Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review: After the Fall, by Victoria Roberts

If you're even a casual reader of The New Yorker, you're familiar with the cartoons of Victoria Roberts: They usually feature a prominently-beschnozzed couple quipping about some facet of modern urban life. They're almost the prototypical New Yorker cartoons, except that they skew towards the absurd juuuuuust a bit in a way that no one else's manage to do. I was lucky enough to get to meet Roberts at the Ohio State University Festival of Cartoon Art in 1998, where she was one of the guests. As you might expect, she was as funny and engaging in person as she is in print, and personable, to boot.

So I was excited when I learned that she had recently published an illustrated novel, After the Fall. It's the tale of a quirky Manhattan family (the father's an inventor, the mother's a socialite from Buenos Ares, and the children are precocious) who lose their penthouse and are forced to live in Central Park, cut off from (most of) their creature comforts and needing to survive by wits and charity.

I generally enjoyed the story, although it is very slight. This is a small book, and there are at least one or two illustrations on all but maybe three pages. If you removed the illustrations, the remaining text would make for a fairly short story, so if you're looking forward to luxuriating in a novel's prose, this is not the book for you. While Roberts definitely can turn a phrase with élan, the book's prose is nonetheless somewhat too sketchy for my taste. It reads like something between an urban folktale and a story pitch, with the latter dominating quite a bit. There are great small bits throughout, but I found myself wishing there were more meat on these narrative bones.

The black and white cartoon image are charming and playful, as you'd expect from Roberts' New Yorker work and as the tale demands. While they sometimes act as straightforward illustrations, simply replicating a scene or idea that the text has already described, there are plenty of instances where the images expand on the text in interesting ways. For example, when the narration by Alex (the son) states that "It was more disconcerting than anything else to have our parents get along so well" (82), the facing-page illustration shows Mother and Pops engaged in a game of Twister (with a squirrel holding up the spinner board); the parents are fully clothed (Mother in her turtleneck and slacks, Pops in his bathrobe and matching pajamas), but the pose manages to be simultaneously clearly joyful and also slightly suggestive, making the children's discomfort at their parents' happiness understandable.

Such text/image richness does help to flesh out the story beyond the somewhat bare-bones prose, but it isn't done consistently or dynamically enough to really develop the narrative in ways that justify calling the book a "novel." It's an whimsically entertaining, illustrated short story. Perhaps that is enough.

And, a side note to whoever created After the Fall's Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data: Just because a book contains cartoon images, that does not make it a "graphic novel." This is yet another example of why I dislike the term "graphic novel": Its over- and misuse as a marketing term has rendered it almost utterly meaningless. After the Fall is no more a graphic novel than are the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books - and those books, at least, sometimes contain brief comics narratives (panel-to-panel storytelling, word balloons). Have we really reached a point where publishers are more comfortable calling an illustrated book for adults a "graphic novel" than they are calling it a "story with pictures"? If so, that is a sorry state of affairs.

After the Fall: A Novel
by Victoria Roberts
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012
ISBN-10: 0393073556
ISBN-13: 978-0393073553
188 pages, $24.95