“Drnaso remains in a class of his own” – Acting Class by Nick Drnaso

IMG_2022-8-6-192546We were big fans of Nick Drnaso’s breakout hit from 2018, Sabrina, the first graphic novel, you’ll remember, ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize (a feat that has yet to be repeated). Sabrina was odd and difficult, in many ways, and was driven by an absence – the absence of the eponymous character at the heart of the book and the effect of that absence upon the diverse characters contained therein. Acting Class, his latest, is also odd and difficult – we’d go as far to say it’s odder and more difficult than his last book – and arguably requires a little bit of wrestling with, so let’s wrestle.

As with Sabrina, there are a number of characters we are introduced to: Rosie and Dennis, a couple who appear to be having problems in their marriage (we meet them on a date where they are pretending to be other people; it doesn’t end well); Rayanne and her young son Marcus (Rayanne, we sense, is going a little stir crazy being a mom); Angel (a work colleague of Rosie, who appears to be quietly losing her mind or at least having manic episodes in which she forgets where she is and where she is supposed to be); Gloria and Beth (elderly mother and adult daughter who live together, we gradually learn, because Beth has some kind of mental health issue); Thomas (a pony-tailed dude given to modelling naked who we first meet at the art class that Beth and Gloria take and who, over time, we discover is struggling with paranoid murderous ideation); Lou (keep fit sort who struggles to fit in at work); Danielle (a physiotherapist who finds herself struggling to separate the action of the class from the reality of her life); Neil (a bald man with a dark past who appears to be trying to redeem himself or rebuild himself or plaster over what went before) – and, of course, John Smith who runs the acting class all of these people sign up for and engages them in some pretty far out exercises.

Now, two things to know up front: (i) the muted pastel shades in evidence from Drnaso’s earlier books are in evidence here and, it’s worth saying, this means that some of the characters in Acting Class look a little similar to one another which creates a level of (perhaps intended) confusion to proceedings (you may find yourself having to stop, re-read earlier pages or suspend your confusion while you try and work things out – Acting Class will demand this of you); (ii) there are moments in the book (many moments) in which the reality being acted by the actors in the class becomes the reality of the book and so there are times (surely intended) when you don’t know if you are reading the perceived reality of the acting class or the actual reality of the character’s lives. You’ll have to wrestle with this one yourself as you read.

Sometimes the reality of a classroom (not that they are ever really in a classroom) lesson will spill over (so, for example, Rosie is asked, relatively early on, to be intensely attracted to Rayanne – and that attraction grows as the book continues until they eventually find themselves in one version of reality or another upon a boat in the company of Rayanne’s son, Marcus). Sometimes the spill marks a serious divergence in what we feel we can trust (John asks Thomas to be a thief and then later denies it when Thomas is caught out doing exactly what he has been asked to do – are we to trust John? Did Thomas imagine things? Who do we trust?). By the mid point of the book, as the exercises become more and more surreal (Marcus becomes a huge green skinned ogre), the reader too will be working hard to follow the thread of the various realities contained herein. We were reminded of this line from Mohsin Hamid’s recent novel, The Last White Man:

“…there was no real way to determine which of you was right, and the boundary between what was in your mind and what was in the world beyond was blurry, so blurry there was almost no boundary at all.”

Like Ari Aster’s Midsommar, it’s all leading somewhere, of course, not quite where you expect, and the journey, it’s fair to say, is deeply disorientating at times (disorientating in the same way that, say, a Charles Burns graphic novel can be disorientating). We suspect that this might alienate a handful of the readers who came on board at Sabrina, but we have to say that we found the experience both compelling and unnerving in a way that makes us want to return to it and study it a little harder. Acting Class feels like a book you wont entirely get a handle on first time through. There is a twist in its tale (of sorts) that we suspect is Drnaso saying something about the ways in which people can be influenced in this deeply unsettling age of ours.

Any Cop?: Not an easy read, in many ways, but an arresting read, a challenging read, an unnerving read that we’ll return to. Drnaso remains in a class of his own.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.