Page 45 Review by Stephen
"The attic was infested with angels again. I could hear them bumping around above the ceiling. Plus, the harp music made it pretty obvious."
If my name were Jacob, I probably wouldn't go climbing any ladders. You never know what you'll encounter.
What Jakob Wywialowski discovers, once he's stuck his head over the proverbial parapet and up through the attic hatch, is a small orchestra of Byzantine angels sat on the floorboards or upon the carved antique chairs belonging to his great-aunt Rachel. Now, harp music would probably prove soothing to most, but there's a lute, a lyre and some sort of trumpet. That's sure going to carry. And although they stop strumming the second they see Jakob (and stare him down coldly), they strike right up again the second he's popped the lid back.
Have you ever had noisy neighbours? Plus, you know, if you don't take action, things can escalate.
"One thing leads to another, and before you know it, you've got Seraphim."
The angels are rendered, as per Byzantine tradition, faces turned but in bodily profile, even when all hell breaks loose later on. There's an exquisitely funny, ornately framed, two-dimensional tableau of this (wherein the angels remain coloured in flat olive hues in contrast to their contemporary assailants) which can be viewed from all angles, as you might a church ceiling from the same period. For the same effect, hold the book above your head then turn it round.
The tale takes a truly upsetting twist (which is sadly familiar if you transpose it), but the punchline is perfectly judged for maximum, serves-you-right mirth.
So, twelve short stories and a sermon (!), some of which have seen the light of day before but in different ways, some of which haven't except as one-off performance pieces, with one which is brand-new to the public. Apart from a couple which were co-created by the couple for comics, all are written by Audrey Niffenegger ('The Time Traveller's Wife', 'Her Fearful Symmetry' etc), and each has been transformed into illustrated prose or full-blown comics by Eddie Campbell of ALEC OMNIBUS, BACCHUS, FROM HELL, FROM HELL COMPANION, THE TRUTH IS A CAVE IN THE BLACK MOUNTAINS, THE PLAYWRIGHT etc, all reviewed.
Kicking a piece of prose fiction off with a double-page illustration is a risky business, but the specific shimmering imagery preceding 'Secret Life, with Cats' (note the exact title including punctuation) could not anticipate and complement what follows better and Campbell's contribution to 'The Composite Boyfriend' is a stroke of mischievous genius. It's a paper-doll dress-up of a naked, bald man with slots through which you can stick the tabs attached to the various mix-and-match head gear, shirts, jackets, boots, high-heeled shoes, pants and panties. There's additional lateral thinking I'll leave you to discover yourself, but only Eddie Campbell would think to include a variety of genitalia for preferences' sake or a fig leaf for the prudish, deeply religious or asexual.
The short story itself is a free-flowing composite too:
"I met him at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where he worked as a guard. I met him in a class I was taking. I met him at a school where we both taught. I met him at a party; we smiled at each other across a crowded room. We were introduced to each other by our mutual friend Paula, an Austrian immigrant who had escaped from the Nazis as a young girl."
"...I gave him my phone number but accidentally transposed two digits because I had just changed it. He managed to call anyway."
The sex was largely problematic.
So, what are you in for thematically? The title would suggest bizarre romances, and there are plenty of relationships here (romances, family, friendships) which either begin bizarrely or take quite the startling turn at the transdimensional traffic lights. There are initial connections, strange transformations and passages through mirrors, hatches and doors, whether you can see all of them or not. Offers, for examples, are doorways; agreements are you stepping through.
There are also a great many cats, some living, some dead, one dead-and-buried and about-to-be-exhumed, while others were never alive. See juggled ocelots. That they were specifically ocelots is funny in its own right.
Originally written between 2003 and 2014, I note that 'Secret Life, with Cats' was originally published in 2006, three years prior to Niffenegger's novel 'Her Fearful Symmetry' and I wonder which more informed the other, for they share more than a few of the same elements. It's a story about houses, one of which is bequeathed to the narrator by a friend called Ruth whom she met while they worked together at a cat rescue, rehabilitation and re-housing centre after Ruth disappears. The narrator finds that she too would like to disappear and does so, twice - the first time in order to escape life with a neglectful husband by moving into her new house; the second time in order to escape what she finds there. After an extended, predominantly tender tale, the narrator abruptly signs off, over and out with a shockingly ruthless expediency which is so completely in keeping with her quiet, resigned pragmatism that it is comical.
Ever and always, throughout this collection, you can see the creators' eyes twinkle.
As well as the humour, there's an unworldly eeriness to some of Eddie's art here, not least in 'The Ruin of Grant Lowery' which begins in the very fixed and concrete location of "the Village Tap on Rancine" before some of those dangerous doors begin beckoning. At that bar an imperious-looking lady accosts him, her face a too perfectly beautiful, impassive mask. She asks Grant Lowery to settle a bet between her friends, but that invitation too is a mask for what she really wants. It's a clever approach, to offer alternatives. One of her friends has a facade which exhibits slightly feral features; the other's smile is so asymmetrical that "Grant wondered if she had been in some sort of accident". I liked this: "Migly, as he looked at her, seemed to become subtly more asymmetrical, until she was almost cubist." Wait until you see what Campbell does with that! Wait until you learn what Grant Lowery doesn't: he doesn't run away.
The eeriness is in evidence too in 'Backwards in Seville'. There the pages open right up with vacuums of white: silent space in which only five sentences are actually uttered and upon which each panel seems to hang as if suspended in space, but more accurately time.
The effect is that within fluid prose - as the narrator talks herself out of an existence she no longer cherishes in favour of her frail, aging father - each solitary reflection is given its due. It's difficult not to linger. It also divorces a blur-faced Helene from the world she perceives and the life she has led which she reflects upon remotely, dispassionately and disappointedly as their boat backs away from Seville.
"She had met Evan when she was twenty-eight and he was thirty-six. He's always seemed on the verge of marrying her; she was patient.
"When he broke up with her fourteen years later and married a girl half her age, she understood that she'd been gullible and that he was a jerk, but, oh, well, and so she had lapsed into a quiet, permanent rage."
Helene's father has been recently widowed, you see, and she has taken her mother's place on their traditional Mediterranean cruise holiday. Slowly but surely as Helene reflects upon what little she has made of her own life, she comes to the conclusion that her more interactive, proactive, still-smiling father could make far better use of her extra time which she - being too timid and ineffectual to date - wouldn't have the first clue what to do with. Almost anyone other than Audrey Niffenegger would have then turned this into a cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for. But such proscriptive stifling is really not her style.
So we come, appropriately enough, to the 'Gaeia Manchester Sermon' which Niffenegger originally delivered in a cathedral to a congregation celebrating the Manchester Literary Festival in October 2014. Yes, it was a real sermon delivered in a real cathedral to a real congregation, even though the writer had long abandoned organised religion in favour of Art, and all of their interests lay firmly and fervently focussed thataway!
She is diplomatic.
"The thing that makes us want God is the same thing that makes us want Art - we want meaning. We want there to be more than meets the eye."
She is honest.
"I am an inappropriate person to be giving a sermon. I have spent thirty-six years of my life avoiding sermons. I might even be allergic to sermons; they make me itch."
Not rich. Her mother left the Catholic Church shortly after Audrey left art school upon graduation. Her Mum realised that she didn't like the way the church treated women, and more. Her local church's pastor wrote her a letter in which he said he was sorry she was leaving, but that he prayed that she would please still continue to give them the same stipend of money. That was his priority.
What is so very clever about the sermon is that does address the ecclesiastical, marries rather than divorces it from the history of art, argues with evidence that its scriptures and strictures are contradictory, hypocritical with respect to said art, and then humbly enounces a far more inspiring, communicative and so constructive potential focus for our shared devotion.
As has now become laughably traditional at Page 45 - but never once regretted or rescinded - I now pronounce this my book of the year, once again as early as March. Hahahahahaha!