Tom Kaczynski is an artist of extremes. His affectless, antiseptic pages might make you think otherwise, with their crisply ruled angles, their fastidious tones, their careful and deliberate air. Their surface is calm, sure; but neither do we find roiling beneath them anything so musty as repressed emotion or inner turmoil, no by-the-numbers reckoning of neurotic characters' psyches. Kaczynski’s cartooning is less interested in psychology than it is sociology; his bent is rather historical than humanist. So in fact what shift and scrape around beneath the tidy, professional veneer of his stories are—simply—all the buried strata of human civilization.
In the pages of Beta Testing the Apocalypse, every moment of human existence lives on in the present, disregarded and forgotten and collapsed beyond recognition, but always immanent and ready to recur, just like the cataclysms that lurk in so many of these stories. In yoking the end of days and the dawn of time, a suburban lawn and primordial jungle, our planet of slums and ancient human sacrifice, Kaczynski portrays a western culture suspended—taut, immobile, only seemingly calm—between past and future, progress and decay, peak oil and the green economy. The watchwords of his art, as one character clues us in, are at once “archaic heritage” and “the limitless possibilities of the future”; its avatars are a cro-magnon in headphones, a cave-painting handprint pressed onto a corporate logo.
After years of cartooning, Beta Testing the Apocalypse is Kaczynski’s first full book, for the most part collecting the strips he had contributed to the anthology MOME. In them, a man drives to work, and gets in a traffic jam. The construction of a condo tower adversely affects the psychic health of a young couple. An urban professional joins an enclave of idealist “brand experts” at a far-flung compound. An actor dissolves too completely into his role as a neolithic sound artist. Conventionally, these brief accounts of modern life are “stories,” but that almost seems a misnomer: just as often as these comics narrate events, they also ruminate on science-fiction landscapes of freeways, condominiums, and business parks. As often as two characters engage in simple conversation, so too do they intone the cant of bobo real estate agents or corporate hippiedom. “Each condo unit a unique marketing habitus. 976 sq ft of MySpace,” drones one character; or, “Reverse the genetic credit crunch”; “Compound the interest of biodiversity.”
At times, Kaczynski’s juxtapositions do come off as too pat—the jargon of commerce and ecology butt up against each other a bit too archly, while that prehistoric man wears his headphones a bit too pointedly. One might also object that the cartoonist’s preoccupations register more often as belonging to his influences than to his own investigations. To his credit, Kaczynski acknowledges as much, duly footnoting his book’s debt to J.G. Ballard’s drowned worlds and concrete islands in an index that records other oblique references to Jane Jacobs and Slavoj Žižek—though entries for “Gibson, William,” or “DeLillo, Don” remain curiously absent. Kaczynski’s looming dread and sub/urban automata owe at least as much to White Noise as his vision of mechanized, entropic modernity does to The Atrocity Exhibition, not to mention his pontifications on gleaming consumerism: “Consider the modern bathroom. … How did this antiseptic room where excrement magically disappears come to be?” In such revelations of the science-fictional in the everyday—Kaczynski also invokes grain silos and utilitarian office buildings as totems of some alien race—the cartoonist conducts a kind of archaeology of the future from among our commonplace existence, in much the same way the Godard of Alphaville or the Tarkovsky of Stalker called forth the otherworldly moonscapes that have always been dormant in what our culture has erected or let fall into ruin.
But one of the pleasures of reading Beta Testing, as in other watershed collections like Caricature, Curses, or Everything Together, lies in watching a cartoonist become less mindful of his precursors, less rote in his treatment of subject matter, both freer and more assured. As the book progresses, Kaczynski sloughs off influence, just as his characters slip away from civilization. A breakthrough story like 2008’s “Million Year Boom” nearly brings the book to a halt halfway through with its impressive and authentic weirdness, yet still retains the stamp of millenarian systems novelists, still partakes of the old dead-eyed Clowesian aloofness. By the time we reach the concluding story, “The New”—at once an ode to modernist architecture and an allegory literalizing the decline of the west, created uniquely for this volume—Kaczynski’s layouts have exploded into space, cities and buildings splayed out on the page in startling and diagrammatic splashes. He introduces to his work an almost invisible use of ink, a constant tension between abstraction and representation, an uneasy balance between arcana and official history. Such unsettling surprises far outweigh “The New”’s concessions to generic convention, in an inventively cartooned but incongruous diversion into action comics and terrorist kidnapping. Even this dissonance is striking, though: further evidence that Kaczynski’s juggling of ideas has never been more adept, his thematic collisions more idiosyncratic, more his own.
In the final movements of the book, the extremes that Kaczynski superimposes onto one another—the west and the developing world, shantytowns and corporate towers—speak to an almost alchemical impulse, but in reverse: a will to find the dross among the silver of modernity; a yearning for transmutation, or “Phase Transition” as one story’s title has it. “Human shit turns into deposits of gold,” says one character of the way his city capitalizes on human suffering. Kaczynski’s stories try and envision some way to invert that free-market alchemy: they wish to smear the pristine surfaces of global capitalism with shit or piss or blood, some primitive and uncivilized part of our lives, to see what might result. The desire evinced, in this book, is not to build more towers, to scale more heights, but instead to delve into the bowels of the earth, and to find a new, more honest future in all we’ve shoveled under.