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Finding the Zen in suburban angst

Ice Haven A Comic-Strip Novel Daniel Clowes Pantheon: 90 pp., $18.95

June 26, 2005|Laurel Maury | Laurel Maury is an occasional contributor to Book Review and an editorial assistant for the New Yorker.

An exercise in perception asks a person to add one plus one plus one on paper, until reaching 100. The point is to notice how each "one" feels different. It's an apt way of looking at suburbia, with all the similar houses, all the similarly dressed people -- the same, yet different. "Ice Haven," a new graphic novel by "Ghost World" author Daniel Clowes, exploits this mass of sameness. Clowes often draws the same image several times in a row, but, fine artist that he is, doesn't merely copy. The drawings are the same without being identical. The characters feel trapped. And it's heartbreaking.

"Ice Haven" has a twisty plot with many interwoven lives, all described in short, self-contained comics. It's like "Our Town," only with whatever counts as the opposite of sentimentality, what fresh-faced aspiring writer Vida Wentz, the visiting granddaughter of "local poetess of renown" Ida Wentz, describes -- in the words of pioneering feminist writer Mary MacLane -- as "a truly wonderful state of miserable morbid unhappiness."

Clowes started out as an underground comic artist. His work has featured dismemberment and extreme sexual longing. But he seems to have grown up and discovered that there is enough horror in normal life. Disheveled Random Wilder, the self-appointed future poet laureate of Ice Haven, writes obscure verses -- "I am hard as ice / unmoved by the cowardly droves..." -- fit for teen angst. His is the voice of a boy stuck in the portly body of a middle-aged man. Two young boys, Charles and Carmichael, have a friendship filled with boredom and sexual tension. Carmichael longs -- without mentioning it -- for Charles, who longs -- rather too verbosely -- for his teenage stepsister, Violet. Much of the sexual tension is barely stated. With Clowes, you don't read about people's emotional states, you gather them, as in life.

One of the benefits of comics over movies or conventional novels is that you can bring in more than the usual five to seven main characters and still make them memorable. It would be impossible to summarize all the "Ice Haven" story threads here.

A child, David Goldberg, disappears. To impress Charles, Carmichael pretends to be David's murderer. Meanwhile, Violet is in love with Penrod, who may or may not want to spend the rest of his life with her. Private detectives Mr. and Mrs. Ames come to Ice Haven to investigate the boy's disappearance, and Mrs. Ames sleeps with everybody except her husband, who feels he cannot live without her. As one character notes, "Ironically, a life without societal restrictions is in itself restricting." American suburbia renders quiet desperation with a Zen perfection.

There is heightened interest today in midcentury suburban life. The complete "Peanuts," which is being published serially in book form, celebrates middle-class life, whereas successful films such as "American Beauty" and books like "The Corrections" give the sense that quotidian middle-class life is under assault. Suburbia is the new exotica. Like a woman in purdah or the life of a Victorian aristocratic lady, it's a space of mental confinement and extreme safety. Clowes uses dull, 1970s newsprint colors. His 1950s-style characters seem unhappy in their blocky bodies. The individual images are not art, but they become both art and seamless narrative when taken in sequence. Comics are sequential art, a mimicry of the flow of time. Like real life, they have less to do with poetry and more to do with waiting.

Comics may be the best medium to capture our suburban experience. Novels fall too easily into elevated drama. Cinema has no still images. Television plots require that people mess with one another's lives far more than actually happens. Clowes' suburban monsters are monsters precisely because they don't mess with one another. They are eerily unscarred except by loneliness and neglect, and these two things scar them horribly.

As in Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," the characters look only at the ones they love, never back at the ones who love them. You have only to see Charles' face, when Violet, as she leaves forever, tells him she'd like to marry someone like him someday. It makes you realize how much pain can exist in a quiet world. *

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