CALIFORNIA
'Flood fighting is in our DNA': To live by the Feather River is to know its power and danger

Anders Nilsen's sketchbook art

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Anders Nilsen is called a comics artist, but that’s not exactly what he does. Yes, his books are visual, but Nilsen seems at times to be about the deconstruction of form itself in favor of a purer style of storytelling, gathering evidence: images, correspondence, notes from the author to himself.

In the 2007 graphic memoir “Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow,” he uses photos, letters, postcards to recount his relationship with Cheryl Weaver, who died of cancer in 2005, with a kind of documentary clarity; it is like a scrapbook of their tragic love.

“Rage of Poseidon” (2013) is less a book than an accordion-folded scroll between two covers, imagining a series of mythologies updated, in which “Bacchus apparently runs a nightclub in a new city on the other side of the world called ‘Las Vegas.’ ... Venus works in a place called ‘Hollywood.’ Eros runs something called ‘the Internet.’”

MORE: 23 fiction books you'll want to read -- and share -- this summer

It’s a vivid approach to narrative, immediate and unexpected, and it encourages -- no, requires -- us to engage. On the one hand, a stunning, apparently unfiltered humanity, and on the other, a sense of form as malleable, as less straitjacket than structure, a way of piercing the surfaces to get at all the uncontrolled or uncontrollable material underneath.

And yet, filtering is what an artist does -- the shaping of perception, of experience -- and this creates the tension at the heart of Nilsen’s work. How to make order out of chaos, and still give the chaos its due? The question echoes through Nilsen’s new book, “Poetry is Useless” (Drawn & Quarterly: 224 pp., $29.95), which reproduces seven years of his sketchbooks; much of the work here originally appeared on his blog “The Monologuist.”

“There’s one thing I just want to get clear, to make sure we all understand,” Nilsen explains, in a panel featuring a glorified stick figure speaking. “It'll help us if we just get it out in the open before we move on: Poetry is useless.”

The line is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, from “Asphodel That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” What both Nilsen and Williams are saying is that art is useless, although in its uselessness, its lack of practical utility, it is also absolutely essential to our well-being.

That’s the idea behind “Poetry is Useless,” which is a remarkable and moving book in which Nilsen appears to hold little back. Many of the pages feature strike-outs, words and sometimes entire dialogue balloons deleted, as if process were more important than a sense of finished work.

One spread highlights a two-page list of words that have been blacked out, as if Nilsen were finished with them. That we can’t see the words, or their relationship to the strip that follows, is part of the point. Not the mystery -- Nilsen is too smart to fall back on that tired notion -- but the sense of trial and error, of serious (yes) play. To get to the level of exposure Nilsen is after requires this sort of revelation, this embrace of the conditional.

My favorite sequence involves the appropriation of a number of color images, over which Nilsen has drawn a nondescript shadow figure mouthing words. “There is a hole on the side of your head,” this character tells us, “for information to go in. … There is a hole on the front of your head for information to go out -- always fighting, fighting to get past your teeth.”

The implication is that it is difficult to communicate, to understand one another, a concept the artist makes explicit by rendering the rest of the strip as a series of disconnected phrases: “a pound of hamburger ... some slices of cheese ... radiator fluid ... a warm light.”

The conclusion -- “The end of the world will be boring” -- is both unlikely and inevitable, the building of an existential condition out of the detritus of contemporary life. In such a landscape, even language deserts us, as, of course, it must.

Much of “Poetry is Useless” appears random: a view through a window, a bulldog seen in a coffee shop. But these chance observations and encounters, they add up to form a life. That this is the case for all of us goes without saying, but if art has a purpose, it may be to get us to slow down and take notice of all the moments, all the nuance, we might otherwise overlook.

“Take a deep breath,” Nilsen writes. “... Think about where that breath will be in one minute. Think about where it will be tomorrow. ... Breath in, breath out, stay relaxed. How many breaths has it been? Where have they all gone?”

Twitter: @davidulin

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
57°