Comics review: The Lengths by Howard Hardiman

A love story about a male escort, told with dogs. What's not to like?

There's a long history in comics of using anthropomorphic animals to tell adult stories. Even people who have only passing acquaintance with the form know Art Speigelman's Maus, telling the story of his father's experience during the Holocaust using cats, mice and rabbits. Before that, Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo was telling the stories of a bodyguard in Edo-period Japan who happened to be a rabbit; and before that, Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat was freaking out squares with sexually explicit adventures in the underground comics of the 1960s.

Which is to say that there's pedigree (no pun intended) for Howard Hardiman's decision to turn the cast of his exhaustively researched series about a young male escort, The Lengths, into dogs.

That said, the characters in the book are more anthropomorphised than most of the examples above. Although they have canine heads, except for their claw-like fingernails and the occasional piebald skin, the rest of their bodies are largely human. That's probably for the best, given the amount of sex between the covers (no pun intended, again).

The Lengths examines the double life of Eddie, a young art-school graduate who half-falls, half-dives into life as a male escort. To his friends, he's a young man getting out of one serious relationship and into another; but to the people he meets through dating sites, classifieds and smartphone apps, he's "Ford" (as in, Escort – a pun only he seems to find funny), suffering an identy crisis while finding himself slowly more attracted to Nelson, the beefcake bodybuilder who got him into this world in the first place.

Despite Eddie's stress, the book is no preachy condemnation of sex work. Most of the drama comes not from meeting strangers in hotel rooms for drugged-up orgies (something which Eddie rapidly becomes so comfortable with that he is soon admonished by another escort: "Did you really have to check Twitter while you were pissing on the client? . . . I'm not sure it was the kind of abuse he was after"), but from his desire to keep that aspect of himself separate from his "real" life. That said, apart from some machinations involving two phones, one work and one personal, at times it seems his heart isn't really in it. After all, he lives in a London not of physical brothels (although an early, failed visit to one presents the book's darkest look at sex work), but of Grindr. How is his work any different?

That the tales of life as an escort ring so true is testament to the research that Hardiman carried out. Interviews with sex workers provided the factual background to the series, but the insight they gave him is fully rendered into fiction; there are no talking heads reading verbatim. Everything is presented through the eyes of Eddie, and the story doesn't take a backseat to the desire to impart knowledge.

Surprisingly, aside from aesthetics, the decision to cast the characters as dogs doesn't have a huge effect. The city is so recognisably our own, and the characters so true-to-life, that the distancing which you might expect to come from reading about people who are, literally, not quite human never quite arrives. And the times when it is a negative are rare, although two men with dog faces french-kissing will never look right.

The main benefits of Hardiman's decision are subtler. While it may not soften the emotional impact, it certainly removes some of the erotic charge of the book, and takes the edges off the most explicit scenes – which, it should be noted, are never that visually explicit. And there's no doubt that the various breeds of dog render the characters immediately visually distinct in a way some comics (particularly black and white ones, which don't have hair colour to fall back on) find troublesome.

In fact, there's a far bolder decision than dog heads in the book. Beyond the first of the eight chapters, Hardiman dispenses with two of the most important pieces of a cartoonist's toolkit: speech bubbles and captions. The vast majority of the book is presented with the text just floating near the characters, without even a line to indicate the speaker.

Usually, this works fine; the placement is clear enough, or there is enough context to work out who is saying what. But sometimes, the ambiguity is too strong. It only gets worse when Eddie's thoughts enter the picture. Occasionally, this produces a pleasing double meaning; but just as often, it leads to confusion.

The Lengths is an important work. It covers topics largely passed over even in prose literature, let alone the diversity-challenged world of comics. In giving a voice to the voiceless, Hardiman deserves praise - and behind the anthropology, the Lengths is a love story sweetly told. By the end, I wanted to see its leads together. And that's really all that needs to be said.

The complete The Lengths can be bought from the artist, £20.

The Lengths, Howard Hardiman.

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