A review a day: You Are There
It’s another Jacques Tardi-drawn comic! All hail Tardi! (And hey! I get to break out the Not-Safe-For-Work warning! Just so you know!)
Yesterday, I looked at an adaptation by Jacques Tardi of a book written in the 1970s. Today, we look at a comic that actually came out in the 1970s and is now back in print! It all works out!
You Are There was written by Jean-Claude Forest, who is best-known for this (well, the comic on which it was based), and drawn by Monsieur Tardi. Kim Thompson translated this sucker, and Fantagraphics published this bad bear. You will be charged no more than $26.99 for this, which isn’t bad considering it’s 163 big-ass pages chock full of grand Tardi art.
This is a very strange comic that doesn’t completely work. Forest, channeling his inner Mark Twain, wrote in an early book edition about You Are There: “No one should see in Ici même a pamphlet, a satire on our society or the men who represent its political regime. Nor did I have any specific intention of mocking man’s attachment to property. If this attachment leads to grotesque situations in this book, it does so no more than politics, law, groceries or fornication; it serves through its ramblings a story, a plot whose basis lies elsewhere and was intended, so far as I was concerned, to speak of something entirely different.” If that’s so, it’s too bad, because You Are There works best as an absurdist critique of society and politics. It’s a rambling, occasionally surreal look at a man who is crazy only because a crazy society says he is; who then is really insane? Perhaps Forest meant it as a love story, and there is a romance at its heart, but the romance is just as odd as the rest of the book, so it’s unclear what, exactly, Forest was saying with this comic.
The situation is certainly interesting: Arthur There, the protagonist (and hence the title of the book) lives in a place called Mornemont, which, as we learn early on, was once a vast tract of land of which he is the sole heir. Over the decades and centuries, however, Mornemont has been subdivided into smaller plots of land, each owned by a different family. Arthur is embroiled in a lawsuit to get all the land back, but in the meantime, his one victory has given him ownership of all the walls and the gates through them. He lives in a narrow shack built on one of the walls and makes a living by charging a toll every time someone wants a gate open, gates to which he has the only keys. Throughout the book, he rarely comes down off the walls – the residents, he believes, would kill him for trespassing. His lawsuit to reclaim the rest of the land, however, continues throughout the book. In Paris, the president fears that he’s going to lose the election, so he begins making plans to hole up somewhere and plan his triumphant return. Naturally, he picks Mornemont, but the reason he does is clever and changes Arthur’s life quite significantly.
Ultimately, this is a story of a man fighting against the forces of conformity, as Arthur desperately tries to remain his own man. Everyone wants him to change, and even if some of the things that happen in the book are in his own mind, he clings to a dream when a lesser (or, perhaps, saner) man would have given up on them. He falls for Julie, who’s the daughter of one of the couples living on “his” land, and their relationship is bumpy, to say the least. Julie is a bit crazy, too, in a different way than Arthur. She has what we might categorize as Tourette’s, with no internal filters to stop her from saying whatever’s on her mind or doing whatever’s on her mind. Arthur’s behavior is the polar opposite of Julie’s, as he keeps everything inside him. This provides the very odd climax of the book, at which their personalities have switched places, to a degree. Julie believes in nothing, while Arthur believes in everything, so when they’re on a row boat, about to escape from their pasts, suddenly things are different for both of them. The final image of the book, a surreal summation of events in the book, becomes a comment on what men will do to change their lives. It’s not a particularly happy ending, but it is a logical ending.
The one thing you must deal with as you commence reading the book is that, even with a fairly standard narrative, Forest writes oddly. Apparitions appear for no reason. The scene shifts quickly in the middle of a page with no narrative tags to show it. Julie and Arthur often appear to be saying simply what’s on their minds and not actually talking to each other. Julie’s frankness about nudity and sex is unusually disconcerting (not because she likes sex and being naked, but because of the way she’s so aggressive about it, especially in public). There’s a strange, detached tone to the book, so even when serious things are occurring, Forest presents it absurdly, making it difficult to penetrate the author’s intent (if, indeed, he had any). It’s a complex work that keeps the reader at arm’s length, which makes it hard to love.
Tardi, however, is stunning. The strange world of Mornemont and its walls are fully realized, with astonishing detail that makes Arthur’s desires even more concrete. The warren of homes and barriers along which Arthur runs provide a surreal backdrop for Arthur’s fantasies, which Tardi simply places in the panels with no preamble, integrating the hallucinations so well into the “real” that they occasionally catch us off guard. It’s a beautiful evocation of how Arthur sees the world. The stolid governmental world crashes against the private lives of the politicians, a theater of fluid sexuality and vice. At the end of the book, Tardi turns the tenants of Mornemont into costumed caricatures, medieval archetypes, and fools, who attack Arthur’s home because they’re tired of his lawsuit. Tardi pulls out all the stops, with the army moving in and the homeowners turning riotous and the two worlds crashing together. The absurdity of Forest’s script is brought to amazing life, from Arthur’s odd gatekeeper outfit to Julie’s unabashed sexuality – at one point she sucks her thumb, and it’s a creepily erotic sight. It’s a tremendous work of art, heightening the weirdness of the narrative very well.
I would recommend You Are There because it’s a thoughtful look at the pressure of conformity and what drives a man mad. But it is a difficult comic, because Forest isn’t interested in making too much sense, even though it’s fairly easy to figure out “what happens.” Tardi is fantastic and makes the book even wackier, which isn’t a bad thing. I have to warn you about it, but it’s definitely worth a look.