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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism