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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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