Thursday, April 24, 2008

Little Nothings

Little Nothings: The Curse of the Umbrella
by Lewis Trondheim
ComicsLit, 2008

Hillary Brown
If you have to buy one of these books with the words "little" and "things" somewhere in the title, Lewis Trondheim's is the one you should buy. This was my first Trondheim, but it made me fairly rabid to go out and read more, whereas the Jeffrey Brown actually may have made me (slightly) less likely to read his other stuff, for fear of being annoyed. What's interesting is that they cover what seems to be the same basic material, as evident from their titles--the small stuff in life that could easily fall between the cracks and, to present the most accurate picture of what we all go about doing on a daily basis, should really be preserved and polished and served up in comics--but France > the United States in this instance. I don't exactly know what it is that I like better about Trondheim's stuff other than pretty much everything. Even if a story continues for more than a page, each page can stand on its own, keeping the observational humor brief. The art is carefully done and beautifully colored with watercolors. Nothing looks messy. And it's both funny and more relatable, at least to me, even though I'm certainly not 40 or a parent. Basically, this is the best of diary comics, and it's what I hope for from the form, which is why I'm so disappointed when they fail to live up to it.

Garrett Martin: Yeah, I pretty much agree on every point. The thing that makes all the difference, really, is that, while Brown was basically just telling us what's been going on in his life, Trondheim is a true story-teller. Obviously they're both telling stories, but reading Brown was like a one-sided conversation with a friend, whereas Trondheim knows to keep his stories quick and witty enough to thoroughly engage his audience, while also packing in some low-key insightfulness. Or, shit, even wisdom, of the everyday and kinda obvious sort.

Not to continue harping on Brown, because I did like his book, but comparing the two is really very telling. I thought Brown's stories almost invariably could've lost a few panels or even pages. Trondheim rarely ever uses more than three panels to make what are basicaly very similar points. And even in Trondheim's longer stories, he tends to end every page with some sort of punchline or humorous observation, which keeps thigns moving quickly. I also felt Brown's typical layouts and small, tightly detailed panels grew progressively more claustrophobic, and thus somewhat boring and lifeless. Trondheim doesn't even draw borders, his panels floating and flowing into one another. It's less rigid, less uniform, and, like the humor, contributes to a smoother read. It's weird to read a book like Brown's, think "man, it'd be better if he did this instead," and then immediately read another book with a very similar premise that utilizes many of the techniques that you thought would improve the first. Did you have any idea that the two books would kind of mirror each other like this, when we were discussing what to read?

HB: Nope, I had no idea at all, although if I'd done a bit more research, I probably would have. One of the things that I think is particularly impressive about the Trondheim is the seamlessness with which it's been translated. I read a decent bit of fiction in translation, especially through the New Yorker, and it's usually fairly easy to tell when something's been run through two brains. It gets flattened out, and there's much less use of idiom. Maybe it's easier to do this in a dialogue-light comic book, but I wouldn't think so, especially when it's one that has so many jokes. It's also interesting to note (in the colophon, which is the only place you can find it) that Trondheim didn't translate his own book, so that adds to the impressiveness.

Another thing that I think is somewhat crucial in drawing a distinction between the two books is the personality of the central character. Brown's guy is indecisive and, well, kind of blank at times, which can happen when you take an inside-out view of someone, but Trondheim's character is a goofball prankster. He's always coming up with ways to mess with people, which should make come off as a jerk but somehow doesn't, maybe because his pranks are small and not very mean or maybe because we've already seen him behave like a decent person for a number of pages.

GM: Yeah, I bet Trondheim's kids get embarrassed all the time. It's always awkward when your parents cut the fool, even if they're good at it. And I could see some folks complain about that, how Trondheim never really presents himself in too negative of a light, even when he's fucking with people. I said Jeffrey Brown was maybe too unguarded; do you think Trondheim goes too far in the other direction? Do you think he opens up enough to make this a truly successful memoir? Shit, does a memoir have to delve into the bad stuff and the black areas to be a wholly rounded artistic endeavor? I certainly don't think so, but I'm sure there are people who will say that. As good as Little Nothings is, it's still a pretty light book, in terms of narrative structure, emotional depth, etc. If you don't find Trondheim's art and humor as charming as I do, you'd might think this book was boring and meaningless. But then it's that focus on the sensational aspects of memoirs that has led to the improbabilities of Augusten Burroughs and the outright lies of many others. Also, Trondheim and his publishers seem to acknowledge that Little Nothings is something of a minor work for him. So I don't know if my question serves any point. But still, I'll ask it again: is Little Nothings too light to be taken seriously, and does a memoir have to be concerned with Big Issues to be artistically great?

HB: No! For one thing, I don't think it's really a memoir. It's just stuff. But, even if it were, I think it's a bit more like David Sedaris than Augusten Burroughs: small observations, mostly funny, some dark (the stuff about having two cats in case one of them dies), highly structured in a way that seems as though they're not. Even that is stretching as a comparison. It's really more like the world's most awesome sketchbook. Or maybe he's a fan of Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the New Millennium, which proposes "lightness" as one of many virtues art should/will take on and equates it with "precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard." Big issues can weigh you down. Jokes let you float up.

GM: I think it was a sketchbook, wasn't it? Stuff he doodled for his website? [Sidebar by HB: And, really, even if you don't speak French you should go to his website and click on the ruler ("jeux") to play a hilarious game.]

Calvino sounds like a smart guy. I don't know much about fumetto, though; is he the dude who does Corto Maltese?

HB: Yeah, but clearly it's better than a sketchbook because it's clean and plotted. I'd bet there's a sketchbook that exists for this sketchbook.

You joke, of course, but Calvino apparently was inspired by comics in writing his book of short stories Cosmicomics. I've actually read that one, and I'm not sure I see it (the best way I could characterize it is as a series of stories about different stages of the universe--the time when the moon was so close to Earth you could reach it with a ladder, the time when matter condensed from nothingness), but there's also apparently a story in another book of his t-zero that he actually tells you to imagine as written in panels. Maybe we should read it!

GM: I think we should definitely read it, considering that Calvino's narrator Qfwfq was an inspiration for Morrison's infant universe of Qwewq, in which Superman created our this here real world.

Anyway, yeah, Little Nothings is a great book, pretty much all-encompassingly. I plan on reading many more of Trondheim's comics in the very near future. I hope he has other observational / personal books like this, in addition to his fictional work. A couple of years ago a friend got into John McPhee, and for about a year that's all he read or talked about. It is entirely possible that Lewis Trondheim is about to turn me into that guy. Not McPhee, but the other guy I was talking about. My friend. The one who read McPhee. And now lives on Staten Island. In the abandond remains of GI Joe's super-secret underground hide-out. With an Asian girl.

HB: No! I'm also going to be that guy. Donjon!


Jared said...

I think I probably liked Brown's book more than you guys, but I will say that I also really want to read everything Trondheim's done, and I don't feel that way about Brown.

hillary said...

I hate that it's coming off like piling on wrt Brown's book. I don't hate it, and I'm sure Dark doesn't either. It's just easy to see the flaws, and even easier when you read something so good right after it.

Jared said...

Maybe you guys should just turn this site into a Trondheim fan club?

Jared said...

Just saw your comment, Hillary. I know...I think I get defensive about it because I could very easily see myself having written Brown's book...we can't all be Trondheims!

garrett said...

Yeah, I don't hate Brown's book, at all. It's pretty good. I just have some problems with it, and find it easier to discuss those than the good points.

Anyway, I gotta get to an airport.

Smoggo said...

i will read this...thanks for post...

FTR: jeffrey brown is a little annoying...

Anonymous said...

review dungeon!

Sean said...

HEY you must Mister O by Trondheim. It is hilarious, and maybe the only thing that a 4 year old could find hilarious all the way up to an 80 year old.

Check it out:

Sean said...

Sean said...


hillary said...

Yeah! I may order Mister O next time I get a bunch of stuff from Amazon. It seems hilarious.