Last year Uncivilized Books expanded our knowledge of the enigmatic oeuvre of French cartoonist David B. by releasing Incidents in the Night. Although it is the most recent of David B.’s books to be issued in English, Incidents was initially published as three volumes between 1999 and 2002 and is thus older than everything American readers have seen so far except Epileptic, which he worked on more or less simultaneously. Like that more famous book, and indeed all of David B.’s work, Incidents is rich, complex, funny, dark—and very difficult to describe.
The opening at least is straightforward. David B.’s cartoon alter-ego dreams he is in a bookshop looking at paperbacks. He stumbles upon two books, part of a series entitled Incidents in the Night, a collection of fantastic stories based on news snippets of the 19th and 20th centuries. But the set is incomplete: he picks up volumes two and three and then finds the 112th issue. Upon waking, David B. starts scouring the bookshops of Paris for copies, eventually landing in the bookshop of Mr. Lhôm, which he says functions “like an archaeological dig.”
Thus dream gives way to “reality,” but only briefly, as Mr. Lhôm’s bookshop is a fantastical place. One of David B.’s strategies as a cartoonist is to take a verbal image and illustrate it literally, rendering the commonplace weird, funny, mysterious, or jarringly alien. Here David B. draws the shop interior as a dark labyrinth composed of mounds of books, heaped high like the wrecked fragments of an ancient city. In fact, the labyrinth of obscure and lost books is so vast that a guide is required, and while David B. is book-hunting a Yeti appears (though it is only Mr Lhôm in a costume). Hounds chase browsers through the cavernous shop.
By page six we are back in a dream again, from which David B. awakens to realize he has acquired the power to assume four different forms; he can be a shadow, a skeleton, a paper man, or human, four versions of his self which he depicts sitting on an eight-pointed wheel, a symbol suggestive of various mythologies. From a very simple starting point—the dream of a book—we have rapidly entered exceedingly imaginative, fantastical, esoteric territory, shifting from dream to “reality” to humorous fantasy, back to dream and then back to “reality.” Borders are blurred, the lines between realities are crossed freely, and yet the book has hardly started. And from this point, it only gets more baroque.
Confronted with this sophisticated and slippery enigma, co-translator (and novelist) Brian Evenson latches onto the relationship between death and the book as a “key” of sorts in his commentary at the end of Incidents in the Night. This is understandable, even logical: there is a lot of death; David B. draws piles of skeletons, massacres, corpses, as well as piles of books. Evenson is struck by the first third of the book which tells the story of Travers, the veiled, mysterious founder of the magazine Incidents in the Night. Travers is a violent, fanatical Bonapartist who, much like David B., “offered articles of a fantastical or esoteric nature, presenting them as authentic.” Travers, David B. tells us, associated Napoleon with the millenarian myth of the “king under the mountain” and believed the deposed emperor would return to rule the world. But then one day Travers himself died, crushed under a falling pile of books. Only it seems that he didn’t die, for Travers returns and demands that David B. find a place where he can hide from Azrael, the angel of death. David B. obliges, concealing him in a volume, The Desert, which only contains the letter “n.” In this wild yet enigmatic sequence that blends history, myth, and fantasy Evenson sees a metaphor for the relationship between death and reading: David B., he says, “understands that subconsciously we search books for magics that will help us avoid being confronted by our own mortality, and he has made this the conscious subject of Incidents in the Night.”
Perhaps. But the book feels too slippery to me: that blurring at the start, the transition from dream to reality to fantasy to dream insists upon fluidity, upon many possible interpretations, and suggests a hidden, internal logic which is never exposed to the reader. As David B. attempts to conceal Travers we see Azrael whose face changes with each panel; a sea of books shifts to become a sea of letters then a sea of terrifying faces before returning to the mounds of paper in the labyrinth and the bookseller dressed as a Yeti with his face exposed. It’s “surreal,” but also dark and erudite and witty and very playful. When David B. speaks of using a book as a means to evade death and live forever, he does so in fairly frivolous terms: it would be nice to have time to read more books and know more women.
It is true that death and books are everywhere in Incidents in the Night, but they are themes David B. probes from a varying set of perspectives, ranging through multiple genres as he continues his quest for a copy of Incidents in the Night. In the middle section, he finally tracks down an issue which leads to a discussion with Mr. Lhôm of Enn, the Unknown God, allegedly a figure of Greek mythology who represented “extermination and oblivion.” The book in which Travers concealed himself from death was composed exclusively of the letter “N” and David B. proposes that the “N” stitched onto Napoleon’s flag was intended as a homage to the god of carnage. Mr. Lhom, the yeti-bookseller, then embarks on a retelling of the Babylonian version of the Flood myth, a sequence which reveals a startling confluence between David B.’s style and that of ancient Babylonian artists. Piles of skeletons finally give way to piles of books. Genocide has been a constant since the dawn of human society, says Mr. Lhôm, and the looming mounds of books in his gloomy bookshop seem to promise not escape from death but rather a constant reminder of its presence.
And then in the third section Incidents in the Night changes once more as the book shifts from airless, gloomy panels filled with black ink, occupied by characters consumed with a vast nocturnal terror, to the open air and daylight. The narrative moves away from myth and history and philosophical discussion, and becomes something like a detective story. Suddenly there’s a pretty girl, a murder mystery, a one-eyed detective, even a shocking cliffhanger…
And then it stops, quite abruptly, with David B. promising us another episode, though that promise was first made over ten years ago now. The book is so slippery that it’s difficult to tell whether this unsatisfying ending is intentional, another mystery laid upon the reader by its author. After all, at the very start of the book the dreaming David B. had hoped to collect a full set of Incidents in the Night only to discover that the series was incomplete, and incredibly long. In that context, the book’s incompleteness makes a frustrating kind of sense. But like the cartoon David B., I wanted more, so I began my own quest. Fortunately for me I could avoid bookshops patrolled by yetis, and go straight to the French Amazon bookstore, and there I saw that David B. published the second volume this September, after a ten-year interim. Still, I’m not so naïve as to think that book II promises resolution, and don’t actually want one. I would like David B.’s slippery quest to continue: that nocturnal labyrinth, haunted by the angel of death, teeming with skeletons, stories, and myths is a fascinating place. And so after all that mystery, I now wish for something concrete: that Uncivilized Books has sold enough copies of volume one to justify producing an English translation of volume two soon.