Review: Days of the Bagnold Summer

Joff Winterhart's debut comic, Days of the Bagnold Summer, has become, along with Mary and Bryan Talbot's biography/memoir Dotter of her Father's Eyes, the first graphic novel to be nominated for a Costa Book Award. The news was undoubtedly a significant moment for the medium, and raised a number of questions about the role of comics in relation to prose -– some answered thoughtfully, some… not so much –- which will clearly be argued over for some time to come.

In my view, it's a retrograde step to compare comics to a different medium. Few would argue that The Wire needs to be nominated for an Oscar, or that Newsnight's Paul Mason is done a disservice every time he's not awarded a "best broadsheet columnist" prize. The best comics ought to be praised as just that.

Bagnold Summer has been thrust into a position few would want, fighting not only for itself, but also as a poster-child for an entire medium. The book covers six weeks of the summer holidays of schoolboy Daniel Bagnold, 15, and his librarian mother Sue, 52. It is as neat a slice-of-life as you will find; Winterhart captures teenage angst perfectly, as Daniel mopes around the house, daydreaming about being in a metal band ("Skullslayer"), and occasionally leaving to sit with his one friend in the park, dressed head-to-toe in black in the hot summer sun.

The book is structured as though it's a collection of never-before-published newspaper strips. Each page stands alone as a vignette in the Bagnold's lives, and many small events are never picked up on again. Daniel, unable to sleep, drinks a two-litre bottle of coke at 2am; Sue mistakes a page of copied-out Metallica lyrics for a heartfelt poem by her son; the pair of them discuss their memories of Sue's American father, who left the country when she was young. But these moments build up to an impressively full portrait of the two leads.

In this way, it's not short, so much as economical. Shorn of much of the connective tissue that bulks up more conventionally structured books, every panel is crucial, included because of what it adds to the book, rather than simply placing the characters where they need to be for an "event".

With many slice-of-life tales, this lack of events can get wearying, as characters go about their daily routines impeccibly observed but in a manner which doesn't say an awful lot. Bagnold Summer avoids some of that with its compactness, but also with growth. It's not much, but Sue and Daniel end the book in a different place to where they began, and it's watching that change, as much as their normal lives, which is rewarding.

The economy of the book extends to its art. The comic-strip-style layout leads to a deliberately formulaic page -– six panels, with a one-word title -– while the panels often contain nothing but scratchy headshots of the characters. Backgrounds are rare, filled in only when they are necessary for the point of the scene. The style lends an air of theatre to the whole book, as though there are stage-hands running on with the props for the next scene between each page.

It is an art style which is functional, not beautiful. That is not to impugn Winterhart's ability as a cartoonist –- his characters are far more expressive than those found in many "mainstream" comics. In fact, he appears not to know how good he is, with the odd caption being slightly overwritten. One of the best tests of a cartoonist's ability is whether the page makes sense without words, and if it does, that might be a hint that there ought to be fewer there in the first place.

Maybe this style is what appealed Bagnold Summer to the Costa jury. It's not a book which a certain type of comics reader -– one "in it for the art" -– would enjoy, but with a story told mostly through dialogue and narration, a strict visual language, and coming as it does from an "acceptable" genre, it's as good a book as any to lead the way. It's just a shame that the more radical elements of the book will likely be lost on that panel.

Oh –and feel free to call it a "graphic novel" if you want. Not all comics are graphic novels, but this one certainly is.

Comics: an art form in their own right (Getty Images)

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