Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories

Overview

**Time Magazine's Best Books of the Year 2013**
**NPR's Best Books of the Year 2013**

WITH BEAUTIFUL FULL-COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS THROUGHOUT

From one of the most original and imaginative American cartoonists at work today comes a collection of graphic narratives on the subjects of urban planning, product design, and architecture—a surrealist handbook for the rebuilding of society...

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Overview

**Time Magazine's Best Books of the Year 2013**
**NPR's Best Books of the Year 2013**

WITH BEAUTIFUL FULL-COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS THROUGHOUT

From one of the most original and imaginative American cartoonists at work today comes a collection of graphic narratives on the subjects of urban planning, product design, and architecture—a surrealist handbook for the rebuilding of society in the twenty-first century.

Ben Katchor, a master at twisting mundane commodities into surreal objects of social significance, now takes on the many ways our property influences and reflects cultural values. Here are window-ledge pillows designed expressly for people-watching and a forest of artificial trees for sufferers of hay fever. The Brotherhood of Immaculate Consumption deals with the matter of products that outlive their owners; a school of dance is based upon the choreographic motion of paying with cash; high-visibility construction vests are marketed to lonely people as a method of getting noticed. With cutting wit Katchor reveals a world similar to our own—lives are defined by possessions, consumerism is a kind of spirituality—but also slightly, fabulously askew. Frequently and brilliantly bizarre, and always mesmerizing, Hand-Drying in America ensures that you will never look at a building, a bar of soap, or an ATM the same way.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Michael Cavna
…skewers our penchant for carbon-copy buildings, our dreams of "calmer" and de-stressed (read: "duller") atmospheres and our longing for "faux-distress" decor…Katchor has been building his brilliant refracted-satire worlds for decades, with Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer through to The Cardboard Valise…The colorful universe of urban decay and dissipation in Hand-Drying feels entirely of a piece with those earlier works. It blends his scratched lines with deviously precise language that careers from mimicry and mockery to moments of reverent poetry. For all his cutting remarks, Katchor clearly loves the resilient soul of a city.
Publishers Weekly
In one of the more sublimely caustic stories in Katchor’s brilliant, darkly magical new collection, a suburban house attracts the attention of an architecture critic who loves how the roof reforms itself to match the shape of the master bed. He is all set to publish a laudatory article on it when the housekeeper makes the bed, and the critic loses interest. There are more than 150 pieces like that in this oversized edition, most of them taking up just one page. Nearly all involve some surreal tweak on modern obsessions with form, design, status, and particularly architecture and the pretentious folly of its acolytes. Like a grungier Chris Ware, Katchor uses slashing lines and bleak-faced people to populate strictly delineated worlds that hum with surrealism for all their exacting detail: the building so high-tech it allows no wood (“all your possessions must be uploaded as digital files”); the mixed-use complex with one blank wall so off-putting that “two tourists die of boredom”; a move toward using vitreous china for fast-food packaging and automobile bodies. Katchor’s universe might be at a 45-degree angle to reality, but it’s close enough for his barbs about the modern world’s hatred of the past to keep their humorous sting. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
**Time Magazine's Best Books of the Year 2013**
**NPR's Best Books of the Year 2013**
**The Daily Beast's Best Coffee Table Books of 2013**

“Ben Katchor’s new book (his first in full color and I think also his best yet), Hand-Drying in America, furthers his reputation as one of the few geniuses of the form, to say nothing of being one of the first exemplars of what literary fiction told in comics form could be.”—Chris Ware

“Reminds me of all the reasons I fell in love with his work 20-odd years ago… at the heart of all his work is the same intention: to find, however odd or enigmatic, a moment of real connection in an increasingly surreal world.” –Los Angeles Times

“The zany world of an inventive and original mind who is endlessly fascinated by the great city where he lives.” –Metropolis Magazine 

“What ultimately sets Katchor’s work apart from other chroniclers of the city is his skill with verisimilitude...Katchor’s characters in Hand-Drying, with their passions, postulations, and crackpot motives, aren’t merely urban anthropologists: they’re cosmonauts of wonder and desire, plumbing the tedious and humdrum for meaning, and awakening readers to the hidden stories that have been under their feet all along. Katchor’s New York may be alienating to some of its inhabitants, but Hand-Drying in America is a world for all of us to enjoy.” –Los Angeles Review of Books

“The four-year collection of a visionary polymath’s cartoons about urban living… Katchor’s wry humor and unique view on the subject are well worth exploring.” —Kirkus

“Katchor is an urban visionary, building his stories brick by brick from the detritus of the metropolis…He's a poet of the gone world, which lingers, like the vacant offices of the Daily Hubris, whether we notice it or not. His is an aesthetic of ephemera but an ephemera that transcends itself, in which loss leads to wonder and then, inevitably, back to loss.” –Los Angeles Times   
 
“As one of our greatest architecturally minded cartoonists, Katchor is a master at assessing not only the massive skyline but also the smallest detail, right down to the line on a mass-produced coffee cup logo. Little misses his critical civic gaze…[Hand-Drying in America is a] big and beautiful new graphic book…In Katchor’s corporate chainscape, urban architecture becomes like piped-in and peddled smooth jazz — designed to be agreeable, but repellent to the lover of rough edges and raw, original roots. Katchor has been building his brilliant refracted-satire worlds for decades, with Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer through to The Cardboard Valise (and earning praise from Building Stories graphic novelist Chris Ware and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon). The colorful universe of urban decay and dissipation in Hand-Drying feels entirely of a piece with those earlier works. It blends his scratched lines with deviously precise language that careers from mimicry and mockery to moments of reverent poetry. For all his cutting remarks, Katchor clearly loves the resilient soul of a city.” —Washington Post

“Katchor’s humor relies on cities for its strength: their grime, their dishonest denizens, and their beautiful decay seem to feed his imagination. This book hits its target in just about every panel…Sadness, whimsy, nostalgia, reflection, concern: These feelings all float through the frames which, despite the wizened appearance of their characters, could also be said to be bristling with energy, nearly in motion…The idea that the universal can be conveyed through close attention to particulars is a cliché, perhaps, but seeing it executed well is a rare pleasure. This book is that execution.” –Boston Globe
 
“Sumptuous…Katchor's visual depiction of humans rivals his prowess with buildings. He's never presented such a vast panoply of humanity before…Katchor's narratives—which often end as bloodily as any Edward Gorey fable—meander in a fashion that seems haphazard but really covers all his desired plot points in the most elegant and evocative way…the final panel features not a rich cluttered landscape but the lamenting man against a featureless white expanse. This is Katchor's concept of the ultimate dystopia, a sterile, featureless white room devoid of any human design. But so long as he continues to create his art—‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins,’ as Eliot said—then humanity is saved from such a fate.” –B&N review  

“Sublimely caustic…brilliant, darkly magical new collection.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Gorgeous…Katchor’s judiciously sketchy drawings—half art brut, half blueprint—literate scripts, and comedic imagination make them the stuff of genius-level cartooning.” –Booklist, starred review

“Half urban legend and half magic, these stories that seem on the one hand far-fetched but on the other are one small step away from being true…Katchor's stories don't feature characters so much as ideas. This way of writing could get boring awfully quickly—except that the ideas he presents are so clever and haunted, it's hard to imagine that ever happening.” –Jewish Book Council

“Ben Katchor, recipient of a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, lampoons our shallowest preoccupations so skillfully that half the laughs in his terrific collection, Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories, come from realizing you've done more or less the same absurd thing the cartoonist has taken to its logical extreme…It's the sum of four years' worth of piecework, but it's sharper still than the sum of its barbed parts.” –Newsday  

“A dark, funny, and compelling experience, as engrossing to view as it is to read…Comparisons to Chris Ware, the other great comics artist who deals with urban structures and the enervating enclosure of modern living, seem obvious. Both specialize in architectural rendering and characters that are ill at ease within their cities. But against Ware’s exploration of the sterile and alienating quality of modern technologies Katchor’s work has a pungency and strange sexual energy applied to the appliances of the late 20th century. Then there is the quality of Katchor’s humor, a smoked fish surrealism that gives a vaudevillian undercurrent to even his bleakest stories…Katchor trains his eye on everything we fail to notice, the details that are traditionally only props in the background, not fitting subjects for art. But Katchor’s art is to take the human endeavor seriously by examining our interactions with something as mundane as a hand-drying machine. The pathos is in the appliances and the props become the subjects that reveal us to ourselves.” –The Daily Beast  
 
Hand Drying In America is at once a mind-boggling work of alternate history and a powerful indictment of contemporary American society, but the stories seem only slightly surreal and entirely plausible. They're quick parables with the mind-altering power of smart philosophy wrapped up in goofy stories that glance down dead-end alleys with a combination of mordant humor and wistful nostalgia…Katchor's ability to creating elements of the fantastic that seem almost logical and yet are utterly mind-boggling is consistently amazing…The sketched, causal feel of the art combined with a very precise use of colors combine to establish an everyday urban gestalt. The places you visit feel real. It's as if Katchor has been to all the parts of whatever city you live in that your have not managed to visit yet…It is, not surprisingly, like an artifact from one of the worlds it creates, a troubling wedge that slides into the bricks of our beliefs and upsets a balance that we did not know to exist. Read it at your own risk; watch the walls of your world come tumbling down.” –Bookotron.com 

“Katchor’s vignettes brilliantly satirize human behavior, changing social values and cities in flux. Perhaps most of all, they highlight the timeless need for human connection.” –Time Out Chicago

“Katchor’s forte is nudging a real-life absurdity one or two notches too far…It’s unsurprising that Katchor’s artwork has a peculiar, well-entrenched architecture of its own.” –Jewish Daily Forward 
 
“Brilliant…Katchor's trademark storytelling bends just a little bit away from our own reality to make us see it more clearly.” –Publishers Weekly 
 
“Katchor gently interrogates the everyday — the click of a light switch, say, or the nozzle on a can of shaving cream — and finds unimagined and uncanny depths within…Elliptical and mysterious but never abstruse, the picture-poems of Hand-Drying in Americacelebrate the mundane world around us by revealing it to be anything but…Hand-Drying in America is a large book, roughly the size of a tabloid newspaper. Not only does this make it easier to appreciate Katchor's backgrounds, stuffed as they are with peculiar signage ("Putti Dental," "Surd," "Cowlick," "ANKLE SOCK"), but it also encourages us to linger over these pages and the rich, wry and quietly remarkable worlds they contain.” –NPR.org

“The imaginative snatches of consumer life in the city and abroad prove to be funny and jarring.” –Time Out New York  

“Wonderful…I like Ben Katchor. And I’m fairly certain you will too.” –Edrants.com

“Smart and perceptive.” –Time Out New York

“Hand-Drying is a marvelous collection of more than 150 strips Katchor has drawn for Metropolis magazine, inventive and funny cartoons filled with the trademark old-fashioned characters, absurdist situations, and unusual city environments that Katchor has been detailing for several decades…an endlessly entertaining and extremely funny and insightful look at human nature and our changing world as only Katchor can depict it.” –Twi-NY.com  
 
“Fascinating.” –InArkansas.com 

Kirkus Reviews
The four-year collection of a visionary polymath's cartoons about urban living. These delicately constructed, one-page epics originally appeared between 2008 and 2012 as the back page of contemporary design magazine Metropolis. As written and crafted by Katchor (The Cardboard Valise, 2011, etc.), these "picture-stories" are funnier, more interesting and more focused than some of the artist's other graphic novels. Some of the most imaginative stories involve buildings with peculiar characteristics--the shoe-fitting bench in "The Symbolic Building," or "The Souvenir Museum," where a single souvenir is offered for sale in the gift shop. The drawings are spare, and the humor is arid, particularly in the stories about architecture and the way we engage with urban corridors. In "Behind Sty Center," a lively row of small businesses is wiped away to the desolate blankness of a visual vacuum. "Three hundred feet from the entrance to a mixed-use entertainment complex, two tourists die of boredom," Katchor deadpans. Still others delve into the psychological effects that design can effect. "Aisle Lights" laments the wanton use of electricity that stems from our increasing consolation from the warm glow of electric light. "Crowd Control" explores that delicious pleasure that stems from ducking a velvet rope--"The physical expression of our free will," Katchor's Everyman dubs it. Many others are simply very funny exercises in satire, such as "Under the Bed," which illustrates the old urban legend about the famine of rental space in our metropolises. Sure, the subject matter can be a little dry, particularly for those who don't harbor a secret passion for urban planning and product utility. Katchor's wry humor and unique view on the subject are well worth exploring.
The Barnes & Noble Review

The front and back covers and the endpapers and the indicia and title pages of Ben Katchor's sumptuous collection of strips from Metropolis magazine (appearing originally from 1998 to 2012) constitute a "bonus" story of sorts, seemingly coextant only with this project. The topic of the new piece? How wasteful, environmentally unsound, and generally unworthy is the production of books in general and large, glossy art books in particular. The nearly criminal charges are leveled through the intermediary of one of Katchor's great obsessive amateur experts, Josef Fuss, who inveighs against many offenders, including "a deluxe full-color edition of an esoteric literary comic strip." In other words, against the very book the reader now holds.

Such a wry, dubious, gently self-effacing attitude is of course a trademark of Katchor's art. Like the many amateur sleuths, neurotic busybodies, lost souls, hedonistic aesthetes, naïfs, and faux savants in his strips, he focuses on matters and objects theoretically too small to sustain weighty disquisitions: light switches, doorknobs, blackboards, rubber tips of crutches, the disparate commercial lives of identical buildings. The presentation is bashful and diffident, yet somehow also bold and assertive. (An ancillary figure in Katchor's art is the blowhard, wild-eyed scam artist, but even such greedy types are often self-deluded dreamers.) Katchor and his avatars don't really want to bother anyone, but they are inflamed by their passions for things the rest of us overlook, and so demand to be heard.

Under Katchor's gloriously tawdry, jittery pen — his artwork aligns with that of Ben Shahn, Charles Rodrigues, and Roz Chast - - and in the manic speeches he attributes to his stand-ins, these trivial, quotidian items and speculations become Blakean grains of sand in which the whole universe might be apprehended. That's the consistent miracle of Katchor's oeuvre: to direct our attention to the universal "kipple and gubble" (to employ Philip K. Dick's terminology) going unnoticed beneath our feet and under our hands and eyes. But whereas Dick saw the shoddy constituents of our cosmos and culture as entropic and despair-making, Katchor sees them as affirmative and uplifting but also engendering a certain omnipresent melancholy. Katchor is the living Western comics artist who has best captured the Japanese concept of wabi- sabi, "an aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection," as Wikipedia has it.

Each generous page in this big, cosmically deep book generally features one self-sufficient strip, although occasionally a narrative will span two pages ("What Bruno Yule Heard" or "Locked Out," for instance). This presentation allows Katchor's detailed art lots of room to breathe, and its subtle coloration and washes, reminiscent of the hues found in the children's books of Edward Ardizzone or Ludwig Bemelmans, fairly leap off the pages. The colors — sometimes restricted to just patches on a black-and-white page — are keyed to certain panels, and so also teach one how to read Katchor's dynamic layouts, certainly the most spectacular and witty of which is that for "Cartone Shoes," which features, sprawling diagonally across the whole page, the Italianate "carpeted portico three kilometers in length" used for testing new shoes for fit.

Loosely speaking, Katchor's topic in this collection is architecture — interiors, exteriors, and appurtenances, their quirks and almost lifelike traits — and how humans react to their sometimes comforting, sometimes hostile artificial environments. Peepholes in doors, the space under beds, tiny hotel trash cans, light bulbs that resemble flames: such things provoke loving, thoughtful exegeses, as if we were listening to people recalling distant dead relatives. Sometimes the things are fantastical or imaginary. In "Name Dropping" we learn about the extinct "small metal cabinet built into the wall just below the kitchen window" and intended for the storage of vegetables. In "The Weekly House" we contemplate a dwelling shaped like a seven-day pill dispenser. If only such fixtures and homes had ever existed! But Katchor makes us believe in his fanciful creations for the duration of each strip, fashioning a parallel universe of even more whimsically perverse elaboration than the one we actually inhabit.

Nostalgia and longing for older eras that featured less homogeneity and technology and more catering to simple human concerns permeates Katchor's work. In a strip such as "Ping Tung Market/The Serpentine Bank for Savings," a once-glorious financial temple, repurposed as an Asian market, is contrasted with the ATM kiosk maintained by the legacy institution. Katchor doesn't hit the reader over the head with his message, but it's inescapable anyhow. Such riffs are a constant throughout. As "Locked Out" reminds us, nowadays "a coarseness pervaded all areas of industrial production."

But sometimes Katchor's critiques of modern lifestyles are more blunt. The enemy in "A 21st-Century Sweatshop" is physical fitness as insanity. "The Same" takes a jab at chain store retailers, while "International Competition" lambastes television news, concluding with the observation that "the constant visual activity seems to displace the need for a coherent chain of thought." Generally, though, Katchor's satire, while spot-on, is more diffuse, aimed at shared human ridiculousness.

Katchor's visual depiction of humans rivals his prowess with buildings. He's never presented such a vast panoply of humanity before. The teens who indulge in a strange kind of vandalism in "The Decorative Impulse" are just as vivid as the businessmen in "Niente's Restaurant" or the elderly AC spotters in "Peabald's Field Guide to Air Conditioners of North America" or the bereft young woman in "Lossless Things." Another facility of Katchor's involves names. They flow through this book in an unending stream of evocative places and people and things (Herbert Swolve, Melti Bordo, Harmon Kiscure). Not only are dialogue and captions filled with such rich and unsettling coinages as "the Vagus River" and "Catsboll Quarters," but also the omnipresent signage heralds such appellations as "Brazen Drug" and "Sumerian Foods."

Katchor's narratives — which often end as bloodily as any Edward Gorey fable — meander in a fashion that seems haphazard but really covers all his desired plot points in the most elegant and evocative way. Part of this accomplishment derives from his unique use of word balloons. The speech in them is often a serial monologue, even though different characters are mouthing the words. The flow of language, improbably passed from stranger to stranger, provides a unifying link to carry the reader through the narrative.

In "The Board of Education," an elderly man who possessed a photographic memory for all his life, thanks to his childhood indoctrination with classroom blackboards, is mystically rendered nearly senile as schools replace their old-fashioned chalkboards with "panels of a plastic composite." Unique for Katchor, the final panel features not a rich cluttered landscape but the lamenting man against a featureless white expanse. This is Katchor's concept of the ultimate dystopia, a sterile, featureless white room devoid of any human design. But so long as he continues to create his art — "These fragments I have shored against my ruins," as Eliot said — then humanity is saved from such a fate.

Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.

Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307906908
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/5/2013
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 630,604
  • Product dimensions: 11.60 (w) x 12.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

BEN KATCHOR is the author of The Cardboard Valise, The Jew of New York; Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District; and several works of musical theater with the composer Mark Mulcahy. He teaches at Parsons The New School for Design and has contributed to The New Yorker, The Forward, and Metropolis. The first cartoonist to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, he is the subject of the documentary The Pleasures of Urban Decay. He lives in New York.
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