Thursday, 26 March 2015

Life and other debaucheries

Full title: Eustace
Author: S.J. Harris
Genre: Graphic novel
Attributes: 280 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Random House (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Eustace is a young boy with a face so pale it can only be imagined in black and white. He spends most of the time lying in bed, incarcerated by an undisclosed illness, and having to put up with things. Things like the relatives, for instance, who come into the viewfinder with exaggerated features, caricatures that beg to be drawn in a graphic novel: aunts faking love, cousins so mean they could be classed in the taxonomy of human creatures under the rubric ‘Annoying. Do not approach.” Then there’s the issue of the immediate family, addressed in the most Freudian of ways: missing brother (enlisted in the army, fulfilling, therefore, a man’s duty), ineffectual father (popping in only to upset the idea of patriarchal order), distant mother (depressed, with ruffled hair and complete lack of attention), lone child longing for the attention of both parents and getting little in return. 
So Eustace spends his days lying on his back, looked after by the typical surrogate of parental care: a housemaid of rough features but general good intentions, by the name of Mrs Perichief, who enters almost all the shots with a cigarette hanging in the corner of her mouth. 
But Eustace not only lies on his back; he also watches. He is, indeed, primarily a watcher. His thoughts are visions; and his visions are stories. Endowed as he is with the reader’s eyes, Eustace is on a narratorial mission: he has to write a report of the things seen, experienced, and analyzed. One would be tempted to call him an autoethnographer, a self-writer who eats a lot of soup and is terrorized by a lot of external stimuli.

A typical Eustace, caughing his lungs off. Source: Broken Frontier
A large aristocratic house with large undivided spaces, this is the place where Eustace leads his life, feeling poorly by default. The immensity of the domestic space causes him to think of threats impossible to pin-point: the kinds of threats that feature in the makeup of any childhood: shadows, spiders, relatives (again), ghosts that aren’t quite there but could have been. 
These uncertainties lurking in the darkness of the house end up inhabiting the boy’s soul too. His own father believes, at one point, that Eustace is a creature from in-between the realms of life and death: 
G’Lord, boy looks just like a wraith.” 
Eustace’s sickness is not a thing easy to put up with. Of all the things he witnesses, this illness is his most personal experience. Something, it seems, worth fantasizing about: 
“During the night I had one of my coughing fits where I cough and cough... and I cough up such great strings of stuff that sometimes I think there’s going to be a set of magician’s hankies on the end.” 
This air of fantasy is all around the boy. However, it becomes a solid thing once Eustace’s uncle comes up on stage. Unlike Eustace, who is bound to his bed and has known nothing but what’s come into his field of vision, Uncle Lucien (or Lucy, for short) is distractingly knowledgeable about things of the world. He even knows how to play the magic tricks the boy has been imagining. 
Not sure if this is wrong, but, to me, Uncle Lucien looks very much like Borges (the glasses, the hairdo, the suit, the stare). In any case, he materializes in a quite Borgesian fashion: coming from under the boy’s bed, covered in cigarette smoke and treating life from the criminal side of things. Wanted for fraud and embezzlement, he hides in the boy’s room, hatching a plan that could be the envy of all criminals: 
“Oh, I’ve a little pad down at Cape Fondu. I shall bugger off there with the riches I’ve bilked and blow the lot in squalid excess, I’m very much afraid. Every businessman’s dream, really.” 
The uncle does his best to introduce the boy to things usually kept under signs of interdiction. Cocktails, for instance (well, more like the olives from a Martini, but still...), brandy (and that’s for real), juicy dinners (to replace the omnipresent tasteless soup), games of cards, the touch of women and many other such amenities of a life without restrictions. They even have a damn picnic in the room. In. The. Room. Unheard of before. Utterly foreign to the boy or to anyone else in his immediate entourage. 
Yes, Uncle Lucy introduces Eustace to women: Madame de Rigible and her maid, Oubliette (real name, Veronique), as well as a cohort of other prostitutes. They teach Eustace affection, they show him the non-maternal side of motherhood, they look at him as though he were himself a girl. 
So much, and in so short a time... Eustace is rapidly drawn into these outrageous pleasures. He learns to smoke, to drink his brandy, to womanize and to parrot the language of the underworld. He lives the dream at full speed. Because this is a dream, right? The dream of all boys who imagine life to be a hedonistic undertaking. But the maximum, as always, is too much. It’s too much to stay on the side of continuous pleasure and be pleased with it. And so Eustace, like all boys, finds his way back into the actual life. Mission accomplished: the lost soul returned, scars and awakenings included. So goes life, so goes it all.