Close Reading — December 24, 2014, 8:00 am

Time Out of Joint In Richard McGuire’s Here

“One learns about the characters the way a machine would, by analyzing discrete moments of their lives, like a search engine combing for patterns.”


Panel of “Here” published in Comic Art #8. © Richard McGuire.

In a well-known painting by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte, a miniature locomotive emerges from a dining-room fireplace as the smoke from its stack trails back under the mantelpiece. He called the work, completed in 1938, La durée poignardée, which translates literally to “ongoing time stabbed with a dagger.” (The painting is commonly known in English as Time Transfixed, a title Magritte never cared for.) “The image of a locomotive is immediately familiar,” Magritte wrote of the painting in a letter to an acquaintance. “Its mystery is not perceived. In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery—the image of a dining room fireplace—was joined.”

“Ongoing time stabbed with a dagger” could well describe the long-awaited new graphic novel Here by Richard McGuire, in which an ordinary plot of land in New Jersey is depicted at dozens of moments in time, from three billion years in the past to twenty-two thousand years in the future. The book is an expansion of a six-page comic of the same name, which McGuire drew in 1989 for an issue of Raw, the comics magazine published out of SoHo by graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, and editor Françoise Mouly.

A comic about a place, “Here” (1989) took its premise from a one-page strip called “A Short History of America,” which R. Crumb had published ten years earlier. In Crumb’s piece, Anytown, U.S.A., evolves over the course of a century from a bucolic pasture to a whistle-stop town to a twentieth-century strip mall. “Here” doesn’t have the satirical edge of “A Short History of America,” but it is more daring aesthetically; McGuire nests frames within frames and years within years, juxtaposing scenes that on their own would be banal, but when put together on a page are surprising and new. It was one of the first strips to explore the idea that a comic doesn’t need to tell its story chronologically. At the time, it “revolutionized the narrative possibilities of comic strips,” the graphic novelist Chris Ware wrote in Comic Art magazine. “Cézanne famously accomplished it with painting … and Richard McGuire, I think, did it with comics.” The strip was so influential, in fact, that twenty-five years later, reading his new book, McGuire’s technique feels almost conventional—a natural way to portray day-to-day life.

If, decades from now, a cartoonist is ever considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature, a likely candidate would be Chris Ware. Ware’s books include Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories, both of which are about lonely losers living in Chicago. The emptiness and the drudgery of their lives are offset by layouts and color schemes that are obsessively, ecstatically detailed. Ware draws his cartoons with the clear-line style of Tintin and Gasoline Alley while packing his pages with information, sometimes jumping a century from one frame to the next. Ware acknowledged the influence the 1989 version of “Here” had on his 2012 poster for the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois, a work he dedicated to McGuire. It depicts a young Ernest Hemingway running to catch a football, Frank Lloyd Wright standing on the balcony of his Heurtley House, Robert McCormick flying overhead in a Sikorsky S-38, Potawatomi and Illiniwek Indians working outside, insects circling palm fronds from an antediluvian era. Ware wrote of McGuire’s “Here”: “I don’t think there’s another strip that’s had a greater effect on me or my comics.”


“Oak Park” and “River Forest” posters, Chris Ware. Courtesy The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest.

The graphic novel Here, like its precursor, is more poetry than prose, an attempt to capture within the narrow confines of a living room the chaos of the eons. It weaves the dramas of modern human life with those of geological history in a way that is not unlike Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. But whereas Malick is ponderous (opening with an epigraph from Job), McGuire is playful (quoting pop songs like George and Ira Gershwin’s “Love Is Here to Stay”). The site on which everything takes place is like an improv stage. Characters from different periods come and go, unwittingly cracking one-liners about the events that are occurring years before or years after. One of the busier scenes in the book follows a fight between Benjamin Franklin and his son William about the future of the American colonies. The Proprietary House, where William Franklin lived as the last colonial governor of New Jersey, is a block down the street. The page is an aggregate of grievances occurring on top of one another, each labeled by year: floodwaters flowing through the window in 2111, a hole in the ceiling in 1949, broken glass on the carpet in 1963, and insults and put-downs from the Fifties through the Eighties.  


Here (2014), Richard McGuire. Pantheon Books.

A spread from the end of the book is more subdued: A Lenape Indian from 1620 is walking, bow in hand, across the same soil on which a construction worker, in 1907, is building a house. Inside, a woman from 1957 is wandering around the living room, and a radio, in 1968, is playing the Peggy Lee pop song “Is That All There Is?”


Here (2014), Richard McGuire. Pantheon Books.

According to an interview in Comic Art, McGuire got the idea for the original “Here” when his roommate told him about the Windows operating system, which had been released only a few years earlier, in 1985. And indeed, the strip has the look of a busy computer screen. Revisiting the concept a quarter of a century later—when personal computers have become ubiquitous—McGuire goes even further, expanding the strip into a 300-page book. The result feels less like reading a novel than like killing time online or flipping through TV channels. One learns about the characters the way a machine would, by analyzing discrete moments of their lives, like a search engine combing for patterns. It could just as well be read back to front as it could front to back.

Writers made use of this kind of fragmentary storytelling in literature long before the time of the television or the computer. It’s the ambling fancy of the decadent brat epitomized by the character des Esseintes, in Huysmans’s novel Against Nature (1884), who holes up in his house in the country and gives himself over to the theater of his mind, to images and ideas instead of people and events. In Here, McGuire alludes to the despair and to the loneliness that are always lurking within such elaborate forms of distraction and escape. Two of the drabbest, grimmest spreads in the book are nods to studies of isolation and inertia by Edward Hopper that use single-family homes as their settings.


Clockwise from top left: Detail from Here (2014), Richard McGuire. Pantheon Books; Detail from “Cape Cod Morning,” Edward Hopper; “Sun in an Empty Room,” Edward Hopper; Here (2014), Richard McGuire. Pantheon Books.

Hanging on the walls of the living room, in various eras, are posters or reproductions of paintings: two by Vermeer and one by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. All of them show girls who are reading alone, their heads tilted down as if they’re praying.


Left to right: Detail from Here (2014), Richard McGuire. Pantheon Books; “Young Girl Reading,” Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

 The Peggy Lee pop song “Is That All There Is?” which appears in the book’s final scene, was inspired by Thomas Mann’s short story “Disillusionment.” It’s about an unhappy old man—possibly a caricature of Schopenhauer or of Nietzsche—who wanders around Venice muttering about how spoiled he was as a child, how high his expectations for life were, and how constantly disappointed he is with everything. Nothing he experiences—not even his parents’ house burning down—prevents him from asking if that’s all there is to life in a modern world. The way Here skips from one eon to the next makes it seem as though it’s asking the same question: Is this all there is to our past and future?

 In “Mr. Natural’s 719th Meditation,” another R. Crumb progenitor of “Here,” a little sage with a long beard walks through a desert, unrolls a mat, and sits down to meditate. Suddenly, a highway is paved in front of him. As in “A Short History of America,” a strip mall pops up, and soon a cop is yelling at him to move. The sage, Mr. Natural, chants “Om,” and the buildings around him disintegrate, the winds of the desert blowing all the scraps and detritus away. Mr. Natural is then back in the unsullied desert. He snaps out of his trance, stretches, rolls up his mat, and walks whistling out of the frame.

 Here might be what Mr. Natural sees as he escapes momentarily from the ordinary cycle of the days and the years. It’s life seen from the inside out rather than the outside in, and it’s indicative of the generation of cartoonists that Richard McGuire and Chris Ware belong to. Their comics are models of the mind, in which what was, what could’ve been, what is, and what might be are next to one another on the page, letting the reader, as Magritte claimed, perceive their otherwise invisible mystery.

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Acres of crossword puzzles Americans fill in each day:


In Burma, a newly discovered noseless monkey was assumed to be critically endangered because—despite its efforts to keep its head tucked between its legs on rainy days—it sneezes whenever rain falls into its nasal cavity and thereby alerts hunters to its presence.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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