The system of the world.
It’s evident that words are going to fail me, and that this review won’t totally do justice to the detail and complexity of David B.’s “Epileptic”, its six volumes now finally collected into a complete edition by Pantheon after an aborted 2002 attempt at a two-book compilation by Fantagraphics (Fanta’s Kim Thompson retains sole translation credit, however). The present hardcover is somewhat smaller in size than the lone released volume of the Fantagraphics attempt, but the art remains clear and easy to admire. And besides, while there is significant force to the visuals, this isn’t the sort of book that relies on raw size for its impact; the reader is instead invited to explore the use of symbols, the interplay of graphic styles, and the layout of the page.
The basic concept of the book is easy to grasp; David B. was born Pierre-Francois Beauchard into an artistically inclined, stable family. He had an older brother, Jean-Christophe, and a younger sister, Florence. At an early age, Jean-Christophe begins to experience epileptic seizures, a malady that destroys the security of the house and permanently whisks everyone down a shadowed path of neurosis, desperation, crushed hopes, and jagged attempts at coping. One thing that should be immediately understood is that this is David Beauchard’s autobiography first, and a chronicle of his brother’s illness second; the reader is constantly escorted through the story only as David sees it, and all events are related in terms of what they mean to the book’s author, and he is not afraid to surrender total control of the narrative to his wandering mind, often lashing out at his brother, his parents, and himself. This is not a dispassionate report of events, though it is a largely unsentimental one; the emotional force of the work is largely conveyed through swirling, fanciful visuals and unwavering devotion to self-examination, with each event reflecting on the work’s narrator.
One should plainly expect some level of self-examination in an autobiographical work, but “Epileptic” takes things farther than any comic of this relatively straightforward sort in recent memory. And this book is fairly straightforward, as opposed to what has been seen of David’s ongoing “Babel”, which examines similar events with the authorial eye cast toward personal dreams, collective myth, and world-wide systems of communication. Here, we receive a largely chronological relation of events, though David constantly diverges to fill us in on the histories of various family members, acquaintances, prospective healers, and thinkers that have influenced the paths of the author’s family. This is done to clarify present motivations, as well as build a continuing theme of struggle against barely controllable forces; and just in case we couldn’t quite catch what that theme was, at one point David actually stops the story to explain it all to his parents in the present day, how his brother’s epilepsy is only one manifestation of a larger indefinite force that motivates humanity to struggle.
And struggle they do. After a chilly visit to an arrogant surgeon of somewhat questionable skill, the Beauchard parents decide to leap head first into the world of mystic and holistic cures, bringing the whole family to macrobiotic communes, where some good satire can be found as people engage in the same old power games and self-absorption, only on a more novel stage than average. An affection for the occult leads only to seriocomic self-delusion. Traditional religions are certainly of no help. David links these bleakly funny experiences to the revelations of the people who founded these fresh and endless ways of explaining the world, from Christianity to the most obscure quasi-science, all connected to the familial struggle against pain and hardship, all connected to Jean-Christophe. All is epileptic. Some of the ‘cures’ are temporarily effective. Many are not. The family begins to break down, the anchor of bodily security cut free. The parents become ineffective in aiding their other two children, with one of the pre-teen kids attempting suicide by binging on pills, and the other escaping to elaborate fantasy worlds in the garden. David takes his new name as one in a series of attempts to define himself, a seemingly impossible task when every minute is defined by his older brother. He creates violent comics, in a more obvious symbol of the bodily invasions occurring thrice daily. And he devotes himself to making sense of it all, and few escape his gaze smelling of roses, particularly Jean-Christophe himself, whom David comes to view as having given up on struggling, resigned to a sorry life of pain and anger.
But what of David B.? Cruelly taking his brother to task for a sickness he couldn’t control! Ripping into his parents, while constantly portraying himself as imaginative, a fighter, an intellectual! Rick Moody, in a review of this book published today in the New York Times (registration required, sorry to say), places the style of narrative here as outside the relatively simplistic focus of the American autobiographical form, of which “it is perhaps fair to say that the [US based] memoir is a triumph-over-adversity genre… the form, hemmed in by the need for a predictable epiphany and triumph, has become a pale shadow of the creative medium it might be.” He goes on to place “Epileptic” as part of an alternate style, “the great cultural and intellectual archeologies of French nonfiction of the last 100 years.”
And surely there’s few words more fitting to describe this book than “intellectual archeology”, particularly in the visual sense. I recall certain message board denizens expressing concern that the late-coming “Epileptic” would be unfairly viewed as derivative of Marjane Satrapi’s art in her two “Persepolis” books, when in fact Satrapi is plainly influenced by David‘s visual style. But such concerns frankly do a disservice to the art of “Epileptic”; David’s layered visuals, seemingly endless in their panel-contained inventiveness, are worlds away from Satrapi’s simple renderings, her own use of visual symbolism kept to the level of basic metaphor. The pages of “Epileptic” bulge with recurring dream-images, shadow friends from literature, icons from the uncovered past, insignias of the interior present. All of these appear over and over as the author grows, his intellectual searches accompanying him literally on his travels through life. In this way, the “intellectual archeology” that Moody mentions is also present on the comics page, transformed into a more literal means of reader identification. It’s quite like David stepping outside the story to correct us as to what the themes are, just less abrupt and explicit. And it fits in with his motivation as he presents it: while he seeks to understand the life surrounding, he honestly wants the reader to understand his points as much as possible.
This sort of authorial self-examination even extends to touch on my earlier qualm: what of David’s portrayal of himself, usually more controlled and certain and thoughtful than virtually everyone else? At certain points, characters (in the present day) remark on how David’s characterization of himself isn’t really ‘like’ him, how nobody seemed to notice him as such a contemplative sort. Just as all we see visually is intellectually laundered by David’s recollection, so is his very image of himself; it’s an intentional and considered view of the author as sitting alone in his apartment and scratching out panels on drawing board that we get here, not the author as he relates to other human beings. Perceptions in the book are toyed with. Near the end Jean-Christophe has a sudden change in character design, to reflect a new understanding him in the author’s eyes (the eyes of memory at least). And maybe it is this devotion to fluid perception that will carry the book past the charges of unfettered pretension and insensitive self-absorption and masturbatory exploitation that will doubtlessly appear shortly after the initial tide of praise recedes. I can surely see the potential for these arguments inside the book, just as I can surely see thoroughness of consideration batting them back.
I have still not quite explained the use of dreams in the book, their presence commenting on the changing state of the author (and we must trust David that these dreams are even authentic, not calculated or carefully altered, but he does inspire trust in the reader and that might be the key to the book’s effectiveness). I certainly haven’t gotten to the interaction of David’s private life (especially his later adult life) which co-exists on a more simplistic autobiographical comics plane than the rest of the book. I’ve done too much description here in general. But this book requires immersion, experience, to every really grasp its depth. I only hope I’ve adequately conveyed the strength of this book’s overarching theme, that the experience of one can be irrevocably connected to the experience of another, which is indicative of portions of the experience of the pair’s ascendants, which relates to the experience of the world, and the thoughts of the world.
The term ‘epileptic’ does not only refer to David B.’s brother.
Know that, and move on.