Thursday, 27 November 2014

The man who grew behind a beard

Full title: The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil
Author: Stephen Collins
Genre: Graphic novel
Attributes: NP, hard cover
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This book of comic strips is based on a narrative that grows. In a town where everything is tidy, where manners rule supreme, and where happily subjected citizens function like cogwheels in a well-greased mechanism, something unexpected brings the universe to the point of collapse. Dave (the name should say it all), a decent employee with mornings full of capitalist meticulousness, is horrified to see a beard growing on his face. Horrified? By a beard? Yes. Because in town beards are forbidden. They represent everything that's unwanted: untidiness, degradation, barbarity. So Dave, with the facial bush growing larger and larger, finds himself excluded from every civic setting that he used to care about. First the workplace, then his favorite eatery, then the neighbourhood, and finally the town, his very habitation.
In itself, the book rings certain familiar bells. The beginning of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is the first one that springs to mind.

It sits well with the book’s beginning on several levels: the ordered universe, the linear urban architecture, the fences and the flowers breathing a bourgeois air of sweet laissez-faire. And then, of course, the fact that this empire of perfection and habit is shaken by a truth that lies hidden:
“Beneath the skin of everything is something nobody can know. The job of the skin is to keep it all in and never let anything show.”
The metaphor of the crawlers and worms employed by David Lynch to convey the same message is here invested solely in the person of the protagonist, whose appearance is an outrage and a simulacrum: not only because of the unexpected facial hair, but also because of his complete baldness, which he covers with a wig (a make-believe, an artifice, a fiction).
Dave’s presence is very, very important. He features in extreme close-ups repeated a dizzying amount of times, for emphasis; his individuality made obvious, so as to counteract the collective invisibility of the other townspeople, who resemble each other like mechanical reproductions of the same prototype.
“Soon enough Dave, who had for so long lived on the edge of things, became the centre of attention.”
This individuality, this singularity from behind appearances, is what’s required to shatter the uniform unfolding of the town’s repetitive life. The beard grown on Dave’s face takes apocalyptical dimensions. It grows and grows (like the story itself), it stretches beyond his face, beyond his room, beyond his house, overflowing into the street, into the neighborhood, into the world at large.
Another reference that pops up involves, perhaps, George Saunders’ witty novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. There, the world is divided between two countries: Inner Horner and Outer Horner, one small (the country of one person), the other one terrifically large. There too, a character of an overly mundane name (Phil) puts the narrative machinery in motion and conquers the center-stage.

This reference to Saunders’ text is called for by the minimal geography featuring in The Gigantic Beard. As simple as the opposition between Inner and Outer Horner, the world in Stephen Collins’ graphic novel depends on a drastic contrast. The town is called, simply, Here, and it exists under the constant threat of There, the land beyond the sea, the dark side of a deeply alarmed collective unconscious. There is not even a presence – only a legend, a fantasy never confirmed. What’s really terrifying is the sea itself, the separation between Here and There, a contact zone and a menace at the same time.
“For much as [Dave] loved the street in front of his house, he hated what was behind it. The sea. All around the coast of Here, the houses were rock-bottom cheap and showed windowless walls to the great dark deep for a very good reason. Because Here, the sea… was a thing to fear. The sea led to There. There was disorder. There was chaos. There was evil. In fact, There was a place to which nobody has ever even been. No one alive, anyway. The stories were enough for most people, including Dave.”
Notice how Dave’s beard and the place called There share fundamental attributes: disorder, chaos, evil. It’s because of this resemblance that Dave ends up floating towards that place of incertitude, putting a hopeful end to the story, and leaving the scene shrouded in an aura of legend (just like the legend of There). When he disappears from town (after the officials decide to attach balloons to the ends of his beard), Dave leaves a gap in the orderliness of the place; a gap eventually re-filled, but a gap that returns to haunt the collective consciousness, with the undermining insistence of things once thought impossible.
The book thrives on these critical approaches. A sense of standing out of the crowd, of overturning rigidity, of refusing uniform citizenship, dominates the discourse of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. Language itself is called into question. Take the example of the toponyms mentioned above. Take also the example of the language of sense:
“’Because’ is a word used by ordered, order-loving beings about a world which they think is ordered. ‘Because’ is for storybooks. This is… Well, I know this is difficult to understand, Dave, but what we see here is becauselessness itself.”
Everything is turned upside-down this way. And all, because of a mere thread of hair.