Homework with Aisle16 and Nick Hornby

Last Wednesday, some of the UK’s finest writers took to the stage to tell cautionary tales of adolescent adventure-tourism, the tragedy exchange-year students gambling away their allowances in alien European cities, and the crushing discrimination suffered day-to-day by bald men. Although this sounds like some sort of literary support group, it was in fact an instalment of Homework, a monthly evening of performances hosted by a group of talented and enthusiastic writers donned Aisle16, joined in this instance by special guest Nick Hornby.

John Osborne, author of celebrated non-fiction books The Newsagent’s Window and Radio Head: Up and Down the Dial of British Radio, was kind enough to explain how the group of writers formed and this singular night came to be: “I joined Aisle16 in 2008. At the time there were four members – Luke Wright, Ross Sutherland, Chris Hicks and Joel Stickley. I had known these guys since their early days – I was in the same year at university as Joel and Luke, and used to go and watch them at gigs around Norwich and at festivals so it was pretty exciting to be able to be a part. After spending years touring and performing pretty much non-stop, they invited me, Joe Dunthorne and Tim Clare to join. All of us were producing so much work and developing brand new shows, and there wasn’t really an opportunity for us to try out new material. So we created ‘a night of literary miscellany’, and now Homework is, pretty much, the whole creative output of Aisle16.”

Nick Hornby

“This season has been great. It’s been consistently good sized audiences, and we’ve put a lot of work into each night,” Osborne added. “Some of the nights during this run have been the most fun live events I’ve ever been part of, particularly Last Barman Poet, a show we performed based around the poem performed by Tom Cruise in the film Cocktail. At the end the whole audience were given a Tom Cruise mask and joined in a mass recital. I like the idea that at most nights there will be something particularly special, something to tell your friends about at work the next day. That’s happened this season too, with Tim Clare’s rap about Willy Wonka, and Summer Camp doing a cover of 99 Red Balloons. We are very lucky to have Homework, that it has developed and evolved and gives us the chance to carry out ideas which otherwise would never have life beyond conversations in pubs.”

Each instalment of Homework has a theme which is used to shape their performances. ‘Escape’ is the theme of the night in question, with each (strictly) unprompted performance arriving just about on the right side of chaotic, as the writers draw upon their own experiences of creative dissatisfaction and naïve misadventure with sensitivity, humour and subtlety. Luke Wright confides in the audience the scrapes of his early-twenties hitchhike to Africa. Overly romanticising the open road after one too many Kerouac novels, Wright admits with hindsight: “Growing up in the Home Counties as I did, it was unlikely that I’d ‘find myself’ in Morocco.” Even more depraved is Tim Clare’s tale of mid-twenties misadventure, told on the condition that the disclosure stays in the room, lest details somehow find their way to his dad via the handy work of ardent bloggers. Apologies readers, my hands are tied!

Joe Dunthorne’s story displays much of the heart and wit found in his novels Submarine and Wild Abandon. Travelling through India in a Rickshaw, essentially ‘a lawnmower encased in a cut price Gazebo’, Dunthorne and friends learnt the hard way why the Bihar district remains, as their guide book informs them, ‘off the tourist trail’, their progress halted by not only dense January mists, but illegitimate roadblocks constructed by local gangsters not afraid to board their snail-paced vehicle.

Both John Osborne and Nick Hornby mine their struggles to write novels whilst serving as English teachers for their respective anecdotes. Osborne, although a little out of sorts after dashing across town following a performance of solo show John Peel’s Shed (reviewed here: https://www.litro.co.uk/index.php/2011/06/15/review-stoke-newington-literary-festival/), delivers recollections of his year spent as a teaching assistant in Vienna, which are every bit as touching as his headline show, which was a deserving hit during its Edinburgh Fringe run this summer.

When Hornby takes to the stage, he admits he is somewhat unsettled, accustomed to reading rather than storytelling, and sensing that many members of the audience appear to have been born well after the period his tale takes place. In 1987, whilst idly playing a Trivial Pursuit machine, Hornby was asked by a passing police officer to appear in an identity parade. It transpired a Vietnam veteran had murdered a shop attendant in Soho, and once assured it was an inevitability the guilty party would be incriminated, Hornby agreed in the hope the experience might provide inspiration for his career-in-waiting. These hopes were supplanted by pure confusion and fear when Hornby was selected, with conviction, by the first witness, which he accounts to the fact that “those with hair cannot, for the life of them, tell bald men apart”. It all came down to the last witness, but fortunately for bookworms the world over, Hornby was not incriminated, instead “winning 2-1”.

John Osborne

Somewhere between storytelling and stand-up, Homework is uniquely shambling and charming. November 30th sees the last instalment of this year, and a screening of a brand new film in which each Aisle16 member is a poet resident in an improbable location. While Wright is somewhat modestly heading to his local library, Dunthorne is aiming for this Ritz. Clare has been denied his first choice: poet in residence in a poet’s residence. “He can’t laugh at himself, that’s Simon Armitage’s problem”, Wright quips. Wherever they end up, you’d be a fool to miss it.

aisle16.co.ukJohn Osborne’s show ‘John Peel’s Shed’ will return to London in 2012. See johnosbornepoet.blogspot.com

Preview: London Storytelling Festival 2011

London’s first Storytelling Festival launches on Saturday (1st October), and promises to celebrate the collaborative exchange of tales through a diverse series of events hosted at the Leicester Square Theatre. The festivals programme includes three individual shows from New York’s acclaimed writer and performer Martin Dockery, as well as a storytelling workshop run by the man himself, an evening of music and comedy in the form of Story Jam, plus a closing-night Gala featuring appearances from comic yarn spinners Mark Thomas and Phil Kay, as well as The Simpsons and Spinal Tap legend Harry Shearer. I spoke to artistic director and performer, Sarah Bennetto, about what we can expect from the first Storytelling festival.

What made you, as a team, decide to organise the festival, and how did it come to be?

Coming at storytelling as stand-up comics, as myself and the other organisers do, means that this is an exciting experiment for us. In the past, there wasn’t anything in the way of comedy clubs that celebrated ‘story’. You could certainly sneak a tale or two into your comedy club set, but until I started Storytellers’ Club, there wasn’t a place where comics could regularly come and tell stories as the rule (as opposed to the exception). The London Storytelling Festival feels like the logical next step for the movement. I’ve seen so many powerful and funny raconteurs pass through our club, and witnessed some really breathtaking narrative-based Edinburgh Fringe shows. So we wanted somewhere to celebrate it all in earnest, under one banner, so that more people could join in and see what’s been going on.

What made you chose to focus on oral storytelling?

The London Storytelling Festival is a week of live events, giving a voice to performed storytelling, and we hope to bring a really intimate ’round the campfire’ feel to proceedings. We even have a faux log fireplace, which if anything lends a late-night romance to the shows (plus an enviable 80’s tackiness).

Which part of the festival are you most excited about?

All the shows & workshops excite us, obviously. But the closing night gala show (on Monday 10th October) will be a right royal party. We have some of the most amazing performers from the world of comedy, film and music coming to show us a different side of themselves. This is Spinal Tap‘s Harry Shearer, Mark Thomas, Phil Kay, Judith Owen, Martin Dockery: they’ve all planned a special story about their lives to bring to the night. I am genuinely giddy with excitement, and terrified as hell (myself and Deborah Frances-White will be hosting the whole spectacular shindig). Come watch it all explode on stage. I can’t wait.

What do you hope the festival will achieve?

If the festival brings people together in celebration of shared stories, then that’ll be brilliant. The thing about the story projects we’ve run in the past, is that people always rave about the friendly and sometimes magical atmosphere. An evening spent in the tales of another human, is a really wonderful experience, so we’re hoping a week of such events is an unforgettable joy – one that people may want to repeat next year!


Elizabeth Sankey of pop duo Summer Camp was also kind enough to let us know a little about what audiences are in for when she and Emmy the Great will appear at Story Jam to pay tribute to the much beloved Sweet Valley High books. The evening will also feature performances from comics Isy Sutie and Gavin Osborn. Here’s what she had to say:

Emmy The Great and myself will be performing as our alter egos The Wakefield Twins. We come from a town in California called Sweet Valley and we’re forever stuck in the 90’s. So, as you can imagine, we’re quite overwhelmed to be on exchange this summer in London, Paris. I’m Elizabeth Wakefield. I’m a really serious journalist who completely adores books (I own over 7), so for me this is a great chance to influence some super clever book people with all of my knowledge about Shakespeare. My twin, Jessica, isn’t that interested in Literature but she’s an aficionado of fashion and culture – she’s just bought a new leopard print jumpsuit from a shop called ‘Out There’ so she’s really excited about wearing it at the festival. She had a question though – where should she put up her tent?

I personally can’t wait to sit amongst loads of fellow literary gems, and just imbibe the knowledge and cleverness that will be seeping from their pores. It’s going to be so fun for us to watch loads of other shows and see if they’re as hot/clever as us, and if they’re not judge them for it. I think Jess is most excited about seeing the Backstreet Boys. What day are they playing?

London Storytelling Festival runs from 1st-10th October.

The Wakefield Twins

Rob Fred Parker 

Jeffrey Lewis: Comic Artist, Musician & Filmmaker

Jeffrey Lewis

Jeffrey Lewis is a musician, cartoonist and self-proclaimed lo-fi filmmaker from New York. He is celebrated for his ceaseless creativity and unique performances, which combine art and music in the form of low-budget hand-drawn music videos and documentaries (such as his take on the French Revolution, filmed for the History Channel). As a tie-in to Litro #109: Comics & Graphic Fiction, I speak to the prolific artist about comics, creativity and his impending UK tour for his new album, A Turn In The Dream-Songs.

Do you feel fortunate that you’re able to incorporate your comics into your performances? Since, apart from perhaps Q&A events, cartooning is a very solitary pursuit, with few opportunities to present directly to an audience.
Absolutely, considering the fact that with music the touring element is an accepted part of the whole, so you are able to take your art out to people all over the world instead of staying at home waiting for the world to come to you.  Comic books are more in the stay-at-home-and-wait category, so it’s very lucky for me that I have a good way to take my comics out to the world via the music touring.  And the illustrated songs that I do in performances are another good way to combine the elements of both.

Do you think drawing allows a mental break from writing, which is consistently intensive?
Yes, there’s a different part of the brain that I use when the drawing gets past the idea/sketch part and can switch to autopilot. That’s my favourite part, whether it’s inking, or colouring, or an elaborate perspective drawing, or any other task that allows the verbal brain to take a rest and listen to music, that’s where I get a lot of music-listening done. Just putting on album after album while engaged in those tasks, that’s a great way to spend time. But the earlier planning stages of the comic stuff requires much more focus in a way that doesn’t allow me to talk to people or listen to music, just different parts of the brain. I once read that Daniel Clowes (author of Ghost World and David Boring) concentrates so much even on the inking of his comics that not only does he not listen to music, he actually has to wear headphones to block out all sounds, and that’s even at the parts of the process that I’d consider the “autopilot” parts.

Do you think it’s a shame that comic publishing seems to be moving more in the way of graphic novels, with less and less serialised comics being published these days?
I do prefer the regular comic book format. The days when I could go to a comic store once or twice a month and find a new issue of Peepshow, Underwater, Eightball, or Optic Nerve: you wouldn’t quite know what you were going to find that week, but chances are you’d find at least one new comic that you could be excited about buying for a couple bucks and reading on the train on the way home, or while sitting on a stoop on the street. Nowadays there’s no point in going to a comic store more than twice a year, because all the same artists are only releasing their work when they’ve got eight years worth of pages to compile into a giant tome. There’s no surprise about finding it, because now it’s treated like a new novel or movie or album, with advance press releases and book reviews and signing tours, so you know in advance exactly when this new big thing is going to be released. Plus it’s a bigger investment, both of time and money. Also, if the only really good comic books are coming out in only big book form then it even renders comic book stores obsolete, these big books are designed to be sold in bookstores so the comic industry is sort of backstabbing the comic stores that built up their fans in the first place.  That’s my take on it all, anyway.

Are their plans to make a ninth edition of Fuff (Jeffrey’s self-published comic book)?
Definitely, I just haven’t had time to start it because the album artwork for A Turn In The Dream-Songs ended up much more elaborate than I’d anticipated.  But I’m almost ready to print Fuff # 0 which is a 72-page collection of earlier comics from 1998-2001, all of the little comics that I used to use as advertisements for my concerts when I was first playing shows in NYC.  I had released this collection in photocopied form around 2002 but it’s been out of print for a long time and this new printing will be better quality, with more material.  It’s taking a long time to clean up and format all the pages but I’m almost ready to send it to the printer.  There’s a lot of other old comic stuff of mine that I might reprint too, maybe I’ll do a Fuff -1 and a Fuff -2, though really I should be getting to work on Fuff +9.

Can we expect to see any new music videos at the UK dates later this year?
I’ve got at least one new one that nobody’s seen yet, and a couple from last year that I barely performed live at all because I didn’t have them memorized, so I’d like to incorporate those into the upcoming shows at least a few times. I’ll bring some of my old music videos along, too. During our recent China and South Korea tours I performed my illustrated History of Communism in China, and my other illustrated history song The History of Communism in Korea. It was a great opportunity to see if I had gotten the stories right at all.

If I’m not mistaken, you spent some time studying in London. What was your impression of the city while you during your time there?
It was very exciting to be away from America for the first time. I was in Ealing for a few months in 1996, so it wasn’t exactly the heart of London or the heart of anything, but even living in the suburbs was a thrill to a kid like me who grew up in the city.  The guy that I shared my room with was a strange force in my life, we were at odds about many things but we both agreed that it was very important to not spend our little bit of money and little bit of time on anything pointless – instead we used our bit of cash to take weekend bus trips to Scotland, or hitchhike around Ireland, stuff like that.  We became so frugal that we actually decided to be homeless for a few weeks when the weather was warm enough.  We would stash our school stuff at the lockers in the school building and do our homework in the university library and then sneak into the park to sleep at night.  So we were doing all this travelling together and having this homeless experience, basically depending on each other for survival, even though we had some serious personality conflicts.

I remember stumbling on a small comic book shop that was selling original comic book pages, including original art pages from V For Vendetta and Watchmen.  They were only about £200 – 300 per page at the time, which of course was way out of my budget, all I could do was stare at them, but I’m sure that now those pages must be worth a small fortune.  I don’t think I’ve ever found that shop again in all the times I’ve been back to London, but I’m sure those pages are long, long gone in any case.

And of course Alan Moore’s comics informed a lot of my impression of London, because this was during the time when the From Hell series was coming out, concerning London history and architecture and city planning, so that was on my mind a lot during my time in London.

What can we expect from A Turn in the Dream-Songs?
I generally lean towards a more scattered batch of material, I think consistency has been sort of my enemy on most of my albums and concerts, but this new record is a lot more consistent than the albums I’ve done before, for better or worse.  It’s mostly the same musicians on every track, and all recorded in the same room, plus it’s the first time I’ve put out an official album that has zero input from my brother Jack (my usual bass player and occasional song collaborator).  So, this is sort of my first solo album in a way.

During your set at Brixton Windmill last May, there was a song with the lyrics: “time is going to take so much away, but there’s a way that time can offer you a trade: you better do something that you can get better at, ‘cos that’s the only thing time will leave you with.” Do the lyrics describe your motivation for creating?
That’s on the new album. The older you get, the faster time seems to go, everybody knows that. So how come people don’t wait until later in life to do things that take a long time? It would be so much faster to do a 3-year project when you’re 40 years old than it would be to do a 3-year project when you’re 20 years old.

A Turn in the Dream-Songs will be released by Rough Trade on 10 October; On the same day, Jeffrey will give a presentation of his artwork at London’s Rough Trade East. More information here.

For the full details on Jeffrey’s UK tour, click here.

Exhibition: Lee Friedlander: America by Car & The New Cars 1964

The New Cars 1964

Lee Friedlander is a Washington born photographer whose unique compositional vision has consistently won great acclaim over the past five decades. A new exhibition at the West End’s Timothy Taylor Gallery displays two complimentary projects by the influential artist: The New Cars 1964 and America by Car. Both collections are comprised of photos taken of, or inside, cars. Friedlander, however, professed “not to know much about, or care for” the vehicles – yet it is for this reason that the exhibition proves essential viewing.

The New Cars 1964 was the result of a commission by U.S. magazine Harper’s Bazaar, the fashion glossy tasking Friedlander with showcasing the soon-to-be-unveiled Buick and Ford models of that year. The 33 black and white photos in this collection all feature fresh-off-the-line automobiles, but never as the central focus of the composition.

Friedlander was primarily concerned with positioning the cars alongside iconography which he felt captured the romance of the American road, and he paid particular attention to contrasting the vehicle’s gleaming curves against rough textures and obtuse angles (which would become a distinctive trait of his work). He photographed the cars obscured by rusting garden furniture, in the reflection of shop windows, and through the weathered glass of a telephone box.

The images range from the slight and sublime to the ghostly and eerie, courtesy of Friedlander’s inventive use of reflections (a headless mannequin dominates the foreground of one, with a car just visible through a shop window), and don’t particularly capture the sense of glamour and speed the magazine had hoped for (he even places a car lost amongst a heap of worn tyres).

Straying far from the magazine’s favoured bold and clean style, the images were deemed too subversive, and ultimately bizarre rather than Bazaar. It was only very recently that Friedlander rediscovered the negatives, and, as the exhibition proves, what was Harper’s loss was certainly photography’s (eventual) gain.

The second collection, America by Car, documents Friedlander’s recent road trips across all 50 states with his customary 35mm Laika as companion. Every square-cropped image has been taken from inside a rental car, and resultantly each composition is dissected by the sharp angles of the cars’ interior, complete with intruding speedometers and air conditioning vents.

America By Car

Rather than capturing car-sick blurriness, Friedlander’s photos display a sharp clarity, suggesting the reflection and catharsis that travelling can afford. His use of light and sense of tone are inventive and wholly unique, and the glimpses of sweeping, unbounded landscapes through windscreens are stunning, alive with spontaneity and the romance of the road. The photographer’s sensitive attention to texture and use of reflections are apparent throughout, evident in the glimpses of the man himself caught in the side mirrors, all flecked with dried rainwater, and the contrast between the smooth leather of the interior and the grainy exterior landscapes.

The collection proves that instances of untouched, rural America can still be found, and we’re treated to glances at steaming industrial works, decaying restaurant signs, a smiling county sheriff, the unassuming glare of a herd of cows, and countless surreal, giant roadside animals. However, it seems the Coca-Cola signs, Christian slogans, and adverts promising ‘Hot Girls’ can’t be escaped entirely.

Las Vegas, Nevada

A composition featuring leafless tress piercing the sky, a slight glimpse of the photographer in the side mirror, and a church sign reading ‘LIVE IN RELATIONSHIP ARE LIKE RENTAL CARS NO COMMITMENT JUST RIDE’ (sic), represents perfectly Friedlander’s dryly humorous collection of photos that document, celebrate and immortalise his journeys in rental cars with an astounding commitment. The photographer may not have cared much for the plain aesthetics of cars, but his passion for the open road is communicated wonderfully.

The exhibition continues until 1st October at. More information can be found at timothytaylorgallery.com.

Rob Fred Parker

Adrian Tomine: the Raymond Carver of Illustration

Adrian Tomine

Adrian Tomine is an American cartoonist and illustrator whose distinctive, meticulous and elliptical style, complete with strikingly realistic characters and minutely observed dialogue, has earned him the label of “one of the greatest graphic novelists of our time”. Tomine’s comics delve into the lives of characters struggling with ingrained flaws and loneliness, striving to communicate or even connect with those around them: the eagerness of "Summer Blonde" (Summer Blonde)'s protagonist to bond with an attractive shop assistant soon leads to stalking; a young lady in "The Connecting Thread" (in Sleepwalk) is driven increasingly paranoid by personal ads she is convinced are addressed to her. These stories are sometimes melancholic and disturbing, but always deeply human, crafted with a deep sensitivity and honesty in the absence of conclusive resolutions.

Tomine self-published his series Optic Nerve while still at high school, and they are now published in issues by Drawn & Quarterly. His published comic books include Sleepwalk (1997); Summer Blonde (2002); Shortcomings (2007), Tomine's longest work yet, which details the failed relationships of neurotic Asian American Ben Tanaka; and Scenes from an Impending Marriage, a collection inspired by his wedding preparations, released earlier this year. Tomine's illustrations also appear on the covers and pages of the New Yorker. With the twelfth issue of Optic Nerve set to appear next month, I speak to the man himself about his influences, his evolving style and his creative process.

“Missed Connection”, The New Yorker, 8 Nov 2004.

In many ways, comics are like films on paper. Which filmmakers would you say have influenced your visual sense?

I don’t know that any filmmakers have really influenced my visual sense, at least not as the result of a conscious effort on my part. Applying cinematic techniques to cartooning is kind of setting yourself up for failure, because at best you can only approximate or translate many of the qualities that make movies so exciting. But certainly there are many filmmakers that I’ve admired and studied in terms of content and writing.  A few that spring to mind: Mike Leigh, Woody Allen, and Yasujiro Ozu.

The narration and dialogue in your work displays a flair for language and an ear for dialogue. Do you ever write prose?

Yes, I’m interested in other forms of writing like prose fiction and screenwriting, but I’m most focused on cartooning right now.

Which comic releases have you enjoyed reading so far this year?

The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes. I also just got a big stack of comics from a London publisher called Nobrow Press, and I thought it was really beautiful stuff. I’m not sure which volumes came out this year, but I love some of the comic strip reprint projects that are going on now, like Walt & Skeezix, Little Orphan Annie, and Peanuts.

Your work has been compared to Raymond Carver a number of times, presumably because you both portray characters at a loss of what to do with their lives, and present issues which are often not resolved by the end of the story. Is Carver a particular influence, and are there any other authors you would list as inspirations?

I love Carver, of course, but I’m not exceptionally well-read, so I actually discovered his work when his name started popping up in reviews of my comics. I felt obligated to acquaint myself with his writing so I wouldn’t look like a total troglodyte if it came up in conversation. I read that biography of him recently, and it was fascinating, but it also made me like him a little less, both as a writer and a person. But I’m an unapologetic fan of that whole school of realistic, modern short fiction. I love guys like Richard Yates, John Cheever, Andre Dubus. I’ll go through phases where I get burned out on that stuff and then get really interested in something totally different, but those are the kinds of guys I always go back to.

What can readers expect from issue 12 of Optic Nerve?

I just turned it in to my publisher this week, so I’m not really able to look at it objectively. All I can say at this point is that it’s a return to short stories and it’s in colour. I’m a great self-promoter, aren’t I? Actually, I feel like my life has changed so much in the past few years, and for better or for worse, that’s going to be reflected in my work.

Judging by the short preview, issue 12 of Optic Nerve seems to display the less realistic, perhaps more cartoon-like drawing found in Scenes of an Impending Marriage, rather than the style evident in your earlier work. Have you made a conscious decision to move in this direction?

The art style in my comic is certainly evolving. I kind of touched on this earlier when you asked about cinema, but lately I’ve been really trying to think about the unique qualities of cartooning (as opposed to the influence of other media such as cinema, illustration, etc.) and that’s naturally affected the way I draw. That said, part of the appeal of returning to the short story format was that I didn’t have to get locked into any one particular way of working. I think it keeps the inevitable insanity that affects all older cartoonists at bay somewhat if you’re not forced to draw the same thing the same way over and over.

This will be your first comic in full-colour. Why did you decide to work in colour for this issue?

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but I was working on my book Shortcomings for awhile, and was forced to stick with the black and white format. During that time, I started doing these little one-page colour strips for the New Yorker, and that got me even more eager to work in that way.

Was it daunting at first drawing for the New Yorker, considering the rich line of seminal illustrators they have featured, such as Saul Steinberg?

Oh, I was very intimidated, and it shows. If you find the first drawing I ever did for them, you can tell I was trying so hard that I ended up choking. I’m always grateful that they continued to give me work after that.

A man and a woman in separate subway trains share a glance. A woman receiving a delivery at her front door makes eye contact with her neighbour as he enters his shop front. A young girl cranes her neck to watch New York disappear as she is driven out of the city. Why is it that a lot of your illustrations for the New Yorker depict moments of fleeting contact?

That’s a good question! I don’t have a good answer other than maybe it’s a personal obsession or that it’s just a big part of living in a big city.

With illustration increasingly becoming a digital process, generally, how much of your work is on paper, and how much digital?

All the drawing is done by hand on paper, and the colouring is done on a computer. But even the colouring is fairly man-made. If I want a wispy cloud in the sky, I always draw it with a brush and then turn it into the appropriate colour rather than just using some of the tools in Photoshop.

You’ve said before that as far as social media goes, it’s not for you. The dialogue in your books strongly suggests you are very aware of the intricacies and minutiae of conversation. Your illustration “Facebook” depicts loads of speaking faces emanating from a woman’s computer. Is this why you dislike social media—voices fighting for attention, drowning each other out, language being stripped of subtleties?

It’s just not something I have time for anymore. Social media has already served it’s purpose for me: years ago, a friend of mine put me in touch, via Friendster, with a girl he knew in New York—and now we’re married.

Do you look back on your self-publishing days with fondness?

Yes. Not because I particularly enjoyed the grunt work of stapling comics and whatnot, but because it was the last time in my life when drawing comics was a pure hobby, unencumbered by the need to make a living.

“Little Children”, The New Yorker, 16 Oct 2008.

Is it correct that you used to use photos to capture facial expressions in your earlier work?

No. I’ve never used photo reference for anything other than background details like cars and architecture.

What are you working on at the moment?

An illustration for the New York Times Book Review and the next issue of Optic Nerve.

Optic Nerve: 12 will be released in the US in September. Many thanks to Adrian Tomine and the good people at Drawn & Quarterly.

Novel: Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne

2011 paperback cover

The follow up to 2008’s acclaimed Submarine, Joe Dunthorne’s second novel, Wild Abandon, takes as its focus a number of odd yet endearingly flawed characters practicing, in their words, “secular but authentic communal living” in South Wales.

Almost twenty years into its tenure, Blaen-y-llyn is becoming increasingly dysfunctional – and so, too, are its inhabitants. In the hopes of attracting much needed new, young members, and a reconciliation with his wife and daughter, commune founder Don sees drastic measures and overblown gestures as the only line of action, deciding upon an A-Level results party with a 10k sound system.

Right at the heart of the chaos is Don and Freya’s son Albert, an eleven-year-old who feels that a wave of destruction is poised to sweep through his life. In addition to his parents’ separation, he feels abandoned by his sister Kate, who leaves the community each day to study her A-Levels, and looks set to attend Cambridge once the autumn arrives. Additionally, it seems his only home-schooled peer, Isaac, is also set to disappear from his life. The ominous, astrological yarns detailing the end of the world spun by Isaac’s mother seem to Albert to account for the doom he senses brewing. The precocious young man becomes convinced of an impending apocalypse, and in the novel’s hilariously sordid climax, sees the rave his father has organised as the perfect time to distribute his words of warning.

Dunthorne’s talent lies in constructing characters from very minute observations. His portrayal of the complex idiosyncrasies of relationships often ring true. The author brings us vivid descriptions of the sights and smells of communal life – smell, especially; scent lies at the centre of the characterisation of each Blaen-y-llyn inhabitant. In many ways, Albert is desperate to become a teenager and expand his horizons, longing to “summon a bodily stench”, his own obscure marker of adolescence. Geodesic dome-dweller Patrick’s success in staving off the weed which racks him with paranoia can be gauged by the smell of bong water on his customary green fleece. Scent is used powerfully in the recounting of Don and Freya’s initial courting. In a reworking of one of the author’s earlier poems, the two meet as young students in a university swimming pool. As the author tells us, “the smell of chlorine would always remind them of their first kiss”, which takes place in the pool’s “intermediary foot-washing room”.

While the charm of Submarine was largely due to Oliver Tate’s skewed first-person narration, and his struggle to comprehend the complexities of his parents’ wavering relationship, Wild Abandon’s third-person perspective allows an objective account of the central couple’s history. The tale of three graduates (Freya, Don and jewellery artist/eventual Blaen-y-llyn resident Janet) and their naïve ideals dreamt up in university halls, which eventually lead to their foundation of a commune in rural Wales, is brilliantly funny, and perhaps warrants a novel by itself.

The idealistic threesome soon add their former landlord Patrick to their number, and after swiftly purchasing land, set about dreaming up policies to implement in their idyll. Don’s assertion that their children shouldn’t be passively subjected to advertising leads to Patrick’s invention of the “Ad-Guard”, a piece of shower-curtain which can be drawn over the television to obscure adverts from impressionable minds, an example of the clumsily whimsical innovations that abound the commune.

Dunthorne’s prose is fluid and elliptical, whilst also accommodating striking, figurative language, and achieving humour through incongruent images. When Patrick’s weed-induced paranoia reaches its apex, he manically flees from the commune, convinced his fellow dwellers are conspiring against him. He climbs a tree on the outskirts of the grounds and falls, and the search party finds him lying in the turning circle of a nearby housing development: “his thin boxer shorts were torn and stained, a purple testicle like a limpet against his thigh… his broken ankle, a half-deflated football, a geodesic dome, the skin dying, turning grey and dusty at the edges, and the impossible angle of his foot”.

It should be noted that Wild Abandon is not an attack on communal living or “alternative” lifestyles. Suburban life is portrayed with the same shades of disappointment and suppressed hope: when Kate leaves the commune to live with her boyfriend, she is struck by his family’s tedious, suppressed middle-class life. The novel speaks about idealism: how the constant struggles of life and rigours of relationships cannot be avoided through a lifestyle change, and how people inevitably grow apart from the beliefs they once held, as well as apart from one another.

Joe Dunthorne

There is a sense Dunthorne that has to juggle somewhat to accommodate the large number of characters central to the novel’s plot. While the humour found in Submarine had a certain immediacy and shock factor, Wild Abandon’s subtly crafted and slow building study of a community in slow demise delivers a memorable, implosive climax. Caveats aside, this is a wildly imaginative novel, its ambitious narrative a considerable departure from Dunthorne’s debut. The melancholic tone, dryly humorous dialogue and singular voice evident throughout make this an engrossing and affecting read. An excellent short story read on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb last month further suggests Dunthorne is an exciting author, with a lot still to say.

First published 4 August 2011. Available in paperback and ebook from Hamish Hamilton/Penguin.

Nightmares by the Sea: Brighton Rock and its adaptations

Brighton provides the atmospheric setting for Greene's novel and its adaptations
Brighton provides the atmospheric setting for Greene’s novel and its adaptations

A new film adaptation has brought attention once again to Graham Green’s 1937 masterpiece Brighton Rock. I took a trip down to Brighton, the beloved venue of my student days, to reacquaint myself with the city that Greene so vividly brings to life, and to see if the new adaptation can do justice to the novel’s slow-burning tale of murder, begrudging romance and seething guilt.

Brighton is a place alive with possibility – a city crammed into the space of a town.  I lived there for three years whilst studying, and having been away for about six months, the thought of taking a trip to reacquaint myself with the city seemed like the best way to re-read Greene’s novel in context. Many critics believe the novel’s brooding study of poisoned romance and fierce emotional suppression to be too big to contain in two hours of film, though filmmakers do seem to relish the challenge; Rowan Joffe’s new adaptation follows a 1947 film by John Bolting, famous for Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of the ill-fated anti-hero Pinkie Brown. Brighton Rock was written whilst Greene began to scrutinize his own Catholicism, spurred by both the socialist persecution of Mexico, and General Franco’s attack on Republic Spain. It was whilst travelling to Mexico that Greene witnessed the destruction of the towns and ruined churches, and he ‘began to examine more closely the effect of faith on action’. It was here that he corrected the proofs of Brighton Rock, a tale that began as a detective story, but became ‘a discussion … of the distinction between good-and-evil and right-and-wrong, and the mystery of the appalling strangeness of God’.

The story follows Pinkie, who becomes the leader of a small-time mob following the death of mentor Kite. Pinkie is introduced as a man who controls the city as if it were his own yard, whose face forms no expression and dead-grey eyes show no hint of humanity. The novel opens with a chase, Pinkie’s mob seeking journalist Charles Hale to revenge Kite’s death. As Hale runs about the seafront-crowds, flailing in fear, Greene’s prose is luminous; ‘he thought he could lose himself safely in a crowd, but now the people he was among seemed like a thick forest in which a native could arrange his poisoned ambush’. Every metallic glimpse of sun reflected by a chrome car bumper reminds Hale of the impending threat of the mob’s flick knives, ‘the thin wound and the sharp pain’.

But it is after Hale’s murder that Pinkie’s grasp of Brighton unravels. Greene shows the reader that beyond the composed veneer, Pinkie’s nails are bitten and the soles of his shoes are worn right through. He is a self-conscious 17 year old whose fear of dependence and determination to assert his potency as a gang leader entangles him in an escalating web of murder that he can’t escape. He is a character in turmoil, caught between adolescence and manhood, and his descent from kid to conflicted killer is mirrored by Greene’s description of a sea gull; ‘a gull dropped from the parade and swept through the iron nave of the Palace Pier, white and purposeful in the obscurity; half-vulture and half-dove. In the end one always had to learn’.

Pinkie is obliged to keep a waitress, Rose, sweet lest she provide evidence of his wrongdoings. Pinkie is terrified of being dependent, either on substances or people, as in his mind it is a sign of weakness. This is why he resolves to not touch alcohol, and why he is so disgusted by his creeping desire for Rose . He coolly dispatches with member of his own mob, but the creeping desire that grows for Rose horrifies him. Their relationship, borne out of obligation, breeds dependence, and this dawns on Pinkie whilst they stand in an alley after he has talked her parents around to their underage marriage; ‘‘You were wonderful”, she said, loving him among the lavatory smells, but her praise was poison: it marked her possession of him’.

Greene’s Brighton begins to conspire against Pinkie with constant reminders of his guilt; every gust of salt wind smarts the lips, carries the temptation of vice in the form of the smell of port on a woman’s breath, and transports music from saloon bars that delivers a foreboding sense of damnation. Integral to the intoxicating atmosphere he creates is music, with the sea breeze carrying refrains into Pinkie’s ears, or lyrics intersecting dialogue during conversations in saloons. During the aforementioned chase of the late Charles Hale, Pinkie tracks him down in a seafront pub, and their tense dialogue is intercut with lyrics being sung in the room next door. The song about fidelity and lost innocence is an ominous precursor to the trajectory of Pinkie and Rose’s relationship; ‘A wreath of orange blossoms, when we next met she wore; the expression of her features, was more thoughtful than before’. A witness to Hale’s murder, begins to follow the two teenagers in hope of incriminating The Boy, and this mirrored by the lyrics ‘The watchdog on our walks, talks, talks of our love’, which, Greene tells us, ‘bit, like an abscess, into his brain from the Palace Pier’.

Pinkie believes throughout the book that as long as he can keep Rose quiet, he can be saved from damnation by repenting once he is safe  – one confession ‘to wipe out everything’. But he realises by the novel’s conclusion he is in far too deep for his prayers to be answered, and that ‘only death could ever set him free’. This web of deceit and guilt is spun brilliantly by Greene, his prose marrying the grainy squalor and horror with the visceral and poetic.

But this is such a complex and slow-burning story that it is impossible to convey the seething complexities of the two character’s relationship bubbling under the surface in two hours. The two adaptations can only provide a sketch of Greene’s novel, with differing results. Joffe’s new film is set in 1964 against a context of youth-culture conflict, the year significant for the clashing Mods n’ Rockers, and as the last that the death penalty loomed as punishment in Britain. Other than these shifts, Joffe provides a relatively faithful condensing of Green’s novel, but one that ultimately fails to capture the sheer visceral urgency of the book. As mentioned, Greene’s luminous depiction of Brighton is, as much a character as any other which haunts Pinkie and Rose with its howling winds; Joffe’s adaptation fails to capture the thick, salty tension of the book.

The Bolting film, made in 1947 under a context of strict censorship, did not have the option of explicit depictions of violence, and thus had to convey the torment of its central characters implicitly through tense dialogue and a soundtrack that elicits skips of the heartbeat. The dialogue-free chase scene in which the mob hunt Hale is inspired, and Bolting’s use of music and haunting lyrics is faithful to Greene’s text (Joffe’s mostly instrumental soundtrack misses  a trick here). The 2011 production brings the violence of the story to the screen in a truly graphic way, but is no more effective as the underlying sense of impending horror is missing.

However, there are many decent moments in Joffe’s film. The finest arrives when Pinkie is haunted by the shrill cries of a new-born emanating from the bedsit next door, shortly after Pinkie begrudgingly consummates his marriage to Rose. But Sam Riley fails to do justice to Greene’s deeply conflicted character, and the sense that Pinkie is caught in a transition between adolescence and the horrors of the adult world is lost. In contrast, Richard Attenborough made an excellent Pinkie; all twitches and bile, a kid who truly ‘held intimacy back as long as he could at the end of a razor blade’.

Ultimately, Greene constructed a complicated and slow-burning tale of its characters wrestling with hatred, love and absolute fear of eternal damnation at the same time, and this is immensely hard to portray within the confines of cinema. In Greene’s novel, the grainy squalor of the story is coupled with a lyrical tenderness, a balance difficult to emulate. But I’m sure Joffe’s will turn new generations onto Greene’s outstanding book, as well as the Bolting’s film, so that new generations can join Pinkie in the discovery of ‘the greatest horror of all’.

Rob Fred Parker

You can find out more about the recently released film adaptation of Brighton Rock at the BBC Films website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfilms/film/brighton_rock