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Review: Edmond Baudoin’s Piero and Olivier Schrauwen’s Parallel Lives

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Review: Edmond Baudoin’s Piero and Olivier Schrauwen’s Parallel Lives

There’s a Chinese calligraphic tradition called Dishu, which is commonly practiced in the parks of Beijing, among other locations. Its salient elements include brushstrokes of water and the use of the ground as a canvas. It’s been well documented by François Chastanet, and, it turns out, well appreciated by Edmond Baudoin, the noted French artist. Baudoin once observed it firsthand, as he recounts in Laetitia Carton’s documentary Edmond, a Portrait of Baudoin. “And as he wrote,” he exclaims therein, “the trace was vanishing!” For Baudoin, the activity expresses “the philosophical relationship between permanence and the ephemeral.”

A fascination with ephemerality also comes through in Baudoin’s 1998 graphic memoir Piero, whose new edition features an English translation by Matt Madden and lettering by Dean Sudarsky. The book is titled after the author’s younger brother, with whom he spent a childhood immersed in numerous imaginative escapades in Nice and Villars-sur-Var. Those experiences are among Piero‘s key recollections, the tone of which is established by an initial pen sketch of a plane tree and its descending leaves. The image’s inky pools of black collide with tangles of line work to suggest the vague contours of memory.

The visual style, then, indicates the irrevocability of the past, even though the book is often a fairly straightforward record. Baudoin honors his friendship with his brother throughout, while sharing, for instance, well observed accounts of the social value of draughtsmanship during his childhood and adolescence. He also recaptures fleeting acts of youthful invention, as when a sheet of drawing paper is repeated across two-page spreads and accrues indecorous mixtures of soldiers, horses, and sharks. The creativity of childhood is also instinct with a sketch of the brothers hunched over clay, which they used to mold various short-lived figures.

What’s missing is a substantial impression of inner conflict. That aspect seems muted even when the book delves into Piero’s misfortunes and a climactic encounter with artistic disillusionment. But, as in Carton’s film, the author intrigues by pondering the nature of representational art. Piero reveals that Baudoin peered into photos until they devolved into elemental grain, and wondered when “lines, marks, scratches stop being grass, rocks, a tree, branches…and why, if you try too hard, do you end up killing the sense of life?” In form and content, the book suggests an artist seeking a sense of reproduced reality that’s found neither in utter abstraction nor painstaking accuracy, but a mysterious gradation that lies between.

While the recollective clarity of the memoir form is faintly strained in Piero, it’s outright detonated in Parallel Lives, a collection of six graphic stories by Belgian cartoonist Olivier Schrauwen. “Speculative memoir” is the label suggested in the publisher’s blurb. Schrauwen’s father is incorporated into certain of these stories, but most of them focus on Schrauwen himself or his descendants. This affords certain advantages, including allowing the satirical qualities of Parallel Lives to come across as more self-deprecating than sanctimonious. The collection also recalls the inventiveness of Schrauwen’s Arsène Schrauwen, in which he grappled with colonialism while imagining his grandfather’s life. In interviews, he’s essentially contended that his approach is less about rejecting truth than forging an oblique path toward it.

The first story, “Greys,” depicts Schrauwen’s abduction by extraterrestrials. He narrates the experience and describes, among other traumas, an abductor removing “its aluminum foil glove, revealing an elegant crème-gray alien hand.” Clarity jostles against abstraction in Schrauwen’s cartooning style, as demonstrated by the way the aliens’ crisp suits are set against dimensionless backgrounds. More generally, Schrauwen’s characters are frequently presented through portraiture, set adrift into swirls of luminous filiform shapes, and placed amid toxic yellows and greens. In these queasily shifting realities, one finds purchase in the details that shuffle into definition, like a glowing finger or a white-haired apparition.

Schrauwen’s writing, meanwhile, often arrives in a high-sounding style but easily shifts toward sadness or humor. “Hello,” for instance, imagines Schrauwen’s father as an arrogant eccentric who insists that his time machine is not “an archaic piece of shit,” while in “The Scatman,” we meet Ooh-lee, one of Schrauwen’s futuristic descendants, who dreams of a singing career. In this scenario, online trolling has migrated into telepathic communication. Psychic firewalls are prohibitively expensive, which leaves Ooh-lee vulnerable to a troll who both creates and reveals her insecurities. Schrauwen mixes the story’s somber and amusing energies into a scene of Ooh-lee singing Scatman John’s 1994 song “Scatman,” an artifact whose precise authorship and title seem to have been forgotten in this far-flung future.

Remembering and forgetting are, in various ways, essential to the entire collection. In the last story, “Space Bodies,” Schrauwen has awoken from cryogenic sleep but cannot recall his past, despite the belongings in his “cryogenic coffin.” His copy of a Charles Bukowski novel now elicits little more than the question of how its protagonist, given his alcoholism, can “have seemingly continuous genitalic intercourse without once urinating on his partners.” Storytelling, for these futuristic characters, is an old-fashioned lark. It inspires mostly superficial enthusiasms.

The future of “Space Bodies” also finds the human condition streamlined through advents like “continuous medical monitoring” and “the calibrating of inner and outer circumstances.” This has allowed the characters to develop into a kind of psychosomatic unit. It has also radically enhanced sexual intercourse. These new living arrangements are disrupted at the outset of the story, but their effects endure, revealing a way of life that is as technologically advanced as it is dissipated. This is part of an ongoing gag: The marvelous events and devices encountered by Schrauwen’s characters are frequently reduced to libidinous functions.

Several of his characters also receive warnings about the trajectory of their lives or the planet at large, and they typically respond with boredom or incomprehension. In the collection’s parallel spaces, lust and leisure often prove more resilient than our capacity for self-interrogation. And in “Greys,” Schrauwen’s account of the impressive corridors of the space ship becomes melancholic: “‘If I survive, I will remember this night as the most remarkable of my life,’ I realized with a certain sadness.”

That’s an affecting observation, but it’s also perhaps an erroneous one—less a reflection of the experiential limits of one character’s life than a tendency to curtail the scope of our individual lives, or to mistake futurism for selfhood. Underlying this collection is a fear that many of the novelties of the future will renew old problems, or divert us from the work of personal growth, which, for a lot of the characters in Parallel Lives, has yet to begin.

Edmond Baudoin’s Piero is now available from New York Review Comics, and Olivier Schrauwen’s Parallel Lives is available December 18 from Fantagraphics Books.