Dots and Dashes

Namara Smith

  • Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
    Granta, 203 pp, £16.99, June 2018, ISBN 978 1 78378 490 5

The most arresting scene in Beverly, the first book by the American cartoonist Nick Drnaso, arrives midway through a story – one of six – called ‘The Lil’ King’. A boy sits outside a locked motel room as rhythmic groans emanate from the other side of the door: his parents have stolen a moment alone, thinking the kids are at the pool. It is the last family road trip before his older sister goes away to university, and the boy, Tyler, is at the stage of puberty that makes family road trips a trial. All day, he has been dreaming of literally opening people up, focusing intently on the space between women’s thighs, trying to see through their clothes, imagining himself carving a long slit in a man’s chest to expose his entrails.

Alone in the motel room that night, Tyler attempts to re-create what he heard. He arranges his sister’s matching bra and thong seductively on a pillow, and just as he is about to climb on, the door opens: it’s his sister, followed by his parents. Back in the hallway, humiliated, he imagines himself as a beefy adult man in a black ski mask, beheading and dismembering a group of older boys he thinks are laughing at him. When his father, embarrassed, assures him that his feelings are ‘nothing to be embarrassed about’, he is still surrounded by this carapace.

Drnaso’s second book, Sabrina, the first graphic novel to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize, is a longer, more elaborate study of the desire for initiation and the fear of exposure. The title comes from the name of the young woman who disappears in its opening pages. ‘It’s one of those horror stories you hear about,’ another character explains as the story begins to circulate. ‘She just never came home.’ Surveillance footage from the night Sabrina vanished shows her a block away from her apartment in Chicago, then nothing. A month later, her bus pass is mailed to her parents. Soon copies of a videotape showing a woman who matches her description being killed by a man in a black ski mask are sent to news stations across the country. On the package is an Illinois return address. The landlord tells the police that his tenant, a 23-year-old called Timmy Yancey, rarely left the building and had few visitors besides his mother. In the bathroom, they find a set of neatly folded black clothes and a black ski mask. Lying in the bathtub, which is filled with water the colour of blood, is the body of a young man, his mouth still curved upward in a faint smile.

Despite its premise, Sabrina is not a thriller in any conventional sense. The identity of the killer is revealed in the first third of the book, and the crime itself goes mostly unrepresented. We never see the video or learn what kind of murder it shows. Instead Drnaso documents the reactions of others. One strand of the novel is concerned with the spectators who consume the death from a distance. After the story breaks, it becomes a viral sensation. News crews swarm around the grieving relatives, Sabrina’s name trends briefly on Twitter and digital voyeurs mob the internet trying to find footage from the video: ‘link’; ‘I NEED to see this.’ The other strand follows Sabrina’s intimates, suffering the double blow of her death and the public spectacle surrounding it. The main character is Sabrina’s boyfriend, Teddy, a Kurt Cobain lookalike with slumped shoulders and a ratty army jacket. Jobless, apparently carless, he is first seen at the train station in Denver waiting to be picked up by his friend Calvin, a serviceman at the air force base in Colorado Springs. After Sabrina’s disappearance, he suffered ‘some kind of nervous breakdown’, and, fleeing her family and the media, has gone west to start again.

The book’s action is set in a largely empty landscape. After Calvin picks Teddy up at the station, we see the two driving wordlessly along a deserted stretch of highway, the sun setting in a wash of pale yellow light, the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in the distance. In the next scene, Calvin is showing his friend round his rented condo: bare walls, window blinds, a concrete patio, a room with a mattress on the floor for Teddy. Drnaso’s style is flat, deliberately restrained, with little variation from panel to panel. The bland settings – the apartment, the featureless military complex – seem to allow the suspicion that nameless horrors are lurking. Most of the scenes take place at night or indoors. The visual monotony and muted colours, all muddy yellows and greys, contribute to the impression of stuckness.

At a distance Drnaso’s characters, most of them the same pallid shade of beige, are difficult to tell apart. Their heads, slightly too small for their bodies, like turtles poking out of their shells, give an impression of vulnerability. Their faces, drawn with pinprick eyes and small, hard lines for mouths, are equally interchangeable – locked doors that give you no hint of what’s behind. Rather than acting as a sedative, the sameness produces a heightened alertness. You find yourself scanning the faces – all dots and dashes like Morse code – trying to decode the signals. The one expression it’s impossible to misread is anger, which suddenly gives the faces definition, menacing lines, teeth.

Though the book is named for a woman, the central relationship is the one between the two men (in this, it is like Billy Wilder’s movie Sabrina). Teddy is the rebel, Calvin, with his minivan and buzz cut, the square. One of the book’s stray moments of comedy comes when Calvin attempts to set house rules, by solemnly informing Teddy that ‘my room is the only one that’s off-limits.’ In the adjoining panel, we see a featureless cube with some clothes strewn on the floor, indistinguishable from every other room in the apartment. On the night Teddy arrives, the two men sit rigidly at opposite ends of the couch eating pizza. They seem most comfortable in motion – driving back from the station, or walking down the hall in the apartment. In a room together, they are guarded. Teddy is obviously in shock: monosyllabic, unable to keep down his food, threatening suicide. ‘I just want her to come back,’ he says, head buried in his hands. ‘This can’t be happening.’ Calvin has suffered his own more ordinary loss – his wife has left him and taken their daughter to Florida – but it doesn’t seem to have sunk in yet. It’s been months, but the room he gives Teddy is still piled high with brightly coloured children’s toys and he proudly shows off the guns he bought to protect the family that is no longer there. The TV is showing a programme about the anniversary of 9/11 (‘the big 2-0’ is ‘just a few years away’, an announcer chirps), and the baseball caps and high heels preserved under glass in the crypt-like underground museum reflect their own frozen sadness. Teddy falls asleep on the couch, and Calvin awkwardly carries him to bed and helps him get undressed. Later that night, Teddy screams in his sleep, and Calvin runs into his room, gun in hand, ready to defend them against intruders. The resulting scene – two pale, unmuscled men together on a bare mattress in the kind of underwear no one else is ever meant to see – is intimate, even tender, but with a suggestion of violence. The next morning the loaded gun is still lying in the middle of the mattress where Calvin left it.

In one of the stories in Beverly, set in the early days of the War on Terror, the rumour that a teenage girl has been raped by a sinister Middle Eastern stranger spreads quickly through her Illinois town and leads to attacks on Muslim immigrants. Sabrina’s death doesn’t provide an opportunity for this kind of catharsis. Timmy Yancey was a 23-year-old white man whose sweetly diminutive name echoes Teddy’s own. When Calvin, lying in bed with a laptop on his chest, types Yancey’s name into the search bar, the first image result is a boyishly smiling face against the blue background of a school photograph. Who was Timmy Yancey? News websites, after scouring his internet presence, report that he was active on men’s rights forums, and interested in bodybuilding, organic farming and theoretical physics. His last post, a list of his fifty favourite movies, ended: ‘bye for now.’ A magazine publishes a six-part investigative report on ‘The Man behind the Mask’, asking ‘What have we learned?’ and ‘Who is to blame?’

The crime itself is oddly anachronistic. It’s more than twenty years since David Foster Wallace placed a lethally entertaining video cartridge at the centre of Infinite Jest. Who records a videotape these days? Who sends out dozens of copies of that tape by mail? When the first tape surfaces, at a local news station in Chicago, the confused employees have to dig out an old VCR in order to watch it. Drnaso devotes more than a page to their fumbling attempts to make the machine work. When the footage leaks online, it is downloaded, according to one excited commentator, ‘about five million times per hour’. The virtual rubberneckers downloading it surreptitiously at their desks are followed by the crowds enraged by this fresh violation, the commentators bemoaning the corruption of modern life, and the conspiracy theorists questioning the official story. It is the last of these groups to which Sabrina devotes the most attention. Up to this point, about halfway through the book, it can be read as an indictment of technological voyeurism: all those creepy lurkers greedily consuming the pain of others. But, as Teddy becomes increasingly obsessed with a radio show whose host claims that Sabrina’s death was staged, the division between her grieving relatives and the spectators projecting their own fantasies onto her death blurs – and the novel becomes more interesting.

‘It used to be that the peasants would toil in meaningless servitude, unable to see the big picture, without a chance to break the cycle,’ the radio host declares. ‘Now we have computers to help us do our research. Suddenly, the rhythms and patterns of oppression and deceit since time immemorial come into startling focus.’ He cautions his listeners not to take ‘the sanitised information’ around Sabrina’s murder at face value. ‘I encourage all of you amateur sleuths out there to read through it closely, looking for the discrepancies, inaccuracies, distortions and outright lies that seem so easy to spot if you’ve trained your cynical eye.’ When watching the video, they should ‘resist’ their ‘initial reaction’ and examine it dispassionately, ‘like a frog in formaldehyde’. Why does the killer seem to talk to someone off camera at one point? Why would he wear a mask if he sought notoriety for his crime? ‘Maybe forces too evil to comprehend did in fact murder a woman named Sabrina Gallo. I just don’t think a man named Timmy Yancey is responsible.’ When Calvin, surprised by a TV news crew in his driveway, is caught on camera getting Sabrina’s name wrong (‘I didn’t even know Sandra’), digital vigilantes pounce on the slip as evidence that he is a crisis actor paid by the government. The next day, he sees his own deer-in-the-headlights face made into a meme, with arrows reading ‘liar!’ pointing at his head. Online, dozens of readers are already making death threats and congratulating themselves on not falling for such an obvious fake.

The radio host’s monologues are the centrepiece of the book; Teddy listens on a child-sized boombox that must have belonged to Calvin’s daughter. There is no obvious political orientation to the rants beyond a vague populism (‘I don’t like these bullies running around treating people like dispensable cogs’), but its host, Albert Douglas, is clearly modelled on Alex Jones, the far-right radio show host known for claiming that Sandy Hook, 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombings were all fabricated by the US government. The broadcasts are in his paranoid style: the obsessive tabulation of evidence, the Manichaean logic, the dark hints about the ‘shadow government’ and the ‘order of chosen men’, the sense that time is speeding up, heading towards a nebulous catastrophe. Douglas claims that the images on our screens are manufactured by shadowy forces as a way to keep ordinary people inactive and isolated. The perpetrators are sometimes described as diabolical agents of a vast conspiracy, sometimes in more personal terms. ‘I don’t like feeling restrained,’ the radio says as Teddy sits in his darkened room staring at the snow outside. ‘It’s this feeling like you want to run and play, innocent and carefree, and this father figure is holding you back. I don’t want any part of it.’ At the conspiracy’s core is a sense of dispossession: the conviction that somewhere out there is a more authentic world from which the host and his listeners have been shut out. ‘I recall the quality of life when I was a boy. Better food, better music, greener pastures. Even apples don’t taste as good as they used to. Where have we gone wrong?’

For most of the book Teddy is in acute physical distress, throwing up after every meal, having trouble getting up, dependent on Calvin’s assistance for the simplest tasks. Lying motionless as Calvin stoically hand-feeds him a cheeseburger, Teddy has a squinting, skinned-rabbit look. Part of grief can be a withdrawal from the world, but Drnaso suggests it can also be a particularly violent form of immersion in it. Not every loss takes place under the glare of the 24-hour news cycle, but perhaps it always feels as if it does.

Paranoia energises Teddy, restores him to himself. Listening to the first broadcast, he is curled up in the foetal position; by the third, he is standing up, ready for action. As the conspiracy theories around the murder spiral – Sabrina never existed; she is living with the Sandy Hook victims at a black site in the Pacific – Teddy’s distrust settles on someone close to home. Why does Calvin act like he’s hiding something? Why does he keep telling Teddy he has to rush back to work? What does he do there all night anyway? Of all forms of love, Eve Sedgwick wrote, suspicion is the one that demands least from its object; once it has you in its sights, nothing you do or say can shake it off. It is clear to the reader, if not to Teddy, that the only thing Calvin is hiding is his own inadequacy. The air force base consists of offices lit by fluorescent tubes and empty corridors; his work, as an IT technician, is routine, and his cubicle-mates never seem to notice when he’s gone. He tells Teddy he’s at the office and his commanding officer he’s with Teddy, and uses that time to drive aimlessly around. When questioned, Calvin assures Teddy that ‘mine is a desk job, truly,’ but his slight smile when he says this is impossible to read: is it a mark of sincerity or a cunning imitation of it?

One of paranoia’s singular properties is its ability to turn its targets into fellow sufferers. Hearing the murmur of the radio from Teddy’s room late one night, Calvin’s own suspicions are roused. The tension comes to a head in a wordless sequence: the two stand, in almost identical postures, on opposite sides of Teddy’s closed bedroom door. Teddy is crouching, knife in hand, inside the room; Calvin is hesitating, his hand on the knob, in the hallway. The moment passes: Calvin takes his hand away and leaves a bag of fast food by the door. The next day, Sabrina’s murder is displaced from the TV news by a mass shooting at a daycare centre in Denver by a young man the media anoints ‘the new face of evil’. The cycle begins again. ‘Simple pleasures no longer suffice. My senses have been dulled to the few things that used to make me happy,’ the killer says in the video he streams on Facebook before walking into a room of children with a gun. ‘What am I supposed to do, live an unappreciated life and be forgotten for ever?’ It would be a start.