Friday, August 16, 2013

Coming of Ages: New School

Closing out Dash Shaw week here at High-Low, let's take a look at his newest book, New School (Fantagraphics). One of the things that I like best about Shaw's work, especially as he's matured and written longer works, is that every detail is important. That's especially true of seemingly throwaway pop culture references; for example, the background story from Bottomless Belly Button where a celebrity couple falls in love and then breaks up parallels the divorce stories in the book, something I completely missed the first time I read it. New School's plot is quite simple: a teen named Luke is sent to work on a small island nation called X, which is about to open a huge theme park called Clockworld in order to attract tourists. Clockworld is meant to mimic all of human history, essentially, so the attractions and rides feature things like the Coliseum in Rome. When Luke stops returning phone calls and doesn't come back after a year, his parents fear the worst and send his 16-year-old younger brother Danny in an attempt to bring him back. The book follows Danny's experiences on X with Luke, Luke's girlfriend Esther, and the general weirdness of being a young person in a totally foreign culture.

I'm going to take a page out of the Jeet Heer/Ken Parille playbook and look at different themes and motifs in New School, as well as my own theories about them.

Design Details: New School at its heart is a particular kind of take on the coming-of-age and rite-of-passage story, and of course a school figures into the story. So the book is designed to look like a high school yearbook: hardcover, with the sort of color swirls common to them. I like that Shaw's name credit on the side of the book is written in cursive, much like one would write when signing someone else's yearbook. The real function of a yearbook is to act as a time capsule for future viewing, and that's just what happens in this book, as we start in 1990 and work out way up to the present.

Color As A Narrative Device: Shaw has said that the entire book was initially in color, but then he realized that it made the book as a whole more confusing, so it only really starts in earnest when Danny reaches X. (Shaw also noted that this is where the story really starts, so he threw out some of the pages before that. Shaw's book The Mother's Mouth got shortened by Shaw in two subsequent foreign translations, as he cut what he thought was unnecessary material, so this kind of merciless self-editing is not unusual for him.) Color serves a couple of different purposes in the book: pages saturated in a single hue signal one of Danny's precogntive dreams, and pages with a wider color scheme reflect emotional states but also give the reader information about sensations. One also gets the sense that Danny is a synaesthete, who experiences the world in terms of these colors, especially when thrust into such an intensely overwhelming and alienating environment.The use of patterns, lines and stripes for the colors sometimes reflects the narrative as it is perceived by Danny. The more jumbled the colors, the more intense the experience, especially at the end when he is being chased. That leads to time slowing down as he just experiences the sensation of running, and the colors alternating green and red (the colors of 3D) as we just see his legs before he's captured. Sometimes the colors fill in characters (I like the easter egg example used in the book as a clue to the use of color) and scenes, sometimes they are random smears on the page, hovering around the edge of consciousness.

What Are The Inspirations for X? From the clues he provides, X is a little bit like Treasure Island, as a young boy (Danny/Jim Hawkins) goes on a dangerous journey that changes him forever. Both Jurassic Park and Westworld are mentioned as stories about futuristic theme parks where something goes horribly awry. Westworld in particular seems to be a direct influence on the idea of Clockworld, only it expands the Wild West theme and takes us on a journey through history. Jurassic Park's premise is that we don't fully examine the consequences of using new technology, especially when there's money to be made. Indeed, New School critiques the sheer crassness of capitalism, especially in the classroom scenes. The English that Luke is teaching to the young people of X is strictly related to consumer-related exchanges; it's the Disneyfication of an entire country, essentially. Just as Disneyworld is an immersive experience where every inch is calculated to be part of this fantastic other world designed to separate you from your money, so is X a fantasy land whose commitment to this capitalist ideal makes entire segments of its population essentially useless after the park is built.

X and Xians are very much the Other for Danny and westerners in general. The other obvious model for X is Japan, a place where Shaw spent a semester in high school teaching English. This was not in a metropolis like Tokyo, but rather in a small town where he was the only foreigner. The insularity and clannishness of rural Japan (a nation that rose to prominence by rejecting militarism and instead embracing capitalism) is matched by the Xians. Finally, "xian" could be a short hand for "Christian", and a small nation of people with different, clannish beliefs may as well be a whole other religion.   

Baptism and Rite of Passage: Danny loses his hearing temporarily early in the story thanks to Luke dunking him under water during an argument. That turns out to be the trigger that encourages Luke's parents to send him to X. Danny loses his hearing as a result of impacted wax being pushed in by the water. Throughout the story, Danny is dunked or submerged in water a few other times: when he arrives on X, he takes a bath and puts in the ear drops that break up the wax. When trying to break Luke out of jail, a guard plunges Danny's head into water, causing him to lose his hearing again thanks to the wax. At the end of the story, the assumed villain of the story literally puts Danny's head underwater like a minister would in baptizing someone, swims over and sucks the wax out of Danny's ear. This once again restores Danny's hearing in a scene that's wonderfully strange, but it very much "saves" him in the sense that he has language restored to him. Baptism is supposed to be a transformative process, and Danny changed after each of these experiences. First, he was taken away from the brother he idolized after the first "baptism". After the second baptism, he followed his brother's lead and started to behave like a normal, obnoxious teenager. After the final baptism, he returned home and grew into adulthood. How much he actually learned from these experiences is debatable, just as Danny's precognitive abilities gave him no real insights into himself or the world. In many ways, things happen to Danny but he never grows up.

Who Is The Villain of X, or is X Good or Evil? Danny says "This place breeds lies, Luke. It calls out the abyss in man." That reminds me a little of Kurtz and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The reader is led to think that the mastermind behind Clockworld, Otis Sharpe, is a sinister figure. He's a weird figure, to be sure, and it's clear that he doesn't like Americans very much. Looking at things from his perspective and from a more objective stance, the villains of the piece are really Luke and Danny. Luke comes to X to reinvent himself as a regular teenager, one who says "dude" and gets to date hot girls like Esther. This is why he doesn't want to go back (and so the thing that inevitably goes wrong isn't Clockworld, but Luke himself). The self-righteous Danny concludes it's the fault of the place rather than the individual, and this frees them up from any semblance of morality or decency: they steal from all the stores, break into vending machines, vandalize Danny's mural (drawn in an attempt to fit into X and make a contribution), and Luke even despoils one of Clockworld's fountains by defecating in it. In an environment where the boys can make themselves into anything they want, they are both found wanting, just as Kurtz became a merciless killer after fancying himself a civilizing force. It's Plato's Ring of Gyges story yet again: without the laws and restrictions society has to deter us from savage behavior, many people will devolve to their worst instincts. While Sharpe punishes Luke for his actions, he helps Danny regain his hearing and simply has them both kicked off the island. Every one of his actions is done to protect either the island or Esther (he promised her father to watch over her). He's certainly weird and authoritarian, and it can be argued that he's despoiling his own home in an effort to bring in tourists, but he's no villain.

Language Is A Virus: One of the funnier things about this book is that despite being from New Jersey in 1990, Danny and his father speak in this ridiculously grandiloquent speech pattern, one that's highlight in gothic text when something particularly important needs to be expressed. It's like Danny is spouting the dialogue from Treasure Island in a modern setting, or is a member of the X-Men as written by Chris Claremont. This is what makes the first chapter such a bizarre experience, as Danny's father tells him in horrified tones about the terrible things that happen in the novel Jurassic Park. That's what makes him meeting up with Luke on the island so jarring, since his brother now not only has five o'clock shadow but is also swearing and generally acting like an 18 year old. The ability to speak, understand and hear language is a key component of this book. When Danny loses his hearing, it not only removes him a step from being able to interact with his world, it plunges him further into his own headspace. Being on an island where he doesn't know the language (illustrated wonderfully by dozens of word balloons that are blank) puts him in exactly the same headspace. Luke's mission is to transmit the virus of English to the Xians, bringing them in contact with others and infecting them with Western ideas and ideals (especially, as Luke notes salaciously, with regard to sex). Sharpe, who speaks English, knows quite well the potential danger he's exposing his people to, which is why he has a low tolerance for shenanigans.

Deflating Narrative Conflicts: While Shaw hints at things going horribly wrong on Clockworld in the first chapter, he deflates big narrative conflicts at every turn. Every conflict in the book is caused directly by Danny and Luke, and even the climactic rescue and capture scene ends with Sharpe letting them go and their host father driving them away, as Danny sees his future unfold before him. As noted before, the only thing that goes wrong with Clockworld is that Danny and Luke deface it. This approach is very different from Shaw's last big work, Bodyworld, which ends with a huge fire and the death of its protagonist.

Identity: Pretty much everything Shaw's ever done has been about identity in one way or another: merging identities (Bodyworld), one's identity in a family structure (Bottomless Belly Button), identities before and during a relationship (The Mother's Mouth), etc. This book is about trying to figure out one's identity by making it up (Luke) or deceiving oneself about it (Danny) or altering it altogether (Otis Sharpe and his country). Not all life experiences positively shape one's identity, and the rites of passage here are false ones. Even at the end of Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins doesn't become an adventurer for life; his violent experiences make him quit that life forever. It's unclear if Danny will ever learn a similar lesson.

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