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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The lessons of Finding Dory are commendable, but why make a children's film so complicated?

Pixar's latest animation, a sequel to Finding Nemo, gives forgetful fish Dory a lead. Plus: Jason Bourne.

Amnesia is a concern for the heroes of two blockbuster sequels – the Pixar animation Finding Dory and the espionage thriller Jason Bourne. The condition extends to the film-makers, who have forgotten much of what made the original movies so appealing. In fairness, the 2003 Finding Nemo lacked the emotional complexity of top-drawer Pixar. But its story of an anxious clownfish combing the ocean for his lost son served as a neat rebuke to worrywart parents, and it featured one enduring character: the Pacific blue tang Dory. Her short-term memory loss left her in a state of carefree enchantment perfectly expressed by Ellen DeGeneres, whose voice calls to mind a rubber ball thrilled afresh by each new bounce.

Now Dory has a movie of her own, in which she goes in search of the parents from whom she was estranged as an infant. Many of the previous picture’s fish chip in to help, but the script’s argument for inclusivity and diversity is made most persuasively by Dory’s new allies. Hank is a tomato-red octopus who can’t bear to be touched, while Becky, a frizz-haired loon, and Gerald, a bullied sea lion, have learning difficulties that leave them vulnerable to mockery by their fellow creatures. Heroism originates here with the apparently disadvantaged, whose differences ultimately prove to be no sort of disadvantage at all.

The message is commendable, so it’s unfortunate that the execution is so complicated. Incident is stacked upon incident, most clumsily during a final half-hour in which the sea creatures take chaotically to the roads. When there are lulls in the action, these are filled too often by homilies and life lessons that demand no spelling out.

Quality control remains high in the area of animation. From the velvety anemone beneath a lattice of rippling sunlight to the pink-tinted ocean surface at dusk, it is clear that nature needs to up its game to keep ahead of Pixar. The biggest gasps should be reserved for Hank’s extraordinary chameleonic powers, which allow him to blend into a laboratory wall and to mimic a potted plant or a handrail. Impersonating a baby in its stroller, he uses his Mr Tickle arms to propel himself at high speed like a wheelchair-basketball champ tearing up the court. In a film that largely plays it safe, Hank brings a jolt of anarchic danger.

The breakneck editing and neck-breaking violence of the Bourne series, about a brainwashed CIA killing machine who gradually recovers his memory and goes rogue, has been the biggest influence on action cinema since the advent of the car chase. There have been only three instalments until now (four if you count the spin-off The Bourne Legacy) but their style is so ubiquitous it feels as if there’s one Bourne every minute. The latest outing reunites two leading players who swore they were done with the franchise: the actor Matt Damon, looking as bulky and implacable as a tank, and Paul Greengrass, the British director who whipped up a storm in films two and three but consigns it to a teacup this time around.

Rarely has such a fast-paced film felt so weary and resigned. Christopher Rouse’s screenplay throws into the usual paranoid, dystopian, NSA-fearing mix a Zuckerberg-style social media guru (Riz Ahmed) in cahoots with the craggy CIA overlord (Tommy Lee Jones) hunting Bourne. There is also a bright CIA underling (Alicia Vikander) experiencing vague pangs of conscience from her operations hub where po-faced automatons tap endlessly on keyboards; it’s like a Kraftwerk gig without the tunes.

The film makes gestures towards political topicality. But whether it’s riots in Greece or the ongoing tension between security and privacy, everything is reduced to the level of window dressing while Bourne crashes motorbikes, plummets from the tops of buildings and doles out upper cuts as though he were passing around Tic Tacs.

Just once it would be nice to have some character detail or a line of dialogue that went beyond “Suspect turning left”, or the series catchphrase: “You don’t have any idea who you’re dealing with!” Bourne himself is a dead end, dramatically speaking; he has recovered his memory now but his personality and inner conflict have been wiped clean. When he isn’t fighting, he has nothing to do except go woozy with flashbacks and generally outfox the CIA. He should try hiding in the voluminous bags beneath Tommy Lee Jones’s eyes – they’d never find him there.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue