N Ways of Reading Incidents in the Night

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Adventure comic. Artist David B.’s Incidents in the Night unveils a conspiracy that involves the Napoleonic Wars, an ancient god of nothingness, and the enigmatic founder of an anthology that shares the book’s name. Our lead and narrator, meanwhile, shares his name with David B. The in-text David learns of the conspiracy as we do, and a narrative through-line like this—the pursuit of answers—is probably pretty essential to the project’s not going off the rails. David B.’s ambition seems to grow geometrically as the book advances, but Incidents is fundamentally an adventure story, and its strengths and weaknesses wrap around that structure like the snakes of the caduceus.

Bookstore elegy. It reads like one now, anyway. Incidents in the Night was first published twenty years ago in France. In the intervening years, bookstores have diminished in number, in their share of the bookselling market . . . These are things you already know. Our protagonist’s journey begins in a bookstore, and he visits other shops while collecting volumes of the Incidents anthology. Although David B. (the creator) drafted his story at a time when bookstores enjoyed relative security, he imbues these places with a sense of mystery, endless potential—a gesture that grows more poignant with time.

Collaboration between David B. and Brian and Sarah Evenson. Uncivilized Books has just released the first English-language edition of Incidents. The Evensons’ lean translations of David B.’s prose complement the book’s visuals: “The streets seemed to me so many shelves carrying books of stone and brick. Letters looked at me through the windows.” Whenever I think about books in translation, I think of Leslie Hill on Beckett’s reworkings of his own catalog: “Just as there is no universal tongue, merely competing fragmentary versions of it, so there is no true story but many possible accounts of what might be.” This new edition of Incidents in the Night belongs to the Evensons as well as to David B., and if it has a translated work’s occasional murmur of a string bent slightly off pitch, it also has Brian Evenson’s gift for capturing the macabre.

Dream art. David B. begins his book with a dream sequence, perhaps drawn from life, and as with a dream, the strange events that follow have the façade of the logical for as long as we’re all in the moment.

Example of the features of comics as a storytelling medium. Incidents in the Night is a treat for medium-specificity nerds; David B. is at his best when making abstractions viewable (and thus readable). Early in the story, in-text David meets some fellow readers in a local bookstore, not between the stacks but while traveling across a mountain of books—Incidents‘s first attempt at making the struggles of research literal and tactile.

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Nearer to the end of the book, David B. depicts the transition from waking life into a dream state.

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At the risk of over-generalizing, comics are an exceptionally good delivery system for this sort of imagery. In film, the appearance of an object usually comes with assumptions about the object’s tangibility etc. In comics, what we see has more interpretive latitude—readers can understand the meaning of an image, as with the books staring back at David, divorced from assumptions about the objects’ existence in real space. Incidents makes use of this phenomenon pretty much constantly—signifiers coexist with objects of actual presumed volume and weight.

French. Very French. Incidents is cool to the touch. Death is a frequent conversation topic among the story’s characters, but few of them seem to regard it as the eventual endpoint of their own lives. At worst, the detached sensibility slows the rising of tension. Not until the end of the book, when the narrator stumbles upon a pile of headless corpses—rendered with uncharacteristic gristliness—do readers accept that much is at stake. But in the meantime, we can at least share in David B.’s sense of play. The in-text David learns that Emile Travers, publisher of the Incidents in the Night anthology, has evaded the Angel of Death, and Travers’s escapades share the defiant bounciness of the gunplay in Bande à part.

Ghost story. Broadly speaking. Incidents contemplates literary immortality, with Travers attempting to extend his life through literary endeavors, in ways both figurative and not. While researching Travers, David discovers that the man “jumped into a letter like into a lake and took its form, thus escaping the angel of death.” (At moments like this, Incidents nods to the Kabbala and its notions of “fusion with the letter” while also keeping one foot in pulp territory.) In the same way that David’s search for information makes research into something resembling a hero’s journey, Travers’s aim as a writer/publisher is to (literally) prolong his stay among the living. (Travers being a sinister lunatic, obviously.)

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Historical artifact. Because of its foregrounding of bookstore culture, but also because it predates better known David B. works such as Epileptic; it is kind of bizarre Incidents didn’t reach the US sooner.

Indie comic. David B. published his first comics in the mid-1980s, which places them near Raw magazine on comics’ great transnational timeline, and Incidents reads convincingly like a post-Raw work of cartooning. Much like Art Spiegelman, David B. uses a thick line, nervous at a glance and deceptively controlled. He accomplishes characterization with a few simple shapes and one or two exaggerated features. Most pages feature chiaroscuro compositions, heavy enough with black to evoke woodcut prints. This style is the great unifier throughout Incidents—it’s what keeps the story coherent as the plot swivels and bucks.

Juxtaposition of numerous mythological traditions. By his book’s end, David B. has created a mosaic across his story, drawing not only from Jewish mysticism but also mythologies from Mesopotamia, sub-Saharan Africa, and elsewhere. There’s a winning, adventuresome attitude to the way David B. pulls this all together, even if the story’s magpie-nest qualities sometimes make sustained reading a challenge.

Incidentally (har har): the book is most exciting when David B. explores comics’ and mythology’s shared power to reduce concepts while exaggerating them, to make complicated concepts more legible. His art acquires a sudden charge when, midway through the book, an old bookseller shares an ancient creation story with the protagonist.

Kinetic to a fault. See next passage for details.

Lesson in pacing (and/or the perils of dream art). Incidents in the Night jumps arrhythmically from one of the lead’s revelations to the next, and this jumpiness often reads as perfectly in the spirit of the story. Occasionally, though, the experience is close to hearing a friend share his or her half-remembered dream.

Matryoshka doll. In the sense that it’s a book called Incidents in the Night about a series of books called Incidents in the Night, and also because the Incidents anthology in turn aggregates tall tales and false-sounding field reports. But the book goes further than this, making readers detectives—as any decent mystery story does—and imposing its reality on ours too.

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Nonverbal storytelling. Maybe this is obvious? But David B.’s cartooning makes Incidents an infinitely browsable book. A beginning-to-end read has its rewards, but the comic is something worth swimming around in, too—it’s a work, fittingly, in which readers can get lost.

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One thought on “N Ways of Reading Incidents in the Night

  1. Pingback: N Ways of Reading Incidents in the Night « Uncivilized Blog

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