David B. begins the second volume of his graphic novel “Incidents in the Night” (Uncivilized Books: 128 pp., $19.95) with a summary: three pages getting us up to speed on what has already transpired.
It’s a pretty straightforward exercise, until the penultimate frame, when he recalls, “I am stabbed and thrown into the Seine, but my murder had a strange witness.” This was, perhaps, the strangest moment in the first book, the death of the first-person narrator, a cliffhanger of the most unlikely sort.
And yet, unlikely — in the strangest, most compelling sense — is what David B. is after in this project, which merges a detective story with the kind of philosophical arcana that marks, say, the Illuminatus! Trilogy. The result is a narrative that takes place in the interstices of reality, in which a man could hide from the Angel of Death for 150 years by folding himself into the letters on a printed page.
The set-up is simple: After waking from a dream, David B. (or his fictional counterpart) begins to search used bookstores for copies of a 19th century newspaper called “Incidents in the Night.” The paper’s publisher, “a fanatical Bonapartist” named Émile Travers, means to restore the reign of Napoleon, despite the fact that the former emperor died in 1821.
We are, then, in the realm of the occult, strange gods and incantations, illustrated in an energetic visual style. Throughout both volumes (there is a third that remains, as yet, untranslated), we confront gods and demons, mythological figures, all operating just below the level of human memory, and the physical landscape of the Paris streets.
Booksellers play a key role; “The Babylonians,” David B. writes, “planted at the base of their city walls nails in the image of their gods, the Parisians opened twenty bookstores.”
In the first book, this was embodied by a store so vast and sprawling that patrons are led around by guides and sleep on slopes made up of endless titles, like Borges’ Library of Babel brought to life. In this new installment, that bookstore is the site of a grievous shootout, as is another shop, the Forgotten Road, which narrows as it rises, “until with the last story it became a sort of stairway-library.”
The last story … this could be a metaphor for David B.’s intention, which is to externalize the role of text, the role of narrative. His is a landscape in which story not only transforms us but the very world that we traverse into a landscape of surreal juxtapositions, where the naturalistic yields to the fantastic and back again.
The putative movement of “Incidents in the Night” is to investigate its narrator’s death or disappearance, but even this hints at the layers in the work. How does a dead man describe such an investigation? How does he get at his own afterlife?
Partly, I suppose, through the intervention of his brother, Jean-Christophe, who operates in Book 2 as the narrator’s stand-in. But even this is fraught.
Jean-Christophe, after all, is a central figure in David B.’s best known work, “Epileptic,” which was written and published in France in the late 1990s and early 2000s, around the same time as “Incidents in the Night”; as such, the two efforts dance with each other, intertwine.
Yet to read “Incidents in the Night” as commentary or analogue to “Epileptic” is to miss the point. No, what David B. is doing is to push beyond the bounds of ordinary reality, with Jean-Christophe as vehicle. If his declining health — and his brother’s increasingly internalized reactions to it — was a major factor in “Epileptic,” here, the tables are turned. What can it mean except that stories are all we have to preserve us, even though that is ultimately a hollow faith?
“What makes books quintessentially what they are is the promise that hides in their pages,” writes Brian Evenson, who translated “Incidents in the Night” into English with his daughter Sarah, in an afterword to the first volume. “The sense that we can metaphorically — or even, with holy books, for ‘real’ — escape death through them, as authors and as readers.”
There is, in other words, a mystery to be solved, but it is the mystery of existence — which is, of course, the mystery at the center of every book.