Review: Lose #4

Alex Hern reviews an unexpected "fashion issue" of Michael DeForge's comic.

Lose #4
Michael DeForge
Koyama Press.com, 44pp, CDN$8.00

When you buy a comic described as "the fashion issue", normally you know vaguely what to expect. If it's not actually stories about clothes, then it is stories involving fashionable people, stories about the world of fashion, or just lots of pictures of people looking good. With Michael DeForge, you can be certain that you won't get what you expect.

Lose #4 — the fashion issue — is lead by two stories. The first shows at a teenage boy's literal metamorphosis into a leather-and-studded punk; the second is an examination of the lives, fashions and mating habits of the Canadian royalty. Neither of them start, or finish, or do any of the in-between bit, quite like any other short story I've read before. I mean… look, the very first page of the book features a couple having sex as they watch a porn film featuring newspaper comic stalwarts Dilbert and Nancy. It doesn't get any more conventional from there.

The first of the stories, "Someone I Know" is most reminiscent of other works, particularly Charles Burns' coming-of-age classic Black Hole. David, a young film-school student, takes a girl to a new club, Grand Room, to show off. He realises his mistake when he gets in and sees the leather everywhere; Grand Room is a sex club. But when David wakes up the following morning, there's a metal stud poking out of his arm, and it won't come off.

The cover of Lose #4

"Someone I Know" is followed by the stranger still Canadian Royalty: Their Lifestyles and Fashions. Presented as an anthropological guide, DeForge explains the life of the Canadian royalty. Not, mind you, Queen Elizabeth and co. The Canadian royalty are, instead, a semi-human race with their own customs, physiology and, above all, fashions. "If a royal ever undresses, he or she is stripped of his or her title. A famous example of this is Princess Charlotte's public disrobement on national television."

The common thread between the two stories is the freedom they give DeForge to show off his wonderful sense of design. The studded, buckled and leathered outfits of Grand Room, and the ludicrously elaborate and malproportioned robes of the Canadian Royalty, are both things which you can get lost in, mentally mapping every seam, every change in texture, every safety pin and fold of fabric. For good reason, the Canadian royalty section in particular is broken up with galleries of the royals themselves — Margrave Blunder (1945-2001), Prince Theodore (1987-present), Viscountess Mary Pillow (1952-2009) and so on.

The names should give a hint as to the sort of humour DeForge employs. He has much time for silliness — not just the weirdness of the stories, but also things which would be more at home in a Python sketch. A character, handed an x-ray by his doctor, points out that it's actually an ink drawing. The doctor ignores him and carries on. The lives of the royals are ghoulish, but Princess Charlotte flopping on the floor after disrobing for the first time in her adult life has a dark edge to it.

But the best piece in the book is the one which is played far straighter. "The Sixties" is the beginning of something out of the Twilight Zone. A teenage girl narrates her perfectly normal life in a town where everything has a disease called stacyface. It only has one symptom: your face becomes Stacy's. It starts with typical DeForge weirdness, as she meets a deer in the forest with the same face as hers. But the sheer normalcy of so much of the rest of the story — the lack of the over-the-top oddities of the others — gives it a very different, and far more unsettling, feel.

It's still weird seeing, like, old man bodies with stacyface. Babies, too. Fuck this fucking town!

A page from Lose #4. Image: Koyama Press

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

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 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496