“Notes for a War Story,” a first person narrative by Gipi, is set in a nebulous country where villages exist one day and disappear the next. Three young men band together to survive on the margins of the country, doing petty crime. But it’s an odd man out story. The boys have only vague notions of what the war is about. The frictions within their trio mirror those in the country at large. The brutality and violence inherent in the state where social law suddenly fails is drawn close up. What is politically correct is what gets you through a day and a night, a falling spiral that soon shortens days and nights to hours then minutes in a manipulated clock, and peace is an expedient agreement easily broken. The drawings, green, often olive drab wash panels, convey bleak settings and desperate tones. The dialog is quick, the story clear, the narrator Giuliano’s reflective notes the distinctive difference between an existential hope and a despairing nihilism. But what gives Guiliano this capacity to reflect the others lack remains ambiguous, while lawlessness explains only part of the free-for-all atmosphere that characterizes war. Each faction quickly establishes and evolves its own laws to satisfy its needs and wants. When values and desires change, one finds oneself outside the law. Rules, both formal and informal, are created and broken in every part of society: the family, church, village, corporation, military, language and literature. Published by First Second in 2004, and translated to English from Italian in 2007 by Spectrum. Afterward by Alexis Siegel, 2006. A 125 page, sturdy paperback with fold in cover flaps. Here is a 2008 Interview with Gipi at Words without Borders.
Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds” (Drawn & Quarterly, 2007) takes place in Israel. There’s been a bombing, and there is a missing person. The themes are familiar and familial. A son is estranged from his father, angry. A kind of detective story evolves, with hints of noir, as Koby engages to find out what’s happened to his father in the aftermath of the bombing. Along the way, Koby discovers love, another theme, mostly unrequited, unresolved, while the characters confront the antagonist of ambiguous relationships. “Exit Wounds” is a comic book told in four chapters of color panel drawings. The details of the drawings act like descriptive prose in a conventional novel. The drawings are realistic but also suggestive. The sequence where Koby and Numi go body surfing is a good example of the lovely and patient interludes that give the novel its grace and gifts. Interview with Rutu Modan at BBC 4, and another at Words without Borders.
“For Halloween this year,
I’m going as myself.
No one will recognize me.
Won’t that be scary?”
“Last year, you might recall,
I went happily as you,
boo-b00ing and who-wh00ing
up and down the haunted block.”
“Once, I went as my father,
and was tricked to snake out
a bewitched litter box.
Dad thought that was a treat.”
“I used to go as my mother
and stay home and pass out
the treats and clean up
after the tricks.”
“Remember the year you dressed
as an octopus? Your purple pelisse
swept the falling leaves, the swish
the only sound across the street.”
“It’s been my habit lately
to sneak out as a house cat,
playing with the position
of my ears and tail – Purrr.”
“Well, for Halloween this year,
I’m going as I am.
No one will know me.
Won’t that be ghostly?”
Watching the baseball playoffs, garage and basement guitar aficionados may notice the similarity between baseball pitch tracking and guitar chord and scale illustrations. A kind of visual metaphor conflates the two methods of viewing a sequence stilled for analysis.
The following tables illustrate a five pitch sequence that parallels a B minor 7th flat 5 chord. The first two pitches were high, and were called balls. The second two, rising fast balls, were swung on and missed. The third pitch looked good. The fourth pitch drifted inside as well as high. The count is two balls and two strikes:
The fifth pitch is high and outside, and the batter lunges for the ball and misses for strike three on the open 6th string:
The sequence of pitches played on the guitar might sound something like this, strike three sounding a muted bass note:
Going west from Porridge,
he tried sponge.
He cut out his tongue,
showed rare courage,
ranged “far and wee.”
Eventually (it was 1953),
he moved to Orange County,
where he arranged his cottage
with books near the sea
and a view of an orange tree
to inspire and reveal
poems of orange, and once a year,
he would renew his vowels
and give his countenance
Sure he was mocked
and called deranged,
but the truth of his trial,
the pip of its opulence -
he’s still happily appealing.
Tubby is into therapy. On any given day, he might drop by his aroma therapist and get a concoction of essential oils rubdown while inhaling infusions of lavender and such to improve, for example, his virility. Or Tubby will go in for a bit of acupuncture. One of his problems is with a knee. Or Tubby will pay a visit to his behavioral therapist. Or he’ll meet his friend Amy for another installment of pretend paramour therapy. Amy is into psychotherapy, so she sees only one therapist, but goes every day.
Tubby’s behavioral therapist has suggested he keep a journal, writing therapy, and he does, and the result is David Lodge’s therapy, a novel titled “Therapy.” Reading is another kind of therapy.
Tubby discovers Kierkegaard, and is struck, somewhat fancifully, by what he sees to be the resemblance of Soren’s issues to his own. Judging from his symptoms, Tubby appears to suffer from depression.
This is the sort of thing that catches his eye in Kierkegaard, from “Either/Or”:
“What is a poet? An unhappy man who conceals profound anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so fashioned that when sighs and groans pass over them they sound like beautiful music.”
What does Tubby relate to here? He’s not a poet. He’s a television sitcom writer, a very successful one. He has a lovely wife, Sally, and two grown children successfully out on their own. He lives in a nice country house with nearby club, and also has a flat in the city, and owns a custom car his daughter has nicknamed “The Richmobile.”
Tubby is free to come and go as he pleases – etcetera. But he has no rest.
It’s not even that he’s not happy. He’s able to enjoy the fine things his money can buy, but enjoyment seems something different from happiness. He contributes to charities. He’s a nice guy. He sticks up to the cops for a street urchin camped out on the stoop of his urban flat.
Tubby appears to be depressed, though depression’s close friend, anxiety, does not come along for the ride. Tubby finds in Kierkegaard someone who understands his problem, a soulmate. Again from “Either/Or”:
“In addition to my numerous other acquaintances I have still one more intimate friend — my melancholy. In the midst of pleasure, in the midst of work, he beckons to me, calls me aside, even though I remain present bodily. My melancholy is the most faithful sweetheart I have had — no wonder that I return the love!”
Tubby loves Sally, but he’s no longer able to listen to her, and when she tells him she’s leaving, he doesn’t hear that either.
The themes of “Therapy” are Kierkegaardian: angst and dread, though both wear a smile in the novel; the seducer, hapless but caring; repetition, particularly the attempt to recover first experiences and to reclaim; commitment, the idea of the aesthetic interest, competitive interest (which may include ethics), and religious interest illustrating three layers of involvement, an analysis that might be applied to just about any pursuit; the absurd (and what better way to illustrate the absurd in contemporary life than the sitcom?), and the pilgrimage.
Lodge has adapted Kierkegaard to the situation comedy, blending references to Soren and his writings into Tubby’s story in unobtrusive ways, but both implicitly and explicitly. “Therapy,” Lodge’s novel, is a situation comedy. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get or don’t appreciate Kierkegaard; the casual reader may still find Lodge’s book an engaging and entertaining reading experience, in spite of its existential crossings. There is within it a playful sense of form and voice. Plus you learn about the making of sitcoms, from an insider’s view.
But about that engagement analysis. The book ends, wildly enough, with a pilgrimage, and Tubby uses a Kierkegaardian commitment analysis to explain the various types of pilgrims he encounters. He glosses “the three stages in personal development according to Kierkegaard – the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious,” applying them to the pilgrims making their way toward Santiago via the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James).
The first pilgrim, “the aesthetic type,” is on the road for enjoyment, to appreciate the views, the air, the exercise. The second pilgrim, the “ethical type,” is concerned with propriety, the rules of the way, procedures, and may be critical of those pilgrims who don’t see the way his way. The third pilgrim, “the true pilgrim,” like Kierkegaard’s true Christian, embraces the absurdity of the non-rational – indeed, that is what calls her to it; passion supersedes commandment. There is no reason to do this, and that becomes the reason for doing it.
“The aesthetic pilgrim didn’t pretend to be a true pilgrim. The ethical pilgrim was always worrying whether he was a true pilgrim. The true pilgrim just did it” (“Therapy” 304-305).
Taking philosophical propositions and turning them into templates is probably a philistine idea, but one that might possibly result in effective therapeutical analysis. To use the three stages as a template, substitute any aim, belief, or disposition you’d like for the word pilgrim in the quote above: hipster, poet, professor, or politician, for example. Or try your own selfie identifying word in place of pilgrim.
 I’ve never been to an acupuncturist, enculturated as I am to believe health care is synonymous with medicine; but this week, walking in town, we happened to pass a sidewalk sign advertising group acupuncture. How does that work, I asked Susan – they skewer you like on a kebab?
 “Therapy,” by David Lodge. Penguin Books, 1996. I had picked up Lodge’s “The Art of Fiction” for a project I was working on. I liked his appeal to the casual reader, and looking at his other books, decided to try “Therapy.” Ethical type Kierkgegaardians may find it merely quaint, but true Kierkgegaardians might enjoy the humor. As for me, I’m not a Kierkegaardian at all, but thanks to “Therapy,” I do know now how to pronounce his name. Maybe that makes me an aesthetic Kierkgegaardian?
“I was once a pretty lime green,
like the tile through the chlorine
of the fresh swimming pool
where I used to lounge
on a lemony table of iced tea.”
“The hands that reach for us
have grown effete, too.
Their grab and rub and snap
lack a former vigor.”
The old towels hang whipped and frayed,
lopsided and wrinkled, once plush nap
now mashed bald and threadbare.
The old towels dangle on bent nails
in a dank garage, reduced to rags.