Perhapsyou recall the famous story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, OrbisTertius.” In that fable, the steady accumulation of thickly detailed inventeddescriptions and faux encyclopedia entries relating to an imaginary placeeventually results in the literal instantiation of the fictive world. Well, in The Cardboard Valise, BenKatchor’s latest graphic novel, which consists of an intricately interwoven yetloosely collated collection of one-page strips (some of which do cohere to formmore extended shaggy-dog narratives), artist and storyteller Katchor hasachieved the goal Borges only imagined. Exiting this oneiric, shamanic, yet utterly naturalistic and sensualmasterpiece, the reader steps out into a revitalized continuum richer and moreexotic than the one he or she inhabited prior to the reading, a realm full ofstrange, alluring and bewildering lands, populated by oddball folks with oddercustoms. Never again will our commonglobe seem like a small, homogenous, boring place, given Katchor’s affectingand humorously melancholy revelations about undeniably real venues such as theTensit Islands, Polywalla, Panta Lucia, Outer Canthus and other “bathwaterrepublics.”
Ourexcursion begins with the purchase, by one Emile Delilah, of a literalcardboard valise (although the title is also a pun on the physical constructionof this and every book, a pun wittily made real by foldout handles on the frontand back covers of Valise). Delilah is intent on visiting the Tensit Islands, home to the world’smost magnificent public restroom ruins. What transpires with him there cannot be encapsulated in mere rationalsynopsis. Let it only be stated that henarrowly escapes the “sublimation” of the whole island.
Ascattering of other strips centered in Emile’s homebase of Fluxion City, New Jersey, intervenes beforewe encounter our next running character, Elijah Salamis, who is attempting toengender a universal culture and attitude blended from the entirety of humancustom. Needless to say, this questproves to be more than a little quixotic. Ultimately, the destinies of Elijah and Emile will intersect, but not beforea myriad other bizarre travelogue moments, some of which are reminiscent of thesurreal wanderings of Bill Griffith’s Zippy.
Inhis Julius Knipl series of strips, Katchor proved himself an expert atdiscovering and chronicling the unseen peculiar talismans of everydayexistence—even if he had to invent them first—freighting such objects as themetal discs which hold down newspaper piles at corner newsstands with hyperrealsignificance. He became a poet of thetawdry, humble quotidian, and his artwork is beautifully matched with histhemes. No one draws homely,Fellini-esque faces or clotted and palimpsested urban landscapes with theunremitting facility and love that Katchor exhibits. The gentle grey washes that seep over hispeople and places conjure up a Weegee-like atmosphere of life as she is lived,below all headlines and high ideals.
The Cardboard Valise is worldbuilding on the order ofJan Morris’s Hav, Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, Brian Aldiss’s Malacia, andUrsula Le Guin’s Orsinia: places thatare attached to our world by extradimensional roads, down which only thesharpest and most sensitive of literary guides can lead one. Get your ticket immediately!
-PAUL DI FILIPPO
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.