“Better sorry than safe.” That's the first sentence of Rob Davis’s The Motherless Oven. Many who have risked reading the book and posted disturbed or embarrassed reviews on social media might not have considered the full spectrum such a motto might entail. Do not forget, dear reader, to pay attention to warnings. Remember what Dante shared with you back in 1320: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
If you consider the warning, you might also consider the recommendation: The Motherless Oven won the British Comic Award in 2015 in the category of best book. Weighing the odds, it’s high time to decide. It’s knife o’clock. It is raining deadly knives outside, and the program you enjoy watching on the Wednesday wheel is constantly crying for help. Not easy.
The world of The Motherless Oven is a carnival gone wrong, a wonderfully hopeless world populated by teenagers and machines. The only organic element is possibly the deadly lions guarding the school that the teenagers attend to learn Herogeometry, Mythmatics or Circular history with the help of the textbook The Four Cycles of Life: A Practical Guide to Gods, Immortals, Woman, and the Sea. Machines fall into two categories: parents and gods. Both would be considered as authority figures in our world, but in this graphic novel any small household appliance can be a god, for example an egg-timer, a radio, or a bedside lamp. Parents are/have been made by our teenager heroes from scare mechanic parts: wheels, pipes, hairdryers. They look grotesque, are usually monstrous and are used as means of transport. Teenagers and younger kids regularly race their dads in the streets. But not Scarper Lee, our protagonist and narrator. He hates those races, and his parents are strangely absent. His mother is self-closeted: chooses to hide whenever something scary happens, that is, all the time; and his dad, a gigantic brass on wheels and with sails, is chained up by Scarper in the shed to be safe. Scarper loves to keep to himself, and like anyone in this world, he knows exactly when he is going to die. He has three weeks left until his deathday.
Rob Davis is strong at world-building. The above listed bits and pieces reveal how creative this world is, but the book is also beautifully drawn. Davis’s stark monochrome style works well with cityscapes and portraits alike. Page structures are dynamic, and the action is strangely driven by facial gestures instead of elaborate action scenes. The story could actually be told with the expressive eyebrows of the protagonists. The self-proclaimed aim of the author was to create a world that has never been created before, so that he can address the big questions of adolescence and growing up that have been asked innumerable times. The whirl of absurd elements makes it possible to feel Scarper’s emotional turmoil as authentic. In fact, the authenticity of feeling is the common ground where the reader can access the world of The Motherless Oven.
The atmosphere is deadly, the ideas are witty, and the protagonists maneuver in this unwelcoming world with a shocking ease. They keep their cool while the reader is biting her fingernails. Scarper knows this world, but does not explain it in his narration, so the reader has to be so flexible that the knives falling from the sky do not harm her but slide off or bounce back. Scarper lives in a world without restrictive parental interference but with the endless responsibility to maintain them. He has almost unlimited freedom to hang out with friends – their habit of sitting on the remains of someone’s mother reminds me of a cryptic and morbid carnival. The world is subversive, yes, but all the joy and liberation and interaction and energy and mischief are gone that are the characteristic of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque. The most mischievous character is the girl — of course there is a girl — Vera Pike, who is mayhem incarnate. She practically bullies Scarper out of his passivity and gives him no other choice but to run away from school and explore the menacing world they live in and to find Scarper’s missing dad. Vera and Scarper are accompanied by Castro, a boy of mental disorder wearing a brain aid. With this device Castro is a go-between to link the world of the teenagers and the machines (gods and parents). No wonder he is an outcast in the first one and a prophet in the second. He is very good at repairing gods, seeing their logic, understanding to them, and is a most needed help on Scarper’s quest to find his missing dad.
In the meantime the police, led by Stour Provost, constantly pursue them. This is not a chase Voldemort or President Snow would undertake. Stour Provost and the local police force are mean, old and ugly people with grotesque bodies and perfect hair. They wear the exact same cardigans my granny does. They walk with sticks but travel by ancient three-wheeled jalopies at a speed just below walking pace. They never give up. They never stop. They find you and grind you up. Do they know in advance where you are going to be?
Time and foreknowledge are central issues in The Motherless Oven. The book begins with a definition of which day it is (Wednesday) and what the time relative to the weather is: “It’s knife o’clock.” Moreover, Scarper has no future. He should both use time and that he should let go of it – he would really enjoy taking future, the infamous drug in Max Andersson’s similarly dark and truly carnivalesque Pixy (1992). Motherless Oven is in fact a countdown: the reader is constantly reminded about which day of the week it is and what Scarper normally does on these days. There is a foreboding feeling that in spite of the irregularity of action (running away, looking for the motherless oven, meeting weird people, hiding from Stour Provost), time is ticking in its fearful regular ways.
In order to keep track of time, Scarper is recording the daily events with the help of a so-called home gazette. It is a tricky device which looks like a vase holding a book. It does not only record what is dictated to it, it is also capable of answering questions, or it takes its share in the narration process. Instances of interaction with the home gazette were the spookiest moments of the story for me – is it possible, that the events we see happening to Scarper are prerecorded, that his life is actually told by the device? Is his life read from the book? Is it the same book I am holding? Is Scarper predestined to skip school and live as a runaway in the last few weeks of his life? Does Scarper have to die when the three weeks are gone? Has everything happened already in this world of cyclical history? I am not going to give answers, but remember the cover: Scarper, Vera, and Castro are sitting on what looks like a bomb that could explode any minute. But it’s not a bomb. It is somebody’s dad.
I have already mentioned that great flexibility is expected from the reader in interpreting the elements of this world. This task is not made any easier by the fact that certain words have completely different meanings than what one would expect. The most obvious example is “band,” which one can easily mistake for the idols of teenagers in the normal world. In this vein, the Orson and the Morons poster in Scarper’s bedroom is nothing special. However, the whole city is decorated with posters of The Green Summereen or Orson and the Morons, who “rename pancreas Park ‘the gut of the night’ and make it their home.” The posters are on knife shelters and walls, and their content – updated daily – is an important news source for Vera and Scarper, though they do not show any deeper interest in music. Soon enough they find themselves heroes of some posters, being labelled Vera Pike and the Heels, and it can be inferred that a band is a word used for groups of teenagers on the run. “Poster makers advise you watch the rise and fall of these rascals from the safety of your homes.” (105) From this I can only guess what a parent or a god stand for in the world of Scarper. The book is said to be the first part of a trilogy – I can’t wait to find out.