Comics Review: Adamtine by Hannah Berry

Hannah Berry's horror story succeeds in doing something seemingly impossible: providing shocks in a comic.

Adamtine
Hannah Berry
Jonathan Cape, 104pp, £14.99

Horror is notoriously tricky to do in comics. The medium occupies an unhappy midpoint between film and prose, inheriting many of the weaknesses — when it comes to frights — from each, and few of the benefits.

The visual aspect often tempts writers to follow filmic routes to fear: shocks and violence abound, and slasher comics are almost as common as slasher flicks. The problem is obvious. No matter how skilled the author is, the reader controls the passage of time in a comic book. A shock can only come as fast as the turn of a page, and nothing can ever really jump out at you.

At the other side of things, though, comics don't rely nearly so much on your imagination as prose does. The scariest things are the unseen; but a comic full of the unseen is frequently just a lot of talking heads. It might succeed in inspiring fear, but it's not using the medium to its full potential.

That's one reason why body horror gets such a strong showing in comics. It succeeds in unsettling, rather than shocking, and is one of the styles where the longer you look at the page, the more upsetting it gets. Jeff Lemire and Travel Foreman's Animal Man, or Si Spurrier and Javier Barreno's Crossed: Wish You Were Here (a very NSFW comic, that one) trap the eye on distended monstrosities, which you can't quite turn away from; while Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos' Alias arc "Purple" and Neal Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg's "24 Hours" in Sandman both presented stories of control and submission in ways which left me uneasy for weeks.

Adamtine can be seen as an attempt to do horror in a more traditional way, while using the quirks of the medium to ratchet up the fear. The mission statement, of sorts, is there on the cover: train tracks disappearing into the darkness, and then, at the very top, in black varnish on a black background, a sunken face peering out. The whole book is filled with motifs like that: hidden images, themes and plot elements which combine to, hopefully, trigger that part of your subconscious which warns you that something is deeply wrong.

The book opens in the aftermath of the disappearance of Rodney Moon, "The Postman", accused of being a serial killer whose modus operandi was to deliver notes to his victims describing some minor reason for their disappearance. Moon denied being the killer, but admitted to passing on the notes for the real culprit — a "bogeyman", with no name.

Four people, seemingly unconnected to each other and to the events involving Moon, are on a train out of London. But the train breaks down, and then the passengers disappear, leaving the four alone to face… something.

The plot has a structure similar to the sort of thing early Christopher Nolan films were known for. What seems like an incredibly complicated, multi-layered and time-jumping story comes together at the end in a way which makes you feel smart for being able to put it together into a linear narrative. You aren't that smart; it's just well-written. But try to ignore that fact.

There is a second layer to the book, one which rewards a further read-through, and that's the layer of references and hidden symbols. Adamtine clearly has an entire second narrative hidden away — the one the book opens after the conclusion of — and it's possible to discern a surprising amount of what happened through careful reading.

It's also possible to find, dotted throughout, more skull faces like those on the cover; and sly nods to earlier or upcoming events. This only goes so far though. While compelling, it also encourages a tendency to treat the book like a narrative version of Where's Wally; to overlook the forest because you're too busy trying to count all the trees.

Where the hidden images excel is in doing something seemingly impossible: providing shocks in a comic. As the creeping unease of the book unfolds, suddenly realising that the page you have been staring at for a couple of minutes has been staring back at you is a very unsettling feeling.

Oh, and one last thing: if you travel by overground rail, don't read this until the summer. Finding yourself on a train in the dark after finishing it is not a pleasant experience.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era