The Hardy Boys of our generation?

Reviewed: Bad Machinery, by John Allison.

Bad Machinery: The Case of the Team Spirit
John Allison
Oni Press, 136pp, £14.99

This book has been a long time coming. The first collection of John Allison's Bad Machinery webcomic, it is being released as the web version finishes its fifth story. That's pretty far removed from the print collections of Allison's previous strip, Scary Go Round, of which Bad Machinery is a loose sequel. Those were usually available shortly after the arc they collected was finished, in small self-published paperbacks.

But the delay is for a good reason. Where Scary Go Round was frequently meandering, with story lines and characters fading out of view as he got bored of them and moved on, Bad Machinery is laser-focused. It takes the classic archetype of mystery-solving-teens, throws them in situations that are half-way between Scooby-Do and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (monsters are real, but generally they're more interested in being left alone than taking over the world), and polishes the whole thing off with Allison's unique, and wonderful, authorial voice.

He's been writing webcomics for fifteen years, starting with Bobbins until 2002, then relaunching the series as Scary Go Round, and then Bad Machinery four years ago. Each series has shared characters with the one before, but been a fresh beginning in story terms, and this is no different. But that still means fifteen straight years improving his craft, and it shows. Since an abrupt change in his artistic style in 2005 – moving from a heavily digital style to more traditional-looking cartooning – the focus was on refining the writing and art, until in 2009, Scary Go Round was put to bed and Bad Machinery was launched. As a third-generation webcomic, it skipped the false starts common to so many books with similar provenance, and launched straight into the strong story collected here.

That change – which, given it amounted to killing-off an eight-year-long serial with a devoted fanbase, was hardly minor – has resulted in a book which is perfect for people who don't read comics. And more than that: it's a book perfect for kids who don't read comics. Starring relatable schoolchildren, in a series of stand-alone cases, it stands a chance of being the Hardy Boys or Famous Five of our generation.

And that's precisely why the delay has happened. Because there's no point in writing a book which could be loved by a generation of children and then hiding it on a website and in self-published books. This needs to be in schools, on reading club lists, and in libraries, and for that, it needs a real publisher backing it up.

But finding one which was prepared to take a book which was still available for free online was easier said than done. False starts with some publishers who were unhappy competing against the internet pushed the publication date further and further back, but Allison didn't give up. At one point he was forced to launch subscriptions for the site – ranging from £2 a year, for which subscribers receive "nothing but my gratitude", to £100 a year, for which subscribers receive "nothing but my gratitude" – to make ends meet, but eventually it paid off. Step up Oni Press, the publishers of the Scott Pilgrim series, who have worked with Allison to make a print version with production values to die for. A massive book – roughly the size of two standard-sized comics next to each other – it includes the first case, as well as a short prologue, a chunk of back-matter, and a fair few reworked pages to take advantage of the differences between print and online.

Getting this book into the hands of real-life kids is obviously Allison's aim, but as with all the best children's authors, he's done that by writing a book which doesn't talk down to them. Like Pixar's films, an adult not reading Bad Machinery because it's for kids is missing out – and missing the point. The jokes are sharp, the plot is twisting, and the mystery is engrossing. If the fact that the main characters are 11-year-olds spoils that for you, I don't know what to say.

A little peek inside Bad Machinery, by John Allison. Credit: Oni 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.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era