Tiphaine Rivière’s graphic novel, Notes on a Thesis, concerns the time (originally three years, became five) she spent writing a thesis on Kafka. She left a job teaching disadvantaged children and she embarked on a journey – that saw her taking classes, presenting papers at international conferences but also working in the academic admin office alongside slightly embittered academic folk – which also saw her somewhat lose the sympathy of her family, participate in the break-up of her relationship and come out the other side adult and changed.
All of which makes this sound a lot more serious than it actually is. Rivière’s book is slightly manic, in keeping no doubt with the effect of trying to focus on a sole topic for a number of years as your life and the world around you continues to change. If you work in an academic environment yourself, or if you have a PhD or even a Masters to your name, you’ll find chuckles here – but, at the same time, it lacks a certain perspective, is somewhat self-obsessed without seeming to recognise its own self-obsession and isn’t quite as funny as it thinks it is. There are slight forays (we glimpse the life of her adviser at various points) but it would have been nice to learn a little more of the peripheral characters (is Brigitte Claude, the grumpy administrator Rivière works alongside a Hubert? We’ll never know).
There are also nice flourishes that cast Rivière as a kind of ditsy Audrey Hepburn-type and sometimes the book seems to be yearning towards a simpler kind of comedy but it’s a simpler kind of comedy that Rivière seems to resist fully embracing. Conversely, when the novel is at it’s darkest (the lovely page frame on p153, see right), and we sense we might get a greater depth to proceedings, she skips forward two years and so once more we swerve around what might have been opportunities to make the book better and stronger.
Obviously, fans of graphic novels know that – after hip hop – graphic novels are just about the most self-referential art form there is and Rivière just about makes the grade in terms of creating a book about a person experiencing a thing that hasn’t had a graphic novel written about it yet (to the best of our knowledge). What it doesn’t do is quite rise above its ambitions. We have what we’ve got, and it’s alright without being exceptional.
Any Cop?: If like comics, if you have a PhD, then we would say this book is very definitely for you. Everyone else? Don’t quite take the “wickedly funny” line on the back of the book as being gospel.