If you like Garfield, you won't like this

Review: Richard Short's Klaus.

Klaus
Richard Short
Nobrow, 68pp, £15

Richard Short's Klaus the cat is lazy, prone to cod philosophising, and has four-panel "adventures" with dubious continuity between episodes. But if you dive in expecting something like an even more generic version of Garfield, the blandest of the US gag strips, you're in for a nasty surprise.

While Klaus owes a clear debt to the US comic strip form, it takes their broad structure and then subverts it, creating something altogether weirder. The strip is not unlike Greg Stekelman's Sad Jokes (sample joke: A man walks into a pub. He is an alcoholic whose drink problem is destroying his family.), in being syntactically similar, even identical, to something comforting and familiar, while aiming for an utterly different meaning.

If there's one strip in particular which Klaus is aimed at, it's Charles Schultz's Peanuts. The art — simple black-and-white linework — is similar, and certain visual cues give it away, none more so than Klaus lying on his back on a mound of earth. And Peanuts is less hard to subvert than you might think if your memories of the strip remain tinted with nostalgia. Charlie Brown's existential despair, and the meanderings the strip occasionally fell into in its later years, could have been lifted wholesale and put in Klaus.

Other links are just as evident, though. The Garfield connection shines through — there's only so much variation on the lazy cat theme, and all the variation in the world won't sever that link — as does the weirdness of Tove Jansson's Moomin strips. Short draws his cats, Klaus and Otto, as standard cartoon animals, but things take a turn for the strange at his portrayal of other species. Birds have hands, a dog wears glasses, and weirdest of all are the rats, who are drawn as six-inch high naked people with tails. One particularly bizarre strip (and choosing the oddest ones here is not an easy challenge) involves Otto seeing the rats just a bit too well rendered: their lithe, naked bodies cavorting in the grass for the first two panels (tails still fully present), before switching to the regular viewpoint and showing them running away from his leering eyes. The punchline, delivered by Otto as the last of the rats throws an acorn at him: "Sometimes I'm just overcome by the strength of my visual perception".

The next strip, incidentally, features two moles discussing the fact that a cloud looks like a cloud — "In moles, imagination is governed by reason!" — before "forest spirit" walks behind them into a hole in a tree, and lays in wait, "to feast upon the bounty of unwary travellers". The spirit has Otto's body and a homunculus' face. He is never seen again.

My favourite strip — one of the few with a real conclusion, and one which could, with swapped characters, pass unnoticed in a Peanuts anthology — involves Klaus being repeatedly told he's doing "that condescending look", eventually gazing into a pond and concluding that he must have "condescending features".

Occasionally a string of strips will develop into a proto-storyline, as happens when Klaus hatches an egg or Otto gets taken to court for pushing a rat over with a stick. While they serve to make the book more coherent, though, it's clear they aren't where Short's heart is. The stories generally skip beats, make no sense, and end abruptly.

You may have noticed I've been focusing on Short's influences, on my highs and lows, on the weird strips and the strange turns, and not saying anything, really, about the quality of the actual book. And that's because I honestly don't know. I want to hate it: it makes no sense. Nothing happens. The characters wander around, exchanging words, and then the strip ends. Lather rinse repeat. And yet there's something so charming about the whole thing that I can't bring myself to do so.

The best shortcut might be this: Take a few Peanuts strips. Cut out the last panel, shuffle, and stick them back in in a random order. If the resulting non-sequiturs and aborted jokes leave you feeling bored and uninspired, steer clear of Klaus. But if you still find the greatness of Schultz's creation shines through, if form alone can give you enjoyment, then maybe Klaus might be for you after all.

Photograph: Nobrow Press/Richard Short

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad