A strong debut with a compelling style somehow fails to nail the pacing.

S.J. Harris
Jonathan Cape, 280pp, £14.99

Eight-year-old Eustace is a very sickly boy. Confined to bed through some unknown malady, he whiles his life away dreading the thin reedy soup (the only thing he can keep down); avoiding the affections of his innumerable aunts; and chatting to us, his imaginary strangers. He used to have imaginary friends, but then they were mean to him in the park, so he stopped speaking to them.

Were the struggle to just survive not such an occupation, the oddities of his life would give him much to tell us about. One day, Eustace's brother, Frank, joined the army to meet men — which, in 1936, is a relatively ballsy thing to do — causing his mother to go into a near-terminal decline. She gave the servants the day off, and went to bed, leaving no-one to bring him any food. Quenching his hunger with narcotic cough syrup is one way to deal with that problem, but perhaps not the smartest.

Then Eustace's uncle crawls out from under his bed, on the lam from the law. His secretary follows soon after. And then the booze and prostitutes arrive…

If it's not clear, Eustace is a strange book. The plot continues getting weirder from thereon in, and ends rather abruptly in a manner which is both the logical end-point and deeply fucked-up. A short epilogue in the form of a newspaper clipping provides the only real resolution any of the characters get, and emphasises how a book which begins as a potentially realistic story told through the heightened experience of a child goes well off in a different direction.

There is a clue from the start that odd things were going to happen though, and that's Steven Harris' artwork. One of the particular joys reading comics offers is the chance of synchronicity between artistic style and thematic elements, and Harris offers that in abundance. Rendered, as best I can tell, entirely in pencil and with copious amounts of white space marking Eustace's fitful drifts into and out of sleep, the most immediately noticeable aspect of Harris' style is his figure work.

Eustace looks thin, wan and sickly; his eyes are sunken deep into his head; his straw-like blond hair is combed-over in a way which suggests premature baldness. But the thing is, those are traits he shares with all Harris' figures. Even the big, boisterous Uncle Lucian, who crawls out from under Eustace's bed and turns his life upside down, has the same cutting cheekbones and thin lips.

While the similarity starts off as a distraction, it soon becomes clear that Harris' intentions are more subtle. The similarity between Eustace and "Oubliette", the first of many prostitutes who ends up in his room, becomes a minor plot point, while Frank and Eustace's mother's appearances aren't exactly supposed to make them look hale and hearty either.

Similarly, a minor confusion at the start concerning Eustace's asides to the reader is inverted quite wonderfully as it becomes clear that they are less aside than we think — and raise further questions about the poor boy's health.

But it does all come back to that odd narrative. Weirdness is good, but when it extends to the pacing, which it does here, it's less commendable. The whole structure of the book is someone with their foot on the accelerator of a clapped-out car pointed straight at a wall. It very slowly builds steam, eventually reaches a viable cruising speed, but then never quite slows down, and, eventually and suddenly, stops, causing pain for all concerned.

It's not the first time that's happened to Eustace, either. The story has its roots in a comic Harris did on the BBC's h2g2 website (a sort of proto-wikipedia based on the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which ended up being more of a weirdly-laid-out forum where a lot of the first wave of Britain's online creatives congregated) which was itself suspended abruptly after six months. Harris' other cartoon series, Paper Cuts, lasted over two years, and he returned to the site to pencil a further three last spring.

In a way, then, the book has been a decade in the making. Given the level of craft evident from a nominally first-time graphic novelist, that's not something which will surprise you by the time you finish it. But the finish itself may be less to your taste.

Images: S.J. Harris/Jonathan Cape

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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis