It’s been quite a good week for Deborah Levy, in that her latest novel, Hot Milk, has just made the Booker shortlist for 2016 and she is receiving the kind of kudos normally reserved for the likes of Coetzee and Carey – and this unexpected push for Hot Milk serves her collaboration with Andrzej Klimowski very well indeed. “Stardust Nation” was one of 10 stories published as part of Levy’s Black Vodka collection a couple of years ago (and you only need to know that Black Vodka stretched to 125 pages to know that Levy’s short stories err on the short side of short). You don’t need to be familiar with the story or with the previous book to read Stardust Nation – although a passing knowledge of Andrzej Klimowski will help you. Klimowski is… might be a great way to start an essay topic because Klimowski is a whole lot of different things – but one thing we can categorically say he isn’t is a silent partner. Klimowski is many things: a graphic artist, a designer of all kinds of posters (theatre, opera, film etc), a film-maker and an author of troubling, unsettling graphic works like The Secret, The Depository and Horace Dorlan (all of which are well worth a view). It’s possible that Levy’s Booker nomination pushes more people towards Stardust Nation than would normally read a graphic novel – and it’s possible some of them will be turned on to what Klimowski contributes enough to check out his other books. That would be a result.
But what about Stardust Nation? Okay. If you don’t know the original story and come to this fresh, know that the broad arc concerns two gentleman – advertising boss Tom Banbury and his overly empathetic colleague Nikos Gazidis. We begin with an introduction to Banbury as he makes his way through London to work, noting the light, the car alarms, the birds, “the agitated men and women waiting for buses that don’t arrive”. As a boy, his mother employed a Dutch female tutor and her gradual empowering of the young Banbury, encouraging him to stand up to a bullying father, coaxes us into a narrative that appears deceptively straightforward. Perhaps this is the story of a young impressionable boy and his enduring feelings towards an influential figure from the past. But no, the book quickly sidesteps – Banbury receives a call from an employee, several months earlier, as said colleague holidayed in Almeria. “My father beat me as a child,” Nikos tells Banbury – but Banbury knows that Nikos’ father “is a gentle, elderly man who owns a dry-cleaner’s in Kentish Town”. And so we get to the crux of things: “Poor Nick. It’s as if he was describing my childhood and not his own.” We learn more about Banbury; we see the way he tells Nick his stories; we understand they are close. “There is a slight shamanistic edge to what we do here at the agency,” he tells us. “It is our job to crash into the unconscious of the consumer.” Those words work well to describe the effect of reading this book.
Increasingly Banbury is present as Nick describes a life that is not his own, “a life he had never lived”. His empathy is overpowering. He becomes other. We continue to glimpse Banbury’s life (and we start to wonder if we are seeing things that actually happened or things that exist in the realm of his imagination). We start to see Nick’s relatives and question their aggression towards Banbury who doesn’t appear to be doing anything – but then, we did see how close his mouth was to Nick’s ear, how intimately he imparted his stories. Perhaps they are right to blame him. Perhaps they know things that we do not. If you approach Stardust Nation questioning what you see and what you are told, you won’t be in a bad place. Is Nick ill or is Tom Banbury?
The final quarter of the book takes a very strange turn indeed (as the Freud birthday cake – a cake recreated for the launch party – demonstrates). In many ways, Stardust Nation is a deceptively straightforward book. Klimowski never overcrowds a page (many of the pages are of a single image) and gives you plenty of room and plenty of time to ensure you are up to speed with where you are and what is going on. He wants to unsettle you, certainly, but he tries very hard not to confuse you. You may not understand what you are seeing (there is a lot of strangeness in the final pages) but you will, I suspect, be intrigued all the same. You may find you read this graphic novel more slowly than you typically read a graphic novel. The time you are gifted allows you to luxuriate in the peculiarity of the book. It’s a strange feeling. It’s also an intriguing pairing. Levy’s words scratch up from the page like cat claws; and Klimowski’s visuals… Well, they are peculiar and unusual and arresting. Which is about as much as we want from any piece of art, really.
Any Cop?: It won’t be for everyone (you knew we were going to say that, didn’t you?) but if strange graphic novels float your boat, you won’t get much further out than this.