Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #296: Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

I wasn't prepared for this book.

I knew it was on the Booker longlist, the first work of comics ever to be placed there. I'd sort-of read Drnaso's previous book, Beverly. (I read a damaged copy from a library, with a number of pages missing.) I skimmed the glowing quotes on the back cover, from people like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Lethem.

But Sabrina hits deceptively hard. Nick Drnaso's quiet, thin lines and flat colors makes a world that almost looks plastic, and then his rounded lettering drags the reader directly into the story. Everything is seen from a distance, and yet it's live-wire immediate. There's a coldness to Drnaso's work, but one that's absolutely necessary to keep it all bearable.

About halfway through Sabrina, I had the thought "if Don DeLillo made graphic novels, they'd look like this." I don't think that's an original thought, but it's a fair comparison: Drnaso has that level of intensity of gaze, that chilliness of affect, and that ability to present the extremities of modern life unflinchingly.

Sabrina is a young woman living in Chicago. Very early in this book, something happens -- what, exactly, we don't know for a while. But the whole book is about the echoes of that event. The story follows characters mostly at one remove from her: not her boyfriend but the old friend the boyfriend is now living with. They are all changed, and none of them have the emotional language to talk about it directly. They all speak in the words we all use and see used a million times, the standard language for standard horrors.

Sabrina is full of dialogue: the mundane conversations of everyday life. But they're overlain with the tension of that one event, leaving each one of his characters alone in a dark and troubling world. This is an ominous book, full of things that can't be spoken and things that shouldn't be spoken.

This is a real novel in comics form, with the heft and importance of the best fiction and the immediacy of everyday life. It looks simple and plain on the surface, but it tells us vastly more than it says, and implies entire worlds.

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