The Cardboard Valise Hardcover – Mar 15 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2011. One of the finest sequences in Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book, that underrated children's classic, concerns "five foot-weary salesmen" resting after a day of "unsuccessfully trying to sell Zizzer-Zoof Seeds, which nobody wants because nobody needs." That's the territory, of melancholy small-time commerce, that cartoonist Ben Katchor has worked his entire career. Beginning with his long-running weekly strip, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, and continuing with other series as well as radio and even musical theater adaptations, Katchor has mined this vein with the patient and modest industry that would befit, say, a second-tier importer of false eyebrows, or a salesman of restroom air-freshening systems. The Cardboard Valise is his first book in over a decade, but fans who have missed his periodical work in the meantime will feel right at home. His stories have become a little more fantastic over time (there is mention here of a country--one of 15 in the world--that exists only in two dimensions), but for Katchor even the most exotic locales are thoroughly grounded in the quotidian: Tensint Island, for example, the tropical getaway on which much of the book is set, is populated by the descendants of couplings between island women and visiting paper-towel salesmen, and attracts tourists to its famous public restroom ruins. Like those wafer-thin nations of his imagination, Katchor has made an entire world out of his narrow domain, and it's as rich and vast (and sad and hilarious) a world as any writer or artist working today has concocted. --Tom Nissley
“Wonderful…a pleasantly flimsy repository for an inexhaustible imagination. Open to any page and you'll be surprised anew.” –The Washington Post
“It’s in those spaces where understanding eludes the reader and where meaning nonetheless makes itself felt, that Katchor’s signature poetry lies.” –Publishers Weekly Comics Weekly
“Defies narrative convention…creatively charged.” –Kirkus
“Winsomely haunting…rarely have books that made this little sense made so much sense.” –Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Gloriously eccentric…the reader is befuddled, though in the most enjoyable manner.” –Booklist, starred review
“Artist and storyteller Katchor has achieved the goal Borges only imagined. Exiting this oneiric, shamanic, yet utterly naturalistic and sensual masterpiece, the reader steps out into a revitalized continuum richer and more exotic than the one he or she inhabited prior to the reading, a realm full of strange, alluring and bewildering lands, populated by oddball folks with odder customs. Never again will our common globe seem like a small, homogenous, boring place…The Cardboard Valise is worldbuilding on the order of Jan Morris's Hav, Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia, Brian Aldiss's Malacia, and Ursula Le Guin's Orsinia: places that are attached to our world by extradimensional roads, down which only the sharpest and most sensitive of literary guides can lead one. Get your ticket immediately!” –Barnes and Noble Review
“A surreal travelogue…a vast panorama of humane hamburger stands, exquisitely ethereal ethnic restaurants, ancient restroom ruins and wilds tracts of land that fit neatly next to high-rise hotels.” –Brooklyn Daily Eagle
“History, humor, and a generous dose of surrealness combine to make you think you’re walking down the back streets of Oz…Katchor is plainly steeped in the tropes of his craft, but ultimately he is uncategorizable, a man apart.”–Culture Books
“Katchor is the best world-builder in comics today…The Cardboard Valise feels like something you can open up, fall into, and stroll around in. It’s fascinating and funny and endlessly enveloping to look at, but its delights and distortions alike are ultimately a reflection of ourselves.” –The Comics Journal
“Anyone familiar with [Katchor’s] work will recognize his grotesque eccentrics (or maybe his eccentric grotesques), the off-kilter angles and depths of field in every panel, not to mention the banal objects granted strange value and the wonderful prose…There is an exhilaration and freedom here—a license to invent and destroy.” –Tablet Magazine
“Katchor’s work has the unusual distinction of being known…for its startling poetry, dreamily familiar urban landscapes, and revelations about the arcane systems and inner workings of city life…provocative, moving work.” –CriticalMob.com
“Katchor has made an entire world out of his narrow domain, and it’s as rich and vast (and sad and hilarious) a world as any writer or artist working today has concocted.” –Shelfari
“The appearance of a new Katchor collection is always reason to celebrate… Katchor is a true, rare, untarnished New York treasure — the kind of artist who can concoct a fantastical made-up world, but one that ensures you’ll never see the real world in quite the same way again.” –The 6th Floor blog
“His whimsical, mournful metaphysical verbal gags and scratchy visual poems are at once the most conceptual and conversational comics being made, and for my taste the best ever made…it’s only March, but surely Katchor is the automatic writer-artist of the year.” –ComicCritique Blog
“Katchor's magically whimsical vision is sui generis… a collection of richly imagined, lovingly detailed individual strips. Each is best lingered over one at a time, an invitingly exotic world unto itself.” –Philadelphia Inquirer
“The Cardboard Valise begins in typically batty fashion…memorable.” –The New York Times Comics Roundup
“Katchor is the Joseph Mitchell of contemporary comics…He remains the master of the ineffable, an artist who can bring to life ideas and experiences that exist at the sub-atomic level of consciousness. The Cardboard Valise is a worthy addition to Katchor’s already distinguished oeuvre, but it’s also a sign of an accomplished artist deepening and developing his core themes.” –Jeet Heer, The Ceiling Worker
“Katchor is one of America’s great prose stylists, a writer possessed of an almost unequalled mastery of word choice and the rhythm and pacing of the American language…What finally elevates Katchor above not only all cartoonists, but above most prose writers, is the sheer beauty of his prose. In his finest tales, each panel, removed from its context, creates its own context, a world of its own; each is so evocative that the single panel, removed from its fellows, explodes with melancholy. The texts are gems, and when combined with Katchor’s drawings, with their washed shadows, their chiaroscuro streets, the result is a body of work of an almost unbearable sadness, of an almost unbearable beauty.” –Jewish Currents
“[Katchor] could have not one by two MacArthur grants, given all the value he produces…Your gullet strangles in irrepressible laughter before you are halfway through one of his riffs, and you can barely make it to the end, only to find there is another on the next page, or the next panel,” –Boston Review
“Part surrealistic travelogue and part satirical treatise on the very notion of culture, The Cardboard Valise is a book about imaginary places with enough heart to make its very real social commentary easily digestible.” –Straight.com’s best graphic novels of 2011
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The valise is in fact a suitcase large enough to hold all of Emile Delilah's worldly goods. A denizen of Fluxion City, a megalopolis delisted from all maps and directories, seven miles southeast of Bayonne, N.J., Delilah packed for an extended holiday on Tensint Island and, from there, moments before the island is vaporized, to the Hem of Marie in the People's Republic of Outer Canthus. As you can see from his itinerary, Delilah was off on the trip of his life, and you are in for an extraordinary treat, as you follow him with a hop, skip and a jump. But it's a treat that you must unpack with great care that you won't miss the best parts.
It's probably best to approach "The Cardboard Valise" as a work of absurdist literature, a genre, according to Wikipedia, that "posits little judgment about characters or their actions; that task is left to the reader. Also, the `moral' of the story is generally not explicit, and the themes or characters' realizations--if any --are often ambiguous in nature." But if that seems a bit of a stretch, think of "Valise" as nonsense literature, which Wikipedia describes as using sensical and nonsensical elements to defy language conventions or logical reasoning. There is a good case that "Valise" combines elements of both traditions.
"Puncto: The International Language of Incomprehsion" spoken on Outer Canthus, is characterized by "masculine, feminine and bisexual forms of punctuation" and by the fact that "all articles are indefinite." In Puncto, "A cup fo coffee, a mashed sardine, and a rainy day are all expressed . . by the same two words. Youno copsa." Classic absurdism. And there is nonsense galore. You will meet Sizmal Platus, the Pelagian virtuoso ladle player; Calvin Heaves, who offers his weekly "Sermon from the Mouth" at the Quiver Tabernacle; Sylvie Wan, "The pigeon-toed dancer [who] premiered her `Venusian Footbath" at [Outer Canthus'] Insulazian;" Dr. Magsman, inventor of the sub-atomic hand-towel and his wife Athena, a "passionate collector of popsicle sticks," among a host of such folks.
The word play is insistent and ingenious. There is no doubt that several of Katchor's fictional places will end up in the next revision of "The Dictionary of Imaginary Places" (Harcourt Brace & Co.): "Gazogene City," "Pasal Tedium," PolyWalla," "Spoonfed Bay," "New Feelia," "Hindaralla," and "Jumpara" among others. Other proper names are good fun, too: "The Marrowbone College Dictionary," "Neatsfoot College of Faith Healing," "Club Galactose," "Syrupian Pastry Cafe" and "Gravamen Hotel."
The story line in "Valise" is anything but linear. The narrative is carried on at two levels, the text in the bubbles records what the characters are telling you; the narrator's accompaniment at the top of many of the panels will help you keep up with the action. One way to read "Valise" is to read the narrator's contribution on each page and then read what the characters have to say, bubble by bubble, panel by panel. The pages of the book aren't numbered (I counted 125), but the pull-out blue cardboard handles, which allow you to carry the book as if it were a valise, are a nice touch.
Take the time to unpack this valise carefully and to linger over its contents. You won't be sorry.
End note. "The Dictionary of Imaginary Places" (see above) is a splendid reference book. It identifies over 1200 of them, many illustrated with maps, diagrams and/or illustrations of comportment buildings. Not surprisingly, a great many of these imaginary places are islands, many of the others exist far under the earth's crust, but some, like Fluxion, N.J., are tucked away on the mainland. Significantly, very few reveal an absurdist landscape comparable to the one Katchor creates in "Valise." One which may be is "Leonia", created by Italo Calvino for his 1972 novel "Le citta invisibili". And here is one that should please the author of "Valise." In "The Son of Tarzan" by Edgar Rice Burroughs (!915) there is an Arab village named Ben Khatour.
In most illustrated narratives, people are the motivating characters, but in this case, the valise AND Outer Canthus becomes the link between 3 different individuals.
Ben Katchor is not your average graphic novelist, his writing seems different, and his art is interesting, yet competent.
Emile Delilah, Boral Rince, and Elijah Salamis live in the same tenement, and along the same shores, the same derelict washrooms, hamburger stands and high rises. Each experiences something different, yet each experience is connected in some way.
It is difficult to describe WHY I like this book, perhaps it is the wistful way Katchor manages to represent life lessons in less than ordinary situations. Readers, who look straight on, will miss them, tilt your head to the left, and you will catch a waft of what he is trying to tell us.
Some books are good for one read only, while others reappear for frequent trips of discovery, just like a good valise.
The weird thing is that by half way through the book, you sort of get pulled into this commercialized world. To the extent that you can't really tell anymore if the things he presents are more or less bizarre than the actual stupid touristy products we buy and the new age religions we follow.
It's not easy to write a review on a book I don't understand, but this thing grows on you. You come back to it though you had dismissed it earlier, and it cheers you up like good comedy, which you're not at all sure it is.
PS: the human anatomic references in the names are perfect.