Warning: if you’re one of those people who hates spoilers, and you haven’t read this comic, then I don’t know what to tell you. Seek out a spoiler-free review, I guess, or read it. I don’t give away the whole store, but I do discuss the plot somewhat, as I need to do to say anything coherent about this book.
This is one of those comics where I could just say, “I’m not sure I understood what this was about,” because I want to avoid the fact that I sort of understood, but had problems with the book, and yet think there’s something interesting to talk about except it makes me uncomfortable to have to grapple with the stuff I didn’t like about it. If I were like Neil Gaiman, I might just say of it something like what Gaiman actually said — the pull quote is on the front cover: “… supremely magnificently strange, and like nothing else I’ve read.”
But in posting these reviews of books I’ve read, I’m working on my skills at reviewing — since many of the books I’m reading are not new, it’s not like others haven’t discussed them for prospective readers, after all, so what I am trying to do is learn the art of the bookr review, as well as trying to engage critically with every book I read. (Not every text, to be sure: I can’t review every story I read this way, but I may as well do the full-length books.) So I am going to try to dig a little deeper.
To start, I have to agree that this book of Ray Veitch’s is a weird one, to be sure. Strange, yes. Its story, though, is one that teeters on the edge of the familiar: a man who works for a permanent marker company (the markers produced by which are being used in massive, popular vandalism in NYC) goes on a drinking binge when his company is sued for the production of truly permanent markers. The man wakes up with a full-body, permanent marker tattoo that renders him, basically, unhuman. The irony, of course, is that in this state, he embarks on an odyssey of sex, travel, and surprising human interaction in which he discovers his own lost humanity. The backdrop of this story is 9/11.
Those two threads didn’t quite come together for me: the man’s life has already fallen apart when we watch him watch the Twin Towers go down. Maybe it’s because I’m not American or living in America, but the image of the Twin Towers being destroyed doesn’t resonate for me the way I imagine it does for an American reader — one at any point along the American political spectrum. But reading the text exegetically, ity’s hard to escaspe the sneaking suspicion that narrative suggests that some tragedies, at least, happen to those who build their possibility — a somehow dangerous thing to suggest in a text that discusses 9/11 as a tragedy as well.
The reason I say this is that the marker-man’s tragedy is directly tied to his decisions, conscious and unconscious. When we witness his home life, we see that he (and his wife) have essentially started running on autopilot. When he leaves for work, without a kiss or a touch, she is already at her computer in the kitchen, and talking on the phone. The man’s commute to the office reveals the damage done by the markers his company produces: New York City is a hot mess of black marker graffitti, or, we might say, disfigured by the man’s employer’s blind pursuit of profit. But not only has the man shut off his sense of conscience — after all, the part he’s played is too small to feel bad about, it’s someone else who’s decided to use the markers in such a bad way… something that hints at criticism of how easy it is for individuals within a system, say, a nation-state, to dismiss the bad things that system does because, after all, they’re just cogs in the machine, and someone else is calling the shots. No, he hasn’t just shut off his conscience, he has outright embraced his dark side: he and his co-workers seem to revel in the controversy about their markers, to feel great since it’s propelled their stock prices through the roof… until, of course, the stock plummets due to a state and city lawsuit against the company, and the man’s life falls apart.
Does this not sound like a political allegory? Veitch invites such involved reading because of the text of the book. For this story unfolds without a single line of dialogue, all in pictures. Meanwhile, in the kinds of text boxes in which narrator’s asides are usually presented, Veitch’s words unfurl as a kind of epic poem of disaster, condemnation, and prophecy. Here’s a sample from a random page:
Small wonder we barnacle to rusted beliefs…
Convinced that if we supplicate long and loud enough…
Out bootless prayers shall be answered.
That some benign gaseous vertebrate will fulfill His every covenant…
Sweeping us up in despotic benevolence…
And installing us in a ten-room co-op in the Heavenly City…
… with a view to die for.
(You can sample the text more in this MP3 of a reading of the text made by Veitch himself, as linked from his website. It actually is quite a different text when disconnected from the images, so don’t worry, this won’t spoil the book for you.)
The text isn’t completely disconnected from the images on the page, of course: on this page, an unnamed but obviously Muslim-American man discovers the marker-tattooed man hiding, terrified, on the top of his winnebago and says a little prayer, then returning to his (head-scarf wearing) wife inside the vehicle and driving off with the man still there, a small act of kindness in allowing the man to hitch a ride.
This swerving and sliding between elevated language and pop-cultural reference is pretty much constant throughout the text, and personally, at least on my first reading, it wore a bit thin. Though one reviewer has suggested that the book may be “the ‘Howl’ of the 9/11 generation,” Veitch’s text doesn’t, to me, quite succeed as a poem on the level of Ginsberg’s. But Veitch’s work is, to be fair, perhaps not intended to be read as poetry (despite the MP3 above) in the way “Howl” is: after all, this is a graphic poem, and the images and text interact, adding up to more than the sum of the two.
So once I got over my resistance to the text — my insistence that this was not “great poetry” — I discovered that what Veitch was doing constituted a really fascinating approach to storytelling, somewhat akin to a film where the only voice you hear is a narrator’s — Chris Marker’s La Jetee comes to mind, though it’s a tenuous comparison. Anyway, I think there may well be more there than I picked up the first time through. My reaction to Can’t Get No was opposite of my reaction to what I think are poems that don’t work, and thus I call the book a successs: I wanted to brave the barrage of prophetic narration to see what happened in the end to the marker-tattooed man, to the Muslim couple, to the women who gave the man his marker-tattoo.
And it is here, at the level of the characters, that Veitch does the most amazing things. Without a single line of dialog from their mouths, each of the characters comes to life, but also seems to win sympathy. I found myself invested in each of them, and wanted to see what happened the next time each reappeared on the page, as each of them did several times. It is because of the wonderful handling of these characters that when finally I finished reading it, I realized that I’d read it all the way through in a single sitting, even though I’d had other things to do, even though I was still sick from food poisoning: despite all the possible reasons I had for not reading it, I’d kept turning those pages, rapt.
And that says something.