Monday, September 01, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #244: Celluloid by Dave McKean

I am about to commit dancing about architecture; I'm sorry up front but there's nothing else to be done. I set out to write about one book I just read every single day for a year, and I didn't think what I'd do if I ran across a story that didn't have a single word in it. (If my skills were other than they are, I could draw a response to a drawn book, but they're not, and I can't, and I won't.)

So: words are what I have to describe Dave McKean's 2011 "erotic graphic novel" Celluloid, and words are what I'll use, even if the book itself entirely avoids them. It has no flap copy, no quotes, nothing: the only words in or on it are the usual definitional stuff: title, author, other books by author, copyright and printing details, a sentence of acknowledgements. This review, at this point, already contains roughly twice as many words as the entire book Celluloid.

What's it about? A woman arrives home alone, and calls her man. They check schedules, and apparently the answers aren't good. She takes a bath, and when she emerges, nude, there's an old film projector in front of her couch that wasn't there before. She watches the movie, which is of a woman being taken from behind by a man -- it's blurred, but I believe we're supposed to realize the woman is her. Then the film breaks, and a door appears, and she passes through into into a realm where everything is drawn differently, and further erotic adventures continue through several realms, with an Earth-Mother-y woman and a red-skinned devil-man and others. Her man may have been part of those adventures, somehow, and he arrives home at the end of the book, to find and turn on the projector himself.

McKean, as ever, is a lovely draftsman and creator of pages, but his mercurial style raises a lot of questions in this context. He's a very impressionistic artist who alters the look of pages to show different moods or places or events, and who draws faces and bodies very differently in different contexts -- but, without words, the reader is never quite sure which of those things has just changed. The woman is clearly the same woman throughout, no matter how she's drawn, but are the people around her always different? There are hints her man is part of this, through the workings of these erotic other realms: is that true, or was this purely her own journey?

For example: there's one sequence where the woman is fondled by several dozen hands, lovingly and slowly. Are we to take those as disembodied, somewhat supernatural hands -- as if she's wandered into a zone of maximum manual pleasure? Or are we to see this as an artistic way of indicating a large number of friendly, loving partners, reduced on the page to the important point of contact?

Either would be appropriate; either interpretation could be justified by McKean's art. Neither, I suppose, is authoritative. With a wordless book about fluid, polymorphous sexuality, every page -- full of fleshy images, half photographic and half drawn, some sharp and crisp but most of them blurry and evocative -- is open to interpretation, every page is at least half what the reader brings to it.

Celluloid is sexy and lovely and artsy in roughly equal proportions, but it's not the kind of sexy that leads to an immediate physical reaction. (To go Elvis Costello on you, it's not likely to be rhythmically admired.) If you're looking for deeply, artistically classy erotica, this is at the top of the heap. If you'd like something more rough-trade than that, you're looking in the wrong place.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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