The Spoiler Engine

Making History
Dysfunctional Theatre Company
Treehouse Theater, NYC, March 19—April 4, 2015

MakingHistory

Genetic manipulation and mechanical intelligence and mobility in spacetime feel like a day at the office anymore, and for the central character of Making History, the last one of those is literally his job. A scientist at a secret government-funded time-travel lab, Patrick Tyler is no world-conquering mastermind but just one of many anonymous modern professionals seeing what he might do because he can.

He goes a long way for the simple pleasures such sci-fi characters usually realize too late were all they needed — and for more of it than anyone needs, with one family each in 1987 and 2019. No hilarity ensures, as playwright Mim Granahan gets a good sense of loss out of the very essence of Patrick’s circumstance; home is where he’s going, but never coming, as Sarah Kirkland Snider would say. Director Eric Chase choreographs the double-spiral of past and future swirling around Patrick (a great fraying everyman performance by Cory Boughton) in a clever and melancholy, ghostly way, with figures from the man’s two lives and different phases of their own often sharing the same space but only seen by him.

Patrick’s one-man mission-control on each end, Freddie (a humane and conflicted Adam Files) in 2019 and Alvin (a kindly, crazy, insightfully awkward Rob Brown) in 1987, are fearful for his safety but unable to resist his discoveries. The domestic wreckage of his disappearances from one period to the other (in painfully real time) are played out with a close-focus compassion rare to pop science-fiction theatre, especially well-portrayed by Melissa Roth as his disillusioned wife in the 1980s and Erik Olson as his traumatized teen son in the 2010s.

The story comes to pivot not on the one character who shifts between two times, but on the one who survives them the way the rest of us have to, Patrick’s now grown up daughter from the ’80s, Harmony (a powerful portrait of contained hurt and incandescent intellectual curiosity by Amy Overman). The defining moment of the story, a La Jetée-esque convergence of Patrick’s two lives centered on a memory he and Harmony impossibly share, is heartbreakingly played by Boughton and Overman and best left to be discovered by viewers (the show runs through April 4).

It bookends a slightly rushed but inevitably necessary act of sacrifice by Harmony, which closes the circle on this fable of elders who see no alternative to doing the wrong thing and new generations who see, and get, no choice but to do what’s right. A moral to care for each other, because the future, unseeing, will take care of itself.

Hard Return: Skidoo

Skidoo-1968

[From time to time I’ll report my fresh impressions of a cult classic I’m the last to know about — just in case I’m the first-to-last.]

So, when he found it conspicuous by its absence from my capsule psychohistory of anchor star Jackie Gleason, my editor at HiLobrow.com set me a strict assignment to finally watch Skidoo, a bizarre transitional countercultural artifact from 1968, directed by would-be trailblazer of golden-age Hollywood Otto Preminger and featuring anarchist-for-all-seasons Groucho Marx’s last film role.

I’d been vaguely aware of the movie through a library copy of its soundtrack LP that stayed with us very briefly ’cuz my mom was a fan of Nilsson, who scored Skidoo along with motivational cartoon-fable The Point! and other background-music to my Vietnam-era childhood. A few endurance-test minutes occasionally caught on MeTV or TCM were the extent of my other exposure. But it was time to open my mind to the full experience, maaan.

The basic plot (as opposed to meta peace & love subtext) of Skidoo is that a retired mob enforcer, played by Gleason, is asked in unrefusable terms by his former boss, a kingpin known as God (Groucho), to whack a rival (Mickey Rooney) who’s in prison about to turn state’s evidence against them. Gleason breaks into prison to do the deed, but accidentally ingests the LSD stash of a draft-resisting celly and renounces violence; meanwhile, Gleason’s daughter is courting a hippie (cult action-hero John Phillip Law) and his entire nomadic community, who are invited to camp out at the family’s mafia mansion by Gleason’s wife, played by Carol Channing. That cast is less than half the story, as the presence of other pop warhorses from gangster-movie legend George Raft to beachsploitation boy-bander Frankie Avalon to three Batman villains (Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith) will make you think you’re hallucinating this yourself after some bad Taco Bell and too much marathon on MeTV or TCM.

In the early scenes Preminger and screenwriter Doran William Cannon spoof consumer culture in ways that illuminatingly show what Sterling Cooper was already up against, and simultaneously manage the least stereotypical reading of hippie ethics put to mainstream film at that time, even while lampooning the movement’s pronouncements in a not-unfair way (for someone involved seems to understand it from the inside). And in the earliest scenes Preminger seems to be burlesquing the Warhol Factory multiple-screen technique, and burlesquing a Hollywood that would actually let him spend money to do so.

It gets more conventional as it goes along, as Gleason’s attempts to break back out of jail descend into standard caper parody and the irritating neo-Tin Pan Alley whimsy of Nilsson takes increasing control of the narrative in a string of stoned song-and-dance show-stoppages. It’s not a gamechanging redefinition of Gleason’s crowdpleasing catalogue either; he is nothing if not, erm, game, but goes through his familiar repertoire of mugging and hysteria and threats and bathos; his ambition was wide, but his abilities pretty much in one track with high walls.

Everything but when it will end has gotten pretty predictable and tedious by the time Channing leads a flotilla of hippies to overwhelm the offshore yacht where God is hiding (loooong story), and rescues the movie as well as her daughter, who’s been kinda kidnapped there. Everyone else is teetering on a career cliff between classic entertainment and pioneering performance art (spoiler: they all fall straight down), but Channing cuts through time, indomitably unselfconscious, otherworldly, at almost-50 even then going from dayglo-Jackie O couture to seminude Rabelaisian setpiece to proto-glam carnival outfit to deliver a benedictory anthem of being yourself, standing like some Yggdrasil of pop liberation and self-aware theatricality that stretches from Mardi Gras to Weimar cabaret and midcentury gay camp to Lady Gaga and stuff we haven’t thought of yet. She, like Jimi, had her own world to live through, and getting returned to mine this way made the whole trip worth it.

Beyond Belief

Temple

The Temple or, Lebensraum
Written and directed by Nat Cassidy

February 18 through 28, 2015

The Brick Theatre
579 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211

With Matthew Trumbull, Arthur Aulisi, Tristan Colton, Zac Hoogendyk, Ridley Parson, John D Gardner, John Blaylock, Eric Gilde and Adriana Jones

 

Death is the undiscovered country, and The Temple is an expedition to map the unseeable. We’re suspended between all territory, in a sunken German U-boat toward the end of World War II. Karl Heinrich is what a later era would call our point-of-view character, though there’s no making sense of what we see through his eyes.

Escorted as a VIP by the submarine’s cynical and demoralized crew, he’s the outsider who brings fresh perspective, though there is no outside in the contracting madness of this vast, cramped tomb. That a Nazi true believer on a boatful of non-believing butchers is the figure of reason shows how irreparable the ship’s and its state’s moral compass have become.

The men (played by a remarkable ensemble as weary, weathered lost souls too dischordantly perfect to single anyone out) operate like the guts of the machine they inhabit, armored and smothered like the paranoid Third Reich, acting as one but fraying into squabbles and accusations and brawling like the gears of a clock grinding into immobility, periodically speaking in unison or sounding recurrent thematic refrains in Nat Cassidy’s intricate script, a kind of funerary chorale.

Temple congImperial transgression was a theme of the H.P. Lovecraft story that inspired the play, materialized similarly here in two mystic totems whose theft from a strange half-dead refugee of some unknown cultural origin triggers grave consequences from alien forces; Lovecraft may have been one of the inventors of this trope but he too knew it was just one of the trappings of the sufficient monstrosity within the human imagination.

The ship’s doomed mission and pointless cause are made plain, while nothing is simple about the enormity of the destruction these men are part of; the monumental and intimate atrocities of 20th century warfare and the presumptions of superiority it grew out of in the age of monarchy (and into, in our own barbaric present) defy rational analysis. And as Heinrich, Matthew Trumbull gives a performance of titanic existential dissonance, at once bemused and recriminating, as he channels but does not explain the ghastly absurdity around him.

That horror is radiating from the crew as it pushes in on them from the exterior, and occasional insights leak from Heinrich and the men like bubbles to the surface of a consuming sea, flickering shafts of light we try to hold our view of. Awareness is possible, but the odds against it are nearly incalculable.

Saundra Yaklin’s set design brilliantly enforces the claustrophobia, placing the audience around the stage area’s corridor-like space to mimic the Jonah’s-whale ship interior, seating us like juries over the action and under each other’s scrutiny. Morgan Zipf-Meister’s lighting shapes the space and paces the ordeal in a catastrophic choreography, as failing lanterns strobe manically or emergency lamps wane like breathless candles. Temple supp

Belief once meant confidence in what’s beyond understanding, not commitment to what makes no objective sense, and Heinrich repeatedly tells the men to “have faith” or that “I believe in you.” The temple of the title, the center of a lost undersea civilization from the Lovecraft story, is seen here as a phantasmal shadow of meaning, but as the play ends on a masterful note of narrative suspension you should witness for yourself, it’s clear, and inescapable, and maybe even reassuring, that there’s always a longer way down.

You, and the Dog That Bit You

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Bonedive Scrounger
The Brick 1/22-31, 2015

The churning, classic, aspiring big city, constantly memorializing and replacing itself, gives you ever more ends of the world to live through. Early in Bonedive Scrounger a longtime bar patron tells a new one that the site is built over an ancient Native burial ground, and the new guy says he thought they said it was a landfill, and the regular says, “Right.” We all end up on the scrapheap of history, and treasure is in the eye of the finder.

Set in a gentrifying early-1990s New York, the play tosses on layers of now-archaic tech (polaroids instead of phone-cameras, classified dating ads instead of OKCupid) to highlight un-throw-outable human behaviors (say, the predatory pettiness of taking involuntary selfies of your passed-out date). The wilderness flattened under Manhattan and environs is simulated in a deer-hunting videogame at the back of the bar, and the metaphorical wordplay of some patrons (navigated with mischievous brilliance by playwright Fred Backus) is like the prophetic riddles of some unknown tribe in an old explorer movie.

The explorer is the aptly cowboy-named Bronco (a contained and dimly desperate po-mo Frank Capra-film characterization by Jorge Cordova), an aspiring author who wanders into the bar where most of the action and metaphysics take place. Jimmy, a bottle-draining sage who seems to be delivering his half of an earbud conversation with annunciating angels (in an inspired, hazily antic portrayal by Bryan Enk), likens the quest for libations to some primal nomadic search for sustenance, and it’s true; by definition everyone in a bar is from somewhere else.

Bronco may be an interloper to the regular crowd, but they all have other places to be, or did. Clementina, actually the one other newcomer (a performance of intense natural dignity by the usually uproarious Rebecca Comtois), is there to meet a blind date who never does get seen; bartender Elie (imagined with masterful muted umbrage by Timothy McCown Reynolds) is of definitively indeterminate Eastern European origin; the ambiguously gifted photographer/philosopher Annie (incarnated with hilarious simmering mystique by Alyssa Simon) has walked in from every beatnik/hippie exploitation movie made between 1950 and 1975; and Bull, the brawler and official in-house voice of disapproval (a portrait of noble menace and self-declared authority from Bob Laine), comes back and forth to the bar from a deathwatch for his faithful, ailing, totemically identified dog.

In the Eugene O’Neill era, Bronco might have been the unappreciated dreamer among working-class drones, but sympathies are as shifting as the demolished and rebuilt urban landscape, and we see him and the bar denizens in very changing lights as the play progresses. The pace is real-time but revelatory, thanks to director Maggie Cino (who also had the idea the rearrange the small theater’s seating so it runs along one long wall, putting us in one big figurative booth at the side of a convincing industrial-revolution bar space).

Interrogation is a common mode of the patrons’ conversation, feeling out motives and drawing conclusions of their own. Seen perhaps through Bronco’s eyes as an off-the-boat caricature for most of the play, Elie at the end gets an eloquent speech about local Darwinism that Bronco would rather not hear, and Annie remains unknowable while posing all the questions he’d rather not put to himself. These depths within the deceptive demimonde stereotypes were there all the time, but no one asked them.

So by the end they speak for themselves, and Clementina fits in with the mismatch but Bronco not so much, and somehow, the more honest oddballs will survive the waves of imposters around them. The bar is a symbolic crossroads of course, and much popular fiction dreams of seeking out lost societies and magic realms; fewer, braver fantasies, like Bonedive Scrounger, consider what happens when Brigadoon doesn’t want you.

Red Ink

France Newspaper Attack

Those who can’t keep one thought in their head go around slaughtering people, but it’s incumbent on the rest of us to keep two or more. The murderers of four cartoonists, two cops and at least six other people in France have created martyrs in the way they spend so much time hoping to do, and, as in the case of your average religious-fanatic douchebag, it’s ill-deserved. Paris’ Charlie Hebdo magazine, once you (okay, once I) have heard of it and check it out, is a juvenile, simplistic, slapdash and occasionally mildly amusing satire pub. That the pushbutton provocations of its cartoons would move anyone to mass-murder is a measure of how mangled the minds of these extremist morons are.

I’m sure many people who have put up memorial messages today were not familiar with the content of the “speech” they were defending — and in this, they have a small thing in common with those who oppress and kill in the name of the Bible or Qur’an. Not that I’m comparing anyone who stands up for unconditional free speech to a murderer — keep two thoughts in your head. But many of the same people would not want to be thought of as defenders of the borderline homophobic, definitely Der Stürmer-style caricatures more than occasionally appearing in Charlie Hebdo. (A helpful sampling, for legit and necessary marketplace-of-ideas purposes, is here; note to religious zealots, please don’t kill me.) One pic of Muhammad “creating Islam” by mixing “doom” and “hatred” and “camel urine” into a cauldron is straight out of medieval anti-Semitic caricature, with the players changed.

And I too believe it should all be allowed — but just ’cuz I as a Jew approve of the right to issue marching permits to people who would exterminate me, I’m not obligated to show enthusiasm for what they do. NO speech is ever an attack warranting deadly retaliation, but not all free-speakers have something worth saying. And not all of them take risks worth taking — for a mature consciousness, there has to be a better reason for doing something than that someone told you not to do it. Muslims are insulted by seeing depictions of Muhammad; millions of decent, lawful, loving everyday Muslims. And indiscriminate retaliation against this precept, because a relative handful of monsters try to enforce it lethally, may be something to be reluctantly defended, but not readily applauded.

There are so many transgressive and discomforting cartoonists and comedians out there who deserve to be considered as well as protected…your Sam Hendersons, your Amy Schumers (note to religious zealots: don’t kill Sam Henderson and Amy Schumer). But we should keep parallel thoughts, and not maintain double standards. It is so common for the full weight of society (though yes, not specific bursts of gunfire) to be leveled against anyone who mounts satiric or sober criticism of Israel (my own people’s homeland) as an unspeakable anti-Semitism, when it’s just criticism of a government, open to and needing criticism just like the crazed theocracy ISIL wants or the national-security state America is getting or your own town if it didn’t pick up the garbage last week. How many people care about the average Muslim enough to modify their outrage now?

I mourn how life is ended for the victims of this insanity, and life is changed forever for their loved ones, and life is harder for the Muslims of France (whose representatives immediately denounced the attack on life, democracy and expression) and the rest of Europe (where haters were already marching against Islam earlier this week and real leaders like Angela Merkel were sticking their neck out against such hatred in all forms). I hope the atrocity in Paris gives rise to a determined sense of broadened community, not just a self-satisfied gesture of militarized defiance. Guess which one is more likely? I’m sorry, but je ne suis pas Charlie, not exactly. I hope that’s not…heresy.

Time Out of Mind

There’s an elegant graphic overlay on the cover of David Bowie’s current CD, a sticker that shares one word with the collection’s title; “Nothing has changed.” runs along the bottom, a ghostly slogan without a product, while the sticker (fixed perpendicularly to the title and intersecting at the “changed.”) promises “the Very Best of Bowie,” a concession to marketing he may have designed to be clawed off the minute you buy it.Nothing_Has_Changed

Qualms about commercialism notwithstanding, this is a very public album — though he starts off doing what he damn pleases (and I’m pleased too), with the brand-new “Sue (or, In a Season of Crime),” a soaringly melancholy soliloquy of a lover betrayed by his own blind eye set to a gorgeous grinding jazz symphony. On an album with a lot of them, the concept of the remix is pushed to new conceptual territories by the “single edit” you can hear on YouTube that makes it seem as if Sue died, and the 7-plus-minute version in this set, which makes it clear that Sue just left. Bowie’s always been as much about choices as changes, and we hear morphed versions of his most familiar songs here, which mirror the mutations he always does in concert.

But they won’t be so unfamiliar to many; these are typically the versions released to those who aren’t necessarily buying the albums they came from; radio singles, club mixes. So while alien to the ears of hardcore fans, this is music (re)made with some marketplace in mind. It’s just that Bowie realizes that marketplace is now more literal — more people will hear his songs on in-store mixes and TV ads than on what “radio” is left, and the punched-up, cut-down versions are a strange kind of backwards avant-gardism.

The directional is not just figurative — the definitive version of Nothing has changed. starts with his new composition and travels in reverse, over three disks, to the first song he ever released (before he was even named Bowie). His crowning statement, The Next Day (from just The Last Year at this writing) is too fresh to need reassessment, though it is summarized agreeably here. This is “The Very Best,” not The Very Lost; I guess he won’t open the vaults all the way until after he’s in one, but there are some revelations you won’t recognize, including several languorous, lovely songs from the never-released 2001 Toy album and stuff that only ever appeared as online premiums or limited-edition bonus plastic.

Nothing_Has_Changed_2CDHis best song of the Aughts, “Isn’t It Evening,” stays lost (on a solo album by longtime accomplice Earl Slick), but the overlooked backbeat to 9/11-era New York, “New Killer Star,” gets a much-deserved second hearing; the best songs from Heathen, which weren’t technically on Heathen, like “Safe” and “When the Boys Come Marching Home,” stay buried on CD B-sides but some of the actual album’s cream still rises (like the astonishing reclamation of Petula Clark-era britpop “Everyone Says ‘Hi’”). Heavily second-guessed interpretations of tracks from ‘hours…’ and Earthling show those songs’ strong construction and resistance to tampering; faux-experimental follies like 1. Outside and Buddha of Suburbia don’t take up more than their share of space; the first two of those warrant deeper reconsideration (Bowie’s late-1990s cyber-folk on ‘hours…’ and plastic-drum & base on Earthling were infectious and ingenious expressive journalism of a cultural era, and even 1. Outside’s deliberate hit-and-miss struck some gems, like the not-here “Thru’ These Architects Eyes”).

The 1980s, of course, can’t not outstay their welcome since they were infamously one of Bowie’s most prolific if least productive times; they take up Disk 2, after “Buddha” (1994) and the brilliant edge-disco of “Jump They Say” from the criminally overlooked Black Tie White Noise (1993) lead it off. This was a characteristically paradoxical period, highlighted by a handful of songs that stand with his best from albums that maybe shouldn’t have been made to begin with. Some of the vision is here (if, as we’ve gotten used to, snipped for old-time radio’s timeslots) — “Loving the Alien,” “Blue Jean,” “China Girl,” “Modern Love” — plus a lot of his adrift novelty singles and endless supply of movie themes (“Dancing in the Street,” “This Is Not America”), but not one-off resurrections like the exhilarating Cold War postmortem “Pretty Pink Rose” (maybe a rights issue with collaborator Adrian Belew?). “Underground” or “Magic Dance” are astonishing by their absence (especially since “Underground” is the rare example of a Bowie song that was much better in its single abbreviation) — how an artist of Bowie’s unerring cultural instincts (and, one presumes, sizable vanity) hasn’t noticed that everyone under 40 now views Labyrinth the way earlier generations of pop consumers saw The Wizard of Oz, I can’t figure out — unless my estimate of the vanity is
really off, and/or those songs can make a lot more money if he waits for the rumored movie sequel to be out.

But after all, while there’s a skim of his mid-career masterpiece Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), there’s not a sound from the brilliant Baal or the troubled Tin Machine, bookends of his expeditions to the experimental outlands at the beginning and end of his most commercial decade. And the museum-quality Berlin Trilogy gets one perfunctory hit apiece; the compilation’s elegant design has a priceless succession of double-portraits showing Bowie looking in mirrors throughout his many lives, and in his re-selected past as in his concert tours, he’s got many selves to choose between and at any given time some of his mirrors on the wall are not speaking to each other.

Bowie’s rarities phase in and out of available existence like Bigfoot sightings (the absent Tibet-benefit “Planet of Dreams,” anyone? The also-not-here “I Pray, Olé” from the limited-time Ryko Lodger reissue?). So even I’m not sure if the swooning romantic sax-driven Spiders from Mars studio-take of “All the Young Dudes” I know from a bootleg 45 I spent what should have been my subway-fare back home on as a teenager has ever shown up on an official release until now; in any case I’m happy to have it on this collection since even I don’t have a turntable in my car.Nothing_Has_Changed_2LP

The jumpy edits can get unnerving to those familiar with the full versions, but familiarity is something the artist has never been content with for long. It’s satisfying when some tracks are allowed to stretch out as nature and the 1970s intended (like “Wild Is the Wind”), or are grand and lean like his compact, self-contained epics of the glam era — “Oh! You Pretty Things” for instance, which is also beautifully drifted back into “Changes” in the one sonic overlap of the whole collection. The rest is isolated bursts of brilliance. The lengthiest compilation before now, Sound + Vision from the end of the 1980s, did a better job of tracing the currents of his thought, but it had a twenty-years-shorter canvas to consider; Nothing has changed. is less about his character as an artist than the ways and moments in which he has connected with a mass public.

Sometimes he’s met them more than halfway and many other times he’s taken them farther along than they could’ve imagined. His inclusion of exuberant but underdeveloped early entries like “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and exhibitions of his youthful aspiration vaulting far above his ability (“Silly Boy Blue”) shows that the model of his creativity is not the often-repeated “chameleon,” but chrysalis — he absorbs and generates ideas and re-emerges in a new form that can encompass the times and his reactions to them.

The aching, charming, bitchy, ambitious hits from Space Oddity through Station to Station (“Golden Years,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Drive-In Saturday,” “Life on Mars?” to put it backwards, and lots more) could surely benefit from context but of course need no introduction. Then there are some more missing glimpses of doors he didn’t go through — like “Man in the Middle,” the anti-romantic master-portrait of self-consumed celebrity that just prefigured Ziggy; and the deeply buried trippy fairytales of his artworld outfit Feathers (some of whose songs or riffs, like “I Pray, Olé” much later, were reprocessed into more well-known official releases). It’s understandable that he’d edit out tonal anomalies like the (at the time very successful) “Laughing Gnome,” but the omission of the very mature, heartbreaking “London Boys” must be his future self sweetly not showing how advanced he was how soon, ’cuz he thinks he’d blow our minds.

By the time you get to “Liza Jane” (Davie Jones & the King Bees, 1964) you see a promising young man you’re lucky to have met, on a journey that never goes in the same direction and is worth starting over each time.

The Reliable Impressionist

5e95bed4b5ccd196b9db9dcbf19e7766“The shoes must always be polished front and back…or people will know what sort of person you are.” This mantra of concealment, complete with quotation-marks, is one of the inner watchwords of a main character in Marguerite Van Cook’s graphic memoir The Late Child, a thought that we see exposed in classic comic-balloon but which reveals nothing of the woman’s own identity, a forgotten handbook maxim laid over whatever she might really be thinking.

Words are well-chosen and imperative in Van Cook’s reminiscence, but not paramount; this is comics, a visual medium in which to show is the way to tell, and the schism between the story people carry and the picture they feel compelled to paint is central to this phenomenal achievement of personal exploration and empathetic biography.

The woman keeping her eyes cast to her feet is Van Cook’s mother Hetty, called before a tribunal in post-WWII Britain to judge whether she is fit to keep and raise her daughter, born out of wedlock. Hetty is a survivor of the blitz, the grand atrocities and private tragedies and strangely vibrant togetherness of which Van Cook’s text describes in its terrifying and surreally everyday detail, while portraying the tenacious exterior and personal trauma of its witnesses — “It was a duty to keep oneself up,” the psychological narration says in one scene where Hetty is resetting her hair as she walks through a firebombed neighborhood; “Just because everything was a mess, there was no reason she should look a fright.” After making an intimidating show of their authority, the panel does let Hetty keep Marguerite; surface is all-important, but the grown-up Marguerite’s purpose is to reclaim the interior.

We see her young self walking past and playing in bombsites that stay piled where they fell decades after the war; excavation is no small task. And we walk in many shoes that her remarkable emotional insight inhabits. A harrowing encounter with a would-be child molester is told half from his perspective, a marvel of empathy which also emphasizes the detachment from such a memory, and even identification with the predator, that survivors of such ordeals can experience. Van Cook, who painted over the astonishing ink drawings of artist James Romberger throughout, believes that much comic coloring forms a wall of solidity that cancels out the illusionism of drawing and pushes the reader out of the narrative; her skill in shifting the perspective of the book’s narrators — from her mom to herself to criminals and magistrates and even occasional birds and beasts who are in the landscape of semi-civilized humanity — keeps the reader viewing the story from a vantage point within it, and her coloring keeps all surfaces active and transparent, superbly defined in their spatial relationships and psychological keys, but expressive of the ephemerality of true sight and lived sensation.

Romberger’s style is a wonder of optical and dramatic economy, reminiscent of illustration in the leading modes of the mid-20th-century period the book portrays — loose and sketchy to convey the forward velocity and succinct sophistication of the West’s self-image, charming in its simplicity and assured in its catalogue of abbreviated emotions, encyclopedic in its observation of the abundant urban and country environments while ambitious in its formal experimentation and interpretive shadings. This book is an intimate epic of what was missed in one’s own family and personal memory, and Romberger has a sharp instinct for what to leave out — on a trip to the countryside, young Marguerite is shown walking into a monumentally framed rural scene on a trail that tracks into it from an otherwise empty column of white with some type; this sudden sensory overflow is mirror-imaged in some moments of the confrontation with the sexual predator, in which color and life abruptly drain out entirely; Romberger’s decisive black line allows Van Cook to play these keys perfectly.

Collaborators in art and partners in life, Van Cook and Romberger are conscious of where words can intrude rather than explain; the book orchestrates brilliant moments of the comic form’s components colliding, as when an intonation from a jurist overlays and utterly obscures Hetty’s face. Like the lurching historical span it takes place in, the book leaps forward between several stories of Hetty’s youth and Marguerite’s. Evolving from showing to telling, from English wartime hesitance to the self-revelation of a revolutionary era, Van Cook & Romberger depict, early on, a lovely painting that Hetty’s first husband had made of their garden (sent to her in lieu of censored battlefield correspondence); much later, we are not looking at but in the middle of such a feast of natural bounty, as Van Cook describes an endless continental meal on a teenage vacation to stay with friends in France. This is conjured in the lapidary language Van Cook’s poetic sense practices throughout, though as it draws on and on, it seems to morph into a satire of Proustian particularity. Young Marguerite and a girlfriend end up walking off the excessive feast and collapsing in a country church, hilariously heedless of any salvation, and return to the gathering joyously, but the undertow of much less happy concerns is never absent — not only in a parallel storyline of abandoned innocence that I won’t give away here, but also in the simple fact, as hard for us to remember at first as it may have been for Marguerite to notice, that she is only having all this fun with someone else’s family, in someone else’s world.

The undertow metaphor is not random; we see oceanic imagery from the start of the book onward, in the coastal town the characters originally inhabit, to the beaches Marguerite loves in both Britain and France, to a scene of lyrical horror when Hetty is waiting in the legal office and imagines the room filling up with water; Van Cook supplies the image of social suffocation, and Romberger portrays it with surf crashing against this strong, scared woman, an island of integrity and uncertain fortune, like the forgotten wartime legend of the nation that is now failing her.

Van Cook is a master of writing in displaced time, inhabiting the limited perspective of a moment in her life with utter vivid conviction while observing its meaning with the insight of contemporary context. Witnessing but not quite comprehending the student riots of France in 1968 and judging them unromantic, “we were the first to understand the profundity and meaning of pure love,” she writes of her and her teenage French best friend with the obliviousness of youthful discovery; not much later, in rejecting the manicured, arm’s-length world of the friend’s upscale parents, she says “we launched our senses out of childhood and demanded the right to touch,” a poet’s perspective on corners being turned that one doesn’t see the direction of at the time.

Van Cook’s most meaningful rebellions, as musical provocateur and artworld pioneer and literary prophet and patron of individuality (and Romberger’s blazing of paths in populist media and his artistic and scholarly role as a voice of political justice and cultural dignity) would come years after that, and The Late Child is a testament of the valued lives and essential insights that have a right to the years it will take for their time to come.

http://margueritevancook.com/       http://jamesromberger.com/       http://www.fantagraphics.com/