorption).

To some degree, the conversation between Rand and Drinion—in which Rand (“a yammerer of the most dire kind,” in the estimation of her colleagues) is, at various moments, charming and snarky and clever and needling—resembles a dialogue between a patient and a model therapist. The nerdy, seemingly affectless, unjudgmental Drinion pays “close, intense attention” to whatever Rand says, an attention that, as Rand sees it, has nothing to do with any romantic aspirations on his part. Drinion has the qualities that her husband, Ed, her uncredentialed mental ward “therapist” whose own special burden is cardiomyopathy, has—the capacity to listen closely and “immerse” himself in someone who is not himself or something that is not about him. This is a capacity that the extremely intelligent and extremely self-conscious Rand—a person whose defenses are elaborate but not so rigid or labyrinthine that she can’t see beyond them—recognizes in others but doesn’t fully embody herself. Like almost every other character in the novel (the “pathologically nice” Leonard Steyck, the phobic “sweater” David Cusk, the “locked-up” Christian believer Lane Dean, Jr., the logorrheic Chris Fogle, Claude Sylvanshine of the machinelike brilliance, the “author”), Rand is unhappily stuck inside herself, despite having, after her tete-a-tetes with Ed Rand, “grown up” and ceased to cut herself. She notices, for instance, that Drinion seems to get taller during the course of their conversation, but she doesn’t really pursue this observation.

Drinion is the only character in the book whom Wallace describes as “happy.” He says this in one of the notes to the novel, however, not in the body of the text. Wallace trusted his readers enough to see what it might mean if, for instance, he gave Drinion the literal ability to levitate when immersed. Drinion rises a couple of centimeters above his chair when listening to Meredith Rand, and he occasionally gets a little higher while at work. “One night someone comes into the office and sees Drinion floating upside down over his desk with his eyes glued to a complex return, Drinion himself unaware of the levitating thing by definition, since it is only when his attention is completely on something else that the levitation happens.”

Drinion has something of the Holy Fool (or Holy Nerd) about him, and he is clearly meant to be an exemplary human being, but it may be a mistake to think that he carries the moral weight of the novel, particularly in light of the fact that he is absent from the book ninety percent of the time.

At least one reviewer, Jonathan Raban in the New York Review of Books (May 12, 2011), has said that Wallace resorted to “a supernatural trick” in giving Drinion an ability to levitate. Raban went on to say that Wallace’s “basic idea of penetrating the drudgery of the grown-up world and emerging on its far side in possession of transcendent revelation” was clearly “unrealized” and that “when it came to morals, [Wallace] had a deep fundamentalist streak.”

Underlying Raban’s criticism is the assumption that a novelist such as Wallace begins with an “idea” and then simply illustrates it (or fails to). This seems like a narrow, schematic view of fiction writing and doesn’t allow for the possibility that even if a writer begins a novel with a controlling or “basic” idea—but how many novelists actually say to themselves something like, Now I will write a novel about boredom and happiness?—he can be led off in many different and contradictory directions in the course of writing. Fiction writing is surely more improvisation than it is engineering from a blueprint, and I’d guess that to most writers it is also more about scenes, characters, weather, details, jokes, and the rhythms of the sentences than it is about whatever lofty ideas can supposedly be extracted ex post facto from those more elemental things. Writers, whether avant-gardists or social realists, who are most interested in illustrating ideas are likely to be propagandists (and bores), and Wallace was neither. Wallace said somewhere that fiction writing should be “passionately moral, morally passionate,” but he was not a blowhard moralist or a Capital W writer with an agenda. He spends hardly any time in Chapter 46 writing about Drinion’s capacity to levitate. (Elsewhere in the novel, little direct attention is paid to the “idea” of transcendence, even though the possibility of it is implicit in the many scenes in which Wallace shows us the myriad, funny, heart-rending ways his characters suffer in their preoccupation with themselves.) In fact, the three moments in which Drinion levitates are set down almost in passing and with no or only minimal comment, and like Rand, we barely notice them. It may be that Wallace wished them to be barely noticed, and it may also be that, given the “definitely” unfinished state of this chapter, Wallace may have refined those brief passages further, had he continued on.

In his New Yorker article, Jonathan Franzen says that for Wallace, “Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him . . . he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death.” Twelve years ago, Michael Pietsch (a longtime friend of mine) told me that Wallace had compared the writing of The Pale King to trying to carry a big sheet of plywood through a windstorm. (In this image, one may see again Wallace’s great gift as a writer of comic pathos; he could do with words what Chaplin or Keaton could do with their bodies.) More recently, Pietsch wrote to say that he sometimes sees Wallace’s book as “a journal of his struggle to live, and an attempt to get at what makes life worthwhile.”

Franzen believes that the novel Wallace left behind was a failure, and he believes that Wallace had regarded it as such, too, and that, in effect, Wallace had come to believe that writing was no longer worthwhile. I didn’t know Wallace at all, but based on the evidence of this novel, I’d take Pietsch’s more hopeful view, that Wallace was trying to come unstuck and believed it was worth his while to try to do so and thought of his writing as a way of understanding how to do it.

And is it really true, as Franzen suggests, that Wallace saw his writing as the single source of his salvation, as “the best solution to the existential problem of solitude?” (Can there be such a thing as a “solution” to an “existential problem”? Solitude is a condition that will persist whether we are happy or severely depressed, whether we write a great, finished novel or fail at whatever task we set for ourselves. Wallace’s problem seemed to be the actual human being named David Foster Wallace.) Or is Franzen’s opinion more that of another writer trying to describe the value of his own work to himself? In her conversation with Drinion, Rand points out that it is “a child’s fantasy” to “deep down expect somebody else to gallop up and save you” from yourself. Surely Wallace understood that his writing wasn’t going to save him from himself, even if he was able to “immerse” himself in it periodically. It is Rand, rather than Drinion, of course, whom Wallace most resembles. Rand stops cutting herself because she simply stops doing it, not because someone has explained to her why she does it. (“All that matters is to not do it,” she says. “Only I can decide to stop it.”) Wallace couldn’t stop cutting himself.

But what Wallace has given us in The Pale King—however incomplete it is and whatever he may have thought of the “heap” of writing that the book was when he left it on his desk—is far from a “failure.” Despite the holes and contradictions and repetitions and narrative lines unfollowed, despite the presence of certain ingrained Wallace tics, The Pale King is full of the sort of life that we find in the books of only our greatest writers. It is imaginative, brainy, funny, beautiful, and humane. Deep into the Rand-Drinion chapter, Wallace jumps ahead to show Rand remembering (as her husband drives her home from the bar) what she felt like during the tete-a-tete with Drinion. What Rand remembers is a bit like what it sometimes feels like to read The Pale King—that happy sensation of immersion, a sensation that comes over us even as the ghost of the author swims in the air about us. Here is a part of what Rand remembers:

At one or two points she’d even felt she could feel the exact shape of her eyeballs against her lids’ insides when she blinked—she was aware when she blinked. The only kind of experience she could associate with it involved their cat that she’d had when she was a girl before it got hit by a car and the way she could sit with the cat in her lap and stroke the cat and feel the rumble of the cat’s purring and feel every bit of the texture of the cat’s warm fur and the muscle and bone beneath that, and that she could sit for long periods of time stroking the cat and feeling it with her eyes half-shut as if she was spaced out or stuporous-looking but had felt, in fact, like she was the opposite of stuporous—she felt totally aware and alive, and at the same time when she sat slowly stroking the cat with the same motion over and over it was like she forgot her name and address and almost everything else about her life for ten or twenty minutes, even though it wasn’t like spacing out at all, and she loved that cat. She missed the feel of its weight, which was like nothing else, neither heavy nor light, and at times for almost the next two or three days she felt like she feels now, like a cat.


Dwight Allen is the author of two novels, Judge (Algonquin 2003) and The Typewriter Satyr (University of Wisconsin Press 2009). His first book, The Green Suit: Stories, was reissued, with a new story, in 2011, by the University of Wisconsin. He lives in Madison.

June 1, 2012 Posted by | fiction | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

cbr 18 / summer 2011


cbr 18 / summer 2011

Eleven Poems: An Audio Chapbook
Elli Hazit

J.D. Salinger: A Life
Kenneth Slawenski
Reviewed by Norma Gay Prewett

Birds of Wisconsin
B.J. Best
Reviewed by Amy Lou Jenkins

Lord of Misrule
Jaimy Gordon
Reviewed by Bob Wake

The Masturbator
A short story by John Lehman

A short story by Ruben Varda

From the Archives
Origins of FIS (Factory in a Suitcase)
An excerpt from Redshift: Greenstreem
Rod Clark


June 1, 2012 Posted by | biography, fiction, poetry | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Idea and Story Without Words

By Frans Masereel
Shambhala Press 2000

Reviewed by Chris Lanier

[cbr 6 / fall 2001]

The preservation of an artistic canon is centrifugally contentious business. Most of the battle takes place along the periphery, where the currents of faddishness are most strongly felt. New names announce themselves loudly, while older (though not necessarily old) names slip back noiselessly. It’s safe to say that the names which lie undisturbed at the center represent work of genuine, supra-fashionable value. Unfortunately, the converse is not true. Those who fade are not all charlatans and pretenders, and sometimes we are culturally poorer for their departure. Frans Masereel, the Belgian woodcut artist, is one of these whose departure we should mourn. Two of his woodcut books are being returned to print, and while they won’t restore him to the pantheon, I’m glad some of his treasures have been brought closer to hand.

At the pinnacle of his popularity, in the 1920s and 30s, his books of prints received glowing forewords from Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. He illustrated several novels of his close friend Romain Rolland, who served as a kind of patron saint to the pacifist movement gathered in Switzerland, where Masereel spent the First World War (it was Masereel’s involvement with the pacifists that barred his return to Belgium for many years, and he spent most of his adult life in France and Germany). In Geneva, making brush-and-ink illustrations for the anti-war journal La Feuille, Masereel developed the high-contrast visual style that was to serve him so well in his woodcuts. His art almost always derived its impetus from the social problems of his day: he returned again and again to scenes of workers’ strikes, mobilizing armies, and the industrial metropolitan maze, which is shown towering over its inhabitants both as a testament to human labor, and as an oppressive weight of smokestacks.

Much of the work is propagandistic in its impulses, but it has a clarity of design and an exuberance of execution that lifts the best examples far above the realm of disposable agitprop. When living in Berlin, Masereel’s closest artist friend was George Grosz. While both shared an indignation toward social cruelty and hypocrisy, and both made an attempt to bring art out of the museums and into the streets, it is hard to imagine two more opposed temperaments. Grosz’s genius was to distil his pessimism and misanthropy into a kind of visual poison. Masereel, for all the despair and tragedy in his work, was fundamentally an optimist about the human animal. Perhaps this was partly due to his eye for its staggering, kaleidoscopic variety. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, in the first monograph on the artist, claimed that if Masereel’s woodcuts were the only documents of his era to survive, the entire world could be reconstructed from them.

Of course, some of the names of these Masereel supporters and compatriots have suffered their own erosions. Masereel is chiefly known today among bibliophiles as the pioneer of a genre of book called the “woodcut novel” or the “novel without words.” These “novels” are made of a series of woodcuts, one to a page, without captions or word balloons, strung together in a narrative sequence. This technique is obviously related to the comic strip, but it also finds antecedents in the narrative frescoes that adorn the walls of European churches, and in the woodcut “cycles” that treat a theme in a series of pictures that illustrate its variations. One of the more well-known examples of the latter is Holbein the Younger’s “Dance of Death,” itself an adaptation of a type of church decoration, which shows a retinue of skeletons leading people of all ages and social classes on toward death (Masereel updated the “Dance of Death” more than once, first to delineate the horrors of the First World War, and then, during the Second World War, utilizing it as unifying principle for a portfolio of drawings culled from his own experiences fleeing Paris from the Nazis).

Masereel’s work in the “woodcut novel” genre contains his greatest achievement, Mon Livre d’Heures (kept in print by City Lights books under the title Passionate Journey). Mon Livre d’Heures is a small masterpiece, a kind of autobiography of the spirit. The story is characterized by a love of human labor, a sacramental devotion to the everyday, and a view of human identity as a complex interpenetration of circumstances, both personal and historical. It ends with a bold intrusion of metaphysics, as unexpected as it is profoundly affecting.The two Masereel books that have been returned to print are also woodcut novels, Story Without Words and The Idea, published together in one volume by Shambhala Press. Neither are up to the standard of Mon Livre d’Heures, but both are very enjoyable. As Thomas Mann wrote of Masereel’s lesser works: “They are all so strangely compelling, so deeply felt, so rich in ideas that one never tires of looking at them.”

Illustration from “Story Without Words”

The slighter of the two books is Story Without Words. Its images are strung along the line of a clever conceit: a man tries to woo a woman he’s smitten with, and all his sweet words, bragging, and imploring are shown by shifting the background behind their figures. When he says he’ll show her around the town, a restaurant table appears, bedecked with fine food. When he brags about his strength, a circus-ring with a weightlifter appears. A few juxtapositions clap together polar opposites that become two sides of the same coin: in one panel, the man doffs a top hat, a flower jutting from the lapel of his tuxedo, feeling like a millionaire; in the next panel he is shown in rags, a poor beggar. In one panel he is kneeling in prayer before the woman, in front of a church; in the next panel he is crawling after her, while in the street a dog tries to sniff the hind end of its prospective mate. Altogether, it plays like a pure visual distillation of every love song ever sung.

Masereel sticks to his theme so monomaniacally, the cleverness transmutes into a visionary erotic principle. The man comes to embody seemingly endless states. The visual literalization of these states renders them concrete: these are things he is not merely talking about, these are things he is becoming. In its headlong encyclopedism it recalls Walt Whitman (Masereel illustrated an edition of Whitman’s Calamus poems, and shares his unpretentious sexual frankness). The suggestion arises that, through love, we become a multitude. Love expands us into all the particulars of the human experience, from the drudgery of manual labor, to the weightless joy of stargazing.

At the end of the book, the woman finally succumbs (though not until the man threatens to kill himself). After making love, however, the man loses interest and departs. The final image (of each of them weeping, separated by the word “ENDE”) seems to suggest, not without a certain detached humor, that misery is the essential state of love. Masereel seems more interested in describing a psychological process than in any particular moralizing. One can disapprove of the man as being a cad, narcissistic, in love with the idea of being in love rather than a real person, or one can disapprove of the woman’s stand-offishness, coldly refusing the effusive exertions of her suitor. For those who are prone to high drama in their romantic entanglements, Story Without Words can stand as something of a handbook—you can leaf through it to find the particular image that corresponds to your present state of agony or ecstasy.

The women in Masereel’s books are never as fully developed as the men—they are often muses, sometimes comrades, but never as fleshed-out as their male counterparts. Masereel’s tendency to view women as ideals rather than complex human beings perhaps finds its most radical expression in The Idea, where an idea is literally embodied in the form of a naked woman. When a pondering man is struck by a lightning-bolt of inspiration, a naked woman pops—like Athena—from his brow. Despite the limitations inherent in using something as tangible as a body to represent something as intangible as an idea, Masereel manages to coax an amazing amount of mileage from his metaphor.

From “The Idea” (1 of 3)

When the Idea is sent off into the world (she bids adieu to the thinker as she climbs into an envelope), her nakedness is immediately met with shock and outrage. Her nakedness stands for a purity or a truth that the conventional minds of status quo opinion can’t bear, so they attack her and clothe her, in an attempt to tame the Idea, co-opt her, coerce her into acceptability. The enemies of the Idea make up a wonderful gallery of grotesques, all bug eyes and shriveled limbs. Every panel is crammed with faces stacked on top of one another, bodies gesturing wildly, and all sorts of drastically telescoped perspectives, making this among the most visually dense (and visually playful) of Masereel’s works.

Once the Idea is dressed respectably, she is sent out into the street, but upon finding a receptive man in a working-class quarter, she immediately lifts her skirt (there is a certain humor in the equation of the profligate or alluring nature of the Idea with an unrepentant exhibitionism: a flash of revelation as represented by a flasher). In my favorite sequence, this man falls in love with the Idea in all her nakedness, and is sent to prison as a consequence. In prison, the Idea comes to him, and he suckles at her breast, nourished by her, as other prisoners look on in awe, envy, or wonder. The prisoner is blindfolded and lead out, with the Idea before him, to be shot. The bullet passes through both Idea and prisoner—the prisoner slumps, but the Idea simply walks away, raising her fist in defiance of the executioner. She grieves, and in the graveyard where the young man is buried (his coffin has been carried there by a large crowd that, we suppose, is simmering with wounded revolutionary sentiment) she accepts garments that are handed to her by ghoulish skeletons.

From “The Idea” (2 of 3)

The Idea’s struggle is a struggle to reveal herself, to be known, and not to be trapped, covered, besmirched. An academic tries to capture her in a book, and if there is a member of the local constabulary in the picture, he is always obliged to give chase. As she makes her varied escapes, the metaphor gathers an interesting (and perhaps even unintended) potency that seems at odds with its original conception. While casting a naked woman as an idea may serve to idealize or objectify womanhood, her struggles become a struggle for her truth, her identity, in the face of hostile (and mostly male) projections and needs. They try to make her into the image they want to see, and in her refusal to conform to that image, she becomes an emblem of female resistance. In one image, she jumps—naked—into a camera. While people flee from her, trying to cover their eyes (or the eyes of their children), they flock toward a violent movie, and watch on the screen a woman being stabbed to death. A woman’s body, displayed in haloed nakedness, becomes a terror and a threat; displayed as a corpse, it becomes entertainment.

Eventually, the Idea jumps into a printing press, and is spread throughout the world. Masereel here takes delight in an extended riff on technologies of communication. She travels through telegraph wires, she crosses seas on radio waves: Masereel seems intoxicated by all the still-novel possibilities of dissemination and reproduction. One picture, where the Idea skates on wires above the head of a policeman (he brandishes his sword impotently in her wake), could be pressed into service on a current editorial page. It need only to be affixed with the provisional title: “Sex on the Internet.”

From “The Idea” (3 of 3)

Appropriately enough, The Idea itself was incarnated in other media besides its original form as a woodcut novel; it was turned into an animated film by the Czech animator Berthold Bartosch in 1932, at the suggestion of Masereel’s German publisher, Kurt Wolff. Adding to the technical novelty, the score, by Arthur Honneger, was probably the first film score to utilize an electronic instrument, the “Ondes Martinot,” which emits the same warbling glissando as a Theremin.

However, in this case, cinema didn’t prove to be a very felicitous mode of dispersal. The film ran into distribution problems, and Bartosch never made any money for his effort. Bartosch, like Masereel, was a leftist; during the First World War, he made an animated educational film on the socialist theories of T. G. Masaryk, Czechoslovakia’s founder. His friends described him as a shy man, and he walked with a slight limp, the result of clubfoot. He worked on the film in Paris, relocating from Berlin, where the political situation for socialists and pacifists was rapidly deteriorating. Masereel was initially engaged to collaborate with Bartosch, but when he found how tedious and painstaking the work of animation was, he bowed out, giving Bartosch free reign in his adaptation.

Bartosch’s studio was an attic over the Vieux Colombier Theatre, roughly six feet square. He worked there for two years, manipulating jointed paper dolls and cut-paper “sets” (painted with the same bold lines as Masereel’s prints) on multiple planes of glass. The parallel glass panes gave Bartosch multiple gradations of foreground and background to play with, allowing for dramatic illusions of depth. They also allowed for complex modulations of light. Sometimes he lit his tableaux from above, sometimes from below, smearing some layers of glass with soap, and introducing intervening layers of gauze on others. The light which shines through the finished strip of celluloid is made of interpenetrating translucencies, burning with an almost tactile luminescence. When the idea emerges from a glowing nimbus, it looks as though she’s the congealed substance of light itself. While the film has an almost unearthly visual beauty, the changes Bartosch made to Masereel’s scenario diminish it. Gone is the humor and the at-times scatalogical unpretentiousness of the original. Worst of all, he gives the Idea an almost thoroughly passive role, hanging ghostlike in the background as men fight and die for her. He prunes away the picaresque digressions, to focus in and expand upon a worker’s revolt that the Idea inspires. The revolt is crushed by government troops, in what can be taken as a reprise of the quashing of the Spartacist uprising of 1918.

It appears that at least some of the distribution problems The Idea faced were ideological. There are two alternate title cards which exist for the film, one underlining the Idea’s affinity for the oppressed, the other of attempting to soft-peddle it as a generalized idea, either artistic or patriotic. It was banned outright in Germany. That it survived the war at all is an accomplishment: it is the only Bartosch film that remains to us (there exist a few tantalizing stills from a pacifist-themed film titled Saint Francis: Dreams and Nightmares, which was destroyed by the Nazis during the occupation of Paris). The existent print of The Idea was pieced together from two partial prints, the original negative having been obliterated. Despite these vagaries, the film made a strong impression on those interested in animation’s artistic possibilities, and it has come to be considered the first narrative animated film to self-consciously align itself with the aims of “fine art.”

The one improvement Bartosch made to Masereel’s original storyline is his suggestion, at the very end, of the Idea’s ultimate transcendence. I have philosophical problems with Masereel’s end for The Idea, which seems too pat, too reflexively circular. The Idea reaches her apotheosis in liberation and revolt, becoming so interwoven into the texture of thought that she emerges from the music and clamor of the times; eventually she becomes a cause for debate rather than a cause for revolution. She returns to the thinker, only to be replaced by another Idea (this one a blonde). Sometimes an idea is better than the person who thinks it; at the very least, a good idea tends to outlive its creator. Especially as the Idea seems to escape Masereel’s original formulations for her, it comes as a disappointment to see her reigned in at last, framed in a picture that the thinker hangs on his wall, entered into the dead pages of history.


Chris Lanier ( is a writer and cartoonist living in San Francisco. His latest graphic novel, Combustion, was published in 1999 by Fantagraphics Books. He currently writes and animates a weekly cartoon on the internet, Romanov, which can be found at

March 19, 2012 Posted by | fiction, illustration | , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 12 / winter 2004-2005


cbr 12 / winter 2004-2005

An excerpt
Eva Augustin Rumpf

The Burning Point
Frances Richey
Reviewed by Karla Huston

Present/Tense: Poets in the World
Edited by Mark Pawlak
Reviewed by Karla Huston

Saving Grace
James Lenfestey
Reviewed by Karla Huston

The Half Brother
Lars Saabye Christensen
Translated from the Norwegian by Kenneth Steven
Reviewed by Michael Allen Potter

Graphic Classics: O. Henry
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Reviewed by Bob Wake

Six Modern Plagues
Mark Jerome Walters
Reviewed by Dori Knoff


March 18, 2012 Posted by | fiction, illustration, non-fiction, poetry | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 11 / spring 2004


cbr 11 / spring 2004

The Blue Dress
Alison Townsend
Reviewed by Karla Huston

Joy Unspeakable
Laura Stamps
Reviewed by Karla Huston

Something Near the Dance Floor
Bruce Dethlefsen
Reviewed by Karla Huston

David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Bob Wake

Graphic Classics: Mark Twain
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Reviewed by Bob Wake


March 18, 2012 Posted by | fiction, illustration, memoir, poetry | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 8 / fall 2002


cbr 8 / fall 2002

Palio del Viccio and the Festival of St. Nicholas
From Aunt Pig of Puglia: Ricordi de La Familia Ferri
Patricia Catto

Creature Comforts
William L.M.H. Clark
Reviewed by Karla Huston

Dogs Dream of Running
John Lehman
Reviewed by Karla Huston

Walnut from Waterloo
Sue De Kelver
Reviewed by Karla Huston

Walnut from Waterloo
Sue De Kelver
Reviewed by Kris Rued-Clark

Drunk as a Lord: Samurai Stories
Ryotaro Shiba
Translated by Eileen Kato
Reviewed by Dana De Zoysa

Dr. Titiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation
Olivia Judson
Reviewed by Dana De Zoysa

Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2
Steve Stockman
Reviewed by Nancy Bird


March 18, 2012 Posted by | fiction, music, non-fiction, poetry, spirituality | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 6 / fall 2001


cbr 6 / fall 2001

Five poems
R. Virgil Ellis

The Girl Who Washed Her Hands
John Lehman

The Idea and Story Without Words
Frans Masereel
Reviewed by Chris Lanier

La Globalización Imaginada
Néstor García Canclini
Reviewed by Nancy Bird


March 18, 2012 Posted by | fiction, illustration, non-fiction, poetry | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 5 / winter 2000-2001


cbr 5 / winter 2000-2001

Fear and Loathing in Seattle
(Or: How I Almost Became a Serial Killer)

Cal Godot

Chris Lanier

The Stripping of Saint Joan
Noel Vera

critic clown
An excerpt
Paul Vos Benkowski

The Glass Cocoon
An excerpt
Christopher J. Jarmick & Serena F. Holder

Long Shot Odyssey
An excerpt
Walter Bruno

Non-Committal Blurbs
for Soft-Hearted or Weak-Willed Book Reviewers

William Ham

Redshift: Greenstreem
An excerpt
Rod Clark

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday,
Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights
David Margolick
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske

Planet Hong Kong
David Bordwell
Reviewed by Noel Vera


March 18, 2012 Posted by | biography, cinema, fiction, memoir, non-fiction, poetry, spirituality | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

cbr 4 / winter 1999-2000


cbr 4 / winter 1999-2000

Gonzago the Boy Wonder
From a work in progress
Cal Godot

For Harold Brodkey
Marcus Gray

Jan Levine Thal

Redshift: Greenstreem
An excerpt
Rod Clark

Waking from a Dream of Grief
A poem
David Steingass

Glass Cocoon
A poem
Christopher J. Jarmick

Eyes Wide Open: A Memoir of Stanley Kubrick
Frederic Raphael
Reviewed by Scott Von Doviak

Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana
Translated by Catherine Temerson
Reviewed by Bob Wake

At Home in the World
Joyce Maynard
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske

Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City
Nicholas Christopher
Reviewed by John Lehman

Katharine Whitcomb
Reviewed by Matt Welter

The Pocket Poetry Parenting Guide
Edited by Jennifer Bosveld
Reviewed by Matt Welter

Nobody’s Hell
Douglas Goetsch
Reviewed by Matt Welter

Natural Superior
Vol. 1, No. 1
Reviewed by Matt Welter


March 18, 2012 Posted by | biography, cinema, fiction, memoir, non-fiction, poetry, spirituality | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment