Childlike in the best way – The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Stephen Collins' debut graphic novel, reviewed.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil
Stephen Collins
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £16.99

Stephen Collins is the creator of what is perhaps my favourite newspaper cartoon ever. Published in the Guardian last year, it features Michael Gove and David Cameron arguing about how best to respond to an alien invasion. The caricatures are spot-on, the "acting" (as it were) tells as much as the words, and the humour is a finely balanced mixture of political satire and nonsensical lunacy. It's what I imagine Steve Bell's If… feels like for people who've been reading it non-stop for thirty years, the only subsection of society able to get the the byzantine in-jokes, and well-enough inured against the scatological puns to survive them.

So I was excited to see Collins' debut graphic novel arrive on my desk. It's less political than some of his strips, focusing instead on the absurdist humour that makes pieces like I tried to cancel my gym membership and Don't wake up work so well; but despite the fact that there's no politicians caricatured, it still reads as a fable for our times.

Dave lives Here. The important thing about Here is that it's an island in the middle of The Sea, and somewhere past the edge of The Sea is There. The people of Here don't like There. Because Here is orderly, neat, and predictable, and There is everything Here isn't.

But Here is also beardless. So when Dave – Dave who makes charts for a company whose business he doesn't understand, Dave who is completely bald save for one thick hair on his lip, Dave who has listened to the Bangles' Eternal Flame 427,096,483 times – suddenly sprouts an enormous beard that can't be cut, won't stop growing, and just seems slightly evil, Here goes mad over it.

The book is rendered in soft pencil, black and white throughout, but printed to a huge size (almost bookshelf-busting, so be warned there), which gives Collins a chance to express tremendous versatility. The orderly nature of Here in the early half of the book is expressed with a high – almost Chris-Ware-high at times – panel count, and as the squares of the panels blur into the lines of the grid system of houses, the sort of world Dave lives in becomes apparent. And then, after one full-page spread early on shows the windowless walls of the houses on the coast of Here facing out to the sea, we see our first glimpse of There. The panel boarders drop away, and drawn in black on top of black is the chaos the residents fear.

As well as high panel counts, the huge book allows Collins to use another effect to great success: a couple of pages in the book are nearly blank, except for one speech balloon or caption. It's a relatively standard technique, except that as the pages get bigger, the text has been shrunk – leading to a feeling of the reader drowning in the absence of information. Something which Dave, faced with his inexplicable beard, knows only too well.

The obligatory art paragraphs also can't end without a mention of the book's coda. It's hard to discuss in too much detail – the story's not plot-heavy, but it still wouldn't do to give away the ending – but as a character leaves hand-drawn pictures behind on their journey, we see the last few notes found, pasted into a scrapbook and illustrating, maddeningly vaguely, what came next for them. The pictures fade to black, and then, in the very last one, a hint of something else appears…

Taken overall, it reminds me of nothing so much as a Roald Dahl novel: a surreal premise, presented as matter-of-factly as possible, which, if you buy into it – as children do naturally, and adults who know whats-what do too – presents the opportunity for a piece of strong character work. This isn't a book for children, the oblique references to the Bangles and self-help gurus make that clear, but it is childlike in the best way. Which is what you'd expect from a man who drew a cartoon about the High Speed Beyoncé, really.

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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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism