Audrey Niffenegger's Raven Girl: the return of the illustrated book?

Alex Hern finds that sometimes it's better to let someone else illustrate your words.

Raven Girl
Audrey Niffenegger
Jonathan Cape, 80pp, £16.99, 2 May 2013

A recent New Yorker piece by Sam Sacks made an impassioned call to Bring Back The Illustrated Book!, in the vein, apparently, of Bleak House, Vanity Fair, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. "The interplay between art and text is rich with possibilities that few fiction writers have even begun to explore," he wrote, sparking a "hmmm" from fiction writer and practised explorer of the interplay between art and text Warren Ellis (author of the novels Crooked Little Vein and Gun Machine and the graphic novels Transmetropolitan, Planetary, Global Frequency, Freakangels, RED, and many more).

The fact is that the illustrated novel never went away; it just moved from being filed in "Fiction A-Z" to "Graphic Novels" in Waterstones.

Obviously there remains a difference between a graphic novel as most would understand it and an "illustrated novel". There is a language of comics — speech balloons, thought bubbles, and the like — which is absent from illustrations like George Cruikshank's art in Oliver Twist.

Nonetheless, authors and artists of comics seem far more willing to drop the conventions of their form than prose writers do. Jeff Lemire turned two issues of his post-apocalyptic Sweet Tooth on their side (literally), and scripted them in the style of a children's book; artist Becky Cloonan illustrated Bram Stoker's Dracula; and even in the safe and predictable world of superhero comics, Grant Morrison managed to release an issue of Batman which read like an illustrated short story (unfortunately, the computerised style of John Van Fleet, the illustrator, was universally reviled).

Now, however, Audrey Niffenegger is coming at the cross-over from the other direction. The author, most famous for her debut novel The Time Traveller's Wife, has released a new novella, Raven Girl. Niffenegger, an accomplished draughtswoman, has also illustrated the book, which she describes as a "new fairytale". Naturally, containing both words and pictures, it ended up on my desk.

Initially, I was disappointed. The book is "illustrated" in the most literal sense: Niffeneger draws what is being described in the text. There is no drive to use the images to expand on, or even better, juxtapose with, the prose. A passage of a man watching his Raven-wife fly into the air is illustrated with a picture of a man watching a raven fly into the air. Raven girl at a lecture in university is illustrated with a picture of a girl in a lecture theatre. And so on.

Niffeneger is, bizarrely, on the back foot by virtue of having written the actual book. She won't elaborate on her own words, because she knows exactly what she meant; yet she was clearly writing prose which was later illustrated, rather than writing prose to be illustrated. The art is understated, pretty and simple; but that just plays into her habits, and without the drive to fill in background detail that you see in — to pick one of the most perfectly illustrated books ever — John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, one is left wondering what the point is.

Despite that, the illustrations do substantially change the feel of the book, by removing much of the ambiguity. Her attempt to write a new fairy tale involves many of the hallmarks of the old — interactions between people and animals, fantastical events, kings and queens — but seeing that this isn't allegorical, that the raven really is just a raven and the girl just a girl, makes it seem less magical, and more weird.

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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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.