Conor Stechschulte’s physically small but thematically dense self-published work has received a Fantagraphics release. It’s such an unassuming little package that some readers may not know what hit them by the time they get to the last page. Stechschulte’s narrative is one of shifting gears and perceptions, moving between the clutter of immediacy and the fog of recollection. In the main story, Jim and Winston show up to work in their butcher shop, with two obstructions to their day. One is that the shop has no meat in it whatsoever. The other is that the two have no memories of how to run a butcher shop. As customers show up for their regular orders, panic sets in and the two move into a wild frenzy of trying to reconstruct the nuts and bolts of a butcher’s day, with various calamities and physical tragedies. It’s part over-the-top slapstick, part excruciating panic. Breaking into the central narrative are sequences from a girl’s diary, Annie M. Nemeth, a student of the Lyre School For Girls, with cryptic and isolated passages about body parts found in the forest, and some rituals in the wild. These are not revealing moments, rather they raise many questions that wouldn’t otherwise be in the book. The saga of Jim and Winston seems much more straightforward without the suspicions raised by Annie’s experiences. How do these fit together? Stechschulte doesn’t offer any simple solutions to the puzzle he lays out, and the result is akin to the Three Stooges starring in a version of Picnic At Hanging Rock. The sections collide with each other, and Annie’s recollections appear with no context other than those the author offers. Are they different sides of different stories? And what does the book’s later passage about the characters of Martha and Shelly, the butcher shop customers, say about their involvement in the earlier ones? Once again, memory is at the center of the interaction — or, more specifically, missing memory, and the struggle to come to terms with its negative presence. Stechschulte spoke at the New York Comics and Picture-Story Symposium about his influences in crafting The Amateurs, a mix of various heady ideas spurred on by a passage in a Werner Herzog book about the filming of Fitzcarraldo that relates a bloody scene involving some bumbling butchers in India in a bloody scene of carnage. This is directly reflected in Stechschulte’s story, a gruesome slapstick, as are the other influences he mentioned in the talk, including the film writings of Kaja Silverman, particularly in regard to disconnection, and the horror of Lovecraft. All these concerns, though, are filtered through Stechschulte’s personal approach and tempered by the most overt presence in the entire book — absence. Not just absence of memory, but absence of context, as if Stechschulte has stripped away explanations in order to focus his study on results. A sense of foreboding dominates the book, but foreboding of what? Nothing set the foreboding in place and there are no promises of solid reasons to explain the unease. Altogether, it’s hard to recommend The Amateurs as something you can just appreciate casually and dismiss the importance of the mysterious depths in your enjoyment. Those mysterious depths are at the center of the story, a looming presence of non-existence that weighs heavily on the characters and the reader. The pages of the book that don’t exist are as important as the ones in front of you, and seeking out the answers may be both the purpose and the folly of appreciating the work.
FILED UNDER: Conor Stechschulte