The Night Bookmobile
A Graphic Novel
Abrams Comicarts: 40 pp., $19.95
What would a library of your entire life's reading contain? What kinds of material — not just books, but anything you've ever read, such as instruction manuals, classified ads and cereal box tops — would you find? Can you remember every single thing you've ever read?
If you can't, don't worry: Alexandra, the main character in Audrey Niffenegger's graphic novel "The Night Bookmobile," discovers that there's a mysterious power in the universe keeping track of such things.
Alexandra finds her private library on a lonely Chicago street in the early morning hours. It's inside a Winnebago.
A quiet, balding man with bifocals sits in the driver's seat, skimming a newspaper as she approaches. The music from his radio — Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff," a favorite of Alexandra's — lures her to the vehicle. When he notices her, this man, Robert Openshaw, asks: "Would you like to see the collection?" He's a librarian, he tells her. No matter how nice the driver seems, shouldn't you refuse such an odd invitation? Alexandra, however, is too muddled to say no — she's walking the streets, trying to cool off after a big fight with her boyfriend Richard — and her judgment is foggy. The fog clears when she stares at the bookmobile shelves and makes a startling discovery.
"From Jane Austen to Paul Auster, from 'Betty Crocker's Cookbook' to 'The Raw and the Cooked' to my college biology textbook, every book on the shelves was familiar… And then I saw my diary," she gasps.
Niffenegger has given readers strange, ghostly scenarios in her novels "The Time Traveler's Wife" and "Her Fearful Symmetry," and here perhaps she wants us to see that homely Winnebago as a version of the soul — or of one's deepest, dearest memories. As dawn breaks and Openshaw gently tells Alexandra that the bookmobile library hours are over, she emerges somewhat reassured. And even though the bookmobile vanishes and doesn't reappear in her life for many years — by then Richard's gone, she's training as a librarian and reading so much that the bookmobile has added more shelves — what abides in her life are books.
"The Night Bookmobile" is oversized like a children's picture book, but it's strictly for adults. Even though there's a fairy tale element to it, Alexandra can't abandon her empty life and realize her wish — "I want to stay here," she told Openshaw, "I want to come with you. I could be your assistant…." — by simply falling down a rabbit hole or stepping through a wardrobe into another land. To join him, she must make a very tragic, absolute decision.
"When I began writing 'The Night Bookmobile,'" Niffenegger explains in an afterword, "it was a story about a woman's secret life as a reader." She also found herself thinking of H.G. Wells' short story "The Door in the Wall," in which a man encounters a green door that appears and offers him escape into a magical garden. Niffenegger also explains that the story evolved into something more about the seductiveness of reading.
Books are indeed seductive here — in fact, they're the only things Alexandra has (beside infrequent encounters with Openshaw). Even though Niffenegger's illustrations — besides being a successful novelist, she is also a talented visual artist — portray Openshaw as kindly and sympathetic, a reader can't help but feel something sinister about the whole story. Books are havens for the soul, yes, but aren't they supposed to eventually send you back into the world after you've licked your wounds? Alexandra retreats deeper and deeper into her books — so deep, in fact, that if you had been with her when she first spotted the Winnebago, you would have said one thing to her: Keep walking.