My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Theory of the Grain of Sand (2016; originally published in 2007-2008 in France) is the 13th entry in Franco-Belgian collaborators Schuiten and Peeters’s series of graphic novels, Les Cités obscures. It is the first I’ve read, so there is much that is still, appropriately, obscure to me. Even so, this book impressed me as a thoughtful, subtle, charming narrative, with stunning art in a mode that may be unfamiliar to newer American comics readers used to the more cartoonish style favored by “literary” graphic novelists like Ware, Satrapi, Clowes, Bechdel, or Drnaso.
As the Calvino-esque title of the series implies, The Obscure Cities offers a kind of catalogue of distinct and quasi-fantastical urban spaces that are nonetheless refractions of this-worldly realities. As Wikipedia summarizes, “In this fictional world, humans live in independent city-states, each of which has developed a distinct civilization, each characterized by a distinctive architectural style.”
The architectural emphasis suits artist François Schuiten’s graphic approach: a style of remarkable grace and precision, not only in building design and backgrounds, but even in figure drawing, a beautifully rendered ink-swept romantic realism so evocative of the old cities that the march of universally leveling commerce are removing from the world. On this theme, Wikipedia elaborates: “An important motif is the process of what [Schuiten] calls Bruxellisation, the destruction of this historic Brussels in favor of anonymous, low-quality modernist office and business buildings.” Lovers of the urban romanticism, whether in its utopian or dystopian guises, that characterizes certain older European literature from Balzac and Baudelaire to Woolf and Benjamin will admire this book.
The Theory of the Grain of Sand tells the story of Brüsel, a fantastical city much like Brussels, that undergoes an escalating series of strange events: rocks, each weighing exactly the same, begin appearing in an old man’s apartment; a single mother’s apartment is slowly filling with sand; a chef weighs less and less each day until he levitates into the air.
These odd happenings coincide with the appearance in the city of a warrior from the Bugti, a desert people, who attempts to sell a religious artifact captured from the chief of his tribe’s rivals, the Moktar. His prospective buyer is a woman who lives in the Horta House, an Art Nouveau marvel, and she too is drawn, this time by guilt rather than happenstance, into the mysterious plot.
Mary von Rathen, apparently a recurring character in the series, comes to the city to investigate. With the help of the afflicted citizens (and the man who runs the Gallery of Distant Worlds), she helps to solve the mystery while warning that not everything can be explained. The conclusion involves a journey out of Brüsel and into the desert, there to replace the Moktars’ plundered artifact and end the chaos.
While the above summary makes the book sound a mystery or adventure, even a colonial adventure, the pace is leisured, like a stroll through a walkable urban core of Old Europe, and the tone, characterized mostly by gentle and precise dialogue, is droll, even when the city is literally being crushed under the weight of sand and stone.
Thematically, Schuiten and Peeters implicitly criticize imperial blowback for destroying the irreplaceable aesthetic of the European city: the wars fought between Bugti and Moktar in the desert are revealed to have been escalated and goaded by arms trading from Brüsel, so that the metropole’s own partial destruction via magic from the periphery is logical and even just.
Moreover, the book’s writer, Benoît Peeters, is also the biographer of deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, so we can expect that a point is also being made about the permeability of all boundaries. The damage wrought in the city by sand and stone even inspires a spirit of collectivity and produces some changes in the citizens’ lives that are not all bad. Inside and outside interpenetrate, like speech and writing, like self and other.
But Peeters leaves behind his deconstructionist commitment to inherent alterity when his narrative sets out from his fanciful Europe for the frontier. At the graphic novel’s denouement, the replacement of the Moktar’s stolen artifact in the center of a desert citadel restores peace. Not all centers are as arbitrary as Derrida famously suggested, apparently. In a more cynical mood, we might accuse Peeters of upholding a typical patronizing postcolonial penitence that is not so different from the colonialism it purports to supplant: deconstruction for me, stasis for you. An enliveningly dangerous supplement for the citizen is the immobile totality of the natural order for the native.
Let’s saunter over the quaint cobbles to a happier subject, then: Schuiten’s extraordinary artwork, which I have already mentioned. It is very different from what we see these days in the most acclaimed graphic novels. Literary aspiration or even just the aspiration toward a mainstream audience in the Anglophone graphic novel has come to be associated with a cartoonish style relying heavily on abstraction and, often, cuteness.
We can trace this fact to a number of influences: the roots of the non-superhero American comics tradition in the great comic strips like Krazy Kat, Pogo, and Peanuts; the increasing importance of manga, a national aesthetic often reduced in loving stereotype to a cutesy style; the hyper-canonization, especially by those outside the superhero tradition, of Jack Kirby as almost the only artist in that mode worth discussing; the belief, derived from Scott McCloud’s theories, that an iconic style of facial and figure drawing enables reader identification; and the desire to appeal both to non-comics-reading audiences who are familiar with cartoons and to critics who have absorbed the art world’s century-long loathing of mimesis.
A style aiming at precision, a gift for realism, however heightened or stylized, becomes associated merely with the superhero slums. The idolators of Kirby barely ever even mention Wally Wood or John Buscema or Neal Adams; the stylistic effect of sad economic necessity, the need to churn out pages in a hurry, is unjustly elevated to the dignity of an aesthetic principle; and work that looks like it was produced by Charles Schulz on quaaludes is up for literary prizes in England.
Another factor at work in the demotion of styles like Schuiten’s is the belief that detailed art slows the reader down. But what is wrong with that? Comics is not cinema or animation, not meant to be read like a flipbook. The whole advantage of comics over cinema is that it provides a visual narrative whose pace is controlled by each audience member rather than passing at a fixed rate. Artists or even writers who make us linger by favoring the high style are not betraying the medium but exploiting one of its greatest potentials. My point is not that only work like Schuiten’s should be celebrated, but that such work deserves higher esteem in general than it usually ever receives from serious critics. Even in crude economic terms, you might think that a fast-paced style would sell better, but, as I see it, artists who give us more to look at are offering better value for our money.
In The Theory of the Grain of Sand, Schuiten creates a city and citizens so detailed and solid I felt like an authentic flâneur, and Peeters’s script gave me much to think about as I meandered over the stone flags. The book’s titular theory, by the way, holds that one grain of sand, one tiny detail, added or subtracted, is enough to change everything: a daring proposition for a book so rich with details as to resemble the vast and rolling desert where it comes to its climax.