erasing clouds

Book Reviews

by anna battista

David B, Epileptic (Jonathan Cape)

First serialised in France in six volumes as L'Ascension du Haut-Maul, David B.'s graphic novel is now published for the first time in a single comprehensive volume in English. Translated by publishing house Fantagraphics co-owner Kim Thompson, Epileptic is David B.'s touching memoir. David B., one of the founding members of L'Association, a group of French cartoonists who joined their forces as publishers in 1990, is the recipient of numerous comics awards and has been hailed by The Comics Journal as one of Europe's most important and innovative comics artists.

David was born Pierre-François Beauchard in a small town near Orléans, France. His childhood was happy, mostly spent playing with his older brother Jean-Christophe, sister Florence and the kids living in the neighbourhood. But then something truly dramatic happened: at 11, Jean-Christophe started suffering from epilepsy. From then on, the whole life of the family revolved around finding a cure for Jean-Christophe: macrobiotic communes, acupuncturists, therapists, mediums, exorcisms and experimental drugs, Pierre-François' parents tried everything available, but nothing worked. Pierre-François took refuge in his obsession for drawing epic battles, in chats with three sinister imaginary friends, the Devil, a black cat and Death and in the arms of the ghost of his dead grandfather represented with the head of a long-beaked bird. His fantasy life turned into an armour Pierre-François thought would keep him sane and protect him from his brother's illness.

Jean-Christophe's disease is illustrated by a monster, a sort of dragon that writhes all over the book, enveloping in his body Jean-Christophe's and his family. At times, epilepsy is a mountain Jean-Christophe and family must climb. Pierre-François's epileptic brother is portrayed as a victim, but also as a self-pitying violent bully when under medication. David B. follows his transformation from boy into a prematurely middle-aged man bloated because of the medications he takes, with his face cut and scarred from innumerable falls during his epileptic fits.

Flashbacks allow the reader to explore the history of the family: Pierre-François' grandparents and their lives during the World Wars are described and it's explained how, to annoy his fascistic grandfather and Hitler-worshipping Jean-Christophe, the author chooses to change his name in the Jewish David. Once he's changed his name, the author finds salvation in artistic creativity and in recounting in graphic novel format the story of his brother's illness.

Epileptic is illustrated in black and white: David B.'s drawings are obsessive, mesmerising and devastating. In his intricate artwork, the author tries to frame the moments of happiness he lived with his family and to trap and purify all the moments of pain. David B.'s book has already been compared to Art Spiegelman's Maus and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, while Joe Sacco defined it as "a masterful depiction of people searching for answers when there may be none."

Jill Nelson, Sexual Healing (Serpent's Tail)

"To be young, gifted and black/Oh what a lovely precious dream," Nina Simone used to sing, and it's probably what you'll be singing too after reading Jill Nelson's debut novel. Nelson, born and raised in Harlem, has been a journalist for most of her life and is also the author of two non-fiction books, the memoir Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience (Noble Press, 1993 - which won an American Book Award) and Straight, No Chaser: How I Became A Grown-Up Black Woman (Putnam, 1997), and the editor of the anthology Police Brutality (WW Norton, 2000). You might argue that somebody with such a non-fiction background would find awkward and difficult to write a novel, but judging from the results, Nelson seems to have found a new media in which to express herself.

Sexual Healing tells the story of Lydia Beaucoup and Acey Allen, two childhood friends, now in their 40s, both successful and smart, though romantically and sexually dissatisfied. Realising that being deeply dissatisfied with men and sex is a characteristic of every woman, they plan to conquer the world with a very special venture, A Sister's Spa. Based in Nevada, the spa will be the first place where black women will be able to have safe sex with trained men: indeed the spa supplies handsome men able to fulfil all their clients' desires. Lydia's the hedonist, Acey still believes in traditional relationships and is still in love with her dead husband, but both are ambitious and ready to fight for their spa especially when a reverend starts campaigning against it.

Jill Nelson's journalistic background certainly gave her a help with the dialogues which are always witty and funny: "I know this idea's on a par with the invention of compact discs," Lydia states when she comes up with the spa-brothel plan, "Think about it: How many women do we both know who are single and sexless with no prospects on the horizon? Or they're simply tired of the whole dating game, need a break from the complications, but aren't into celibacy? … Fine sisters, plain sisters, plump, thin, smart, not too swift: quiet as it's kept, all kinds of women, of all ages, would love the opportunity to have fabulous, safe sex on demand. I mean, we'll be fulfilling a serious need."

Nelson also satirizes religion and capitalism exploitation, making fun of Dick Dixmoor, a white businessman who starts a campaign against "black male superpredators", and Reverend T.Terry Tiger, a Christian leader whose moral crusades don't have any other aim apart from resurrecting his fame and possibly make lots of money.

Sexual Healing (the title is taken from Marvin Gaye's hit) is an outrageous novel, sexy, wild, frank and hilarious, a true page-turner about friendship, society and sex, it's the first post-feminist book about what women really want, about women owning their bodies, their sexuality and their business. Literature definitely needs more winning women like the ones featured in Nelson's book.

Philippe Vasset, ScriptGenerator©®™ (Serpent's Tail)

A geologist discovers a page from a manual that describes a mysterious software: the page addresses entrepreneurs and from what it can be understood, the software might completely destroy the publishing business. Intrigued, the geologist sets on a quest to find the whole manual for ScriptGenerator©®™, the first software able to tearing apart the content of novels, biographies, screenplays and TV serials, and reassemble it, regenerating it and creating a new winning plot and the ultimate best-seller. The quest takes the geologist from Liberia, where the story starts, to dark and futuristic office rooms located in various European countries.

This is the plot for Philippe Vasset's debut novel, ScriptGenerator©®™. Born in 1974, Vasset, a former corporate detective, is editor-in-chief of Africa Energy Intelligence, a Paris-based newsletter about African energy. His novella was acclaimed in France, perhaps for its intrinsic irony: in an era of relentless globalisation, it's easy to see how even publishing houses are going to sacrifice originality in the name of mass marketed success. According to Vasset's novel, writers and authors won't be needed anymore: "using the ScriptGenerator©®™ database, you can produce the author you need to sell the product, and then employ an actor to incarnate this character. ScriptGenerator©®™ develops the author's life story, personality and the many statements he or she makes, in exactly the same way as any other content it produces, " a page of the enigmatic manual recites.

In the book, sections of the software manual are interspersed with chapters about the narrator's search for truth: you could argue that Vasset's style, suspended between the cyber dreams of William Gibson and the terrible visions of William Burroughs, lacks physical descriptions, his protagonist is indeed faceless and emotionless, while the story is studded with literary clichés taken from investigative novels, but the reason why this happens will only be revealed at the end of the novel.

Writer A.L.Kennedy described ScriptGenerator©®™ as "a darkly entertaining and disturbingly prescient novel", after all a software like the one described by Vasset is not too implausible: Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, which is nothing more than a fantasy pastiche, is one of the most popular books around at present. Vasset's dystopia might perhaps become the future.

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