Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

I was deeply unsatisfied by Audrey Niffenegger's The Night Bookmobile.

I have two reasons for my reaction, a simple one without spoilers and a more complicated one that will be one long spoiler. The first goes above the jump, the second will be below.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes about the difficulty of defining what is a comic. He opts for the widest view: all art in sequence is a comic. I take the opposite view- comics (I prefer the term graphic novels) are only those stories told through the juxtaposition of art with words (or the absence of words) that tells a story with greater impact than either element could achieve alone.

By my reckoning, The Night Bookmobile isn't a graphic novel; it's an illustrated story.

For an example, look no further than the opening page: a black page of uninterrupted text better suited to a short story than a graphic novel. We learn it's 4 a.m., that the main character is out for a walk after a fight with her boyfriend, and that she's found the peaceful side of the city. A decent illustrator could convey that information in a few panels.

Perhaps this failure has to do with the composition of the story, originally serialized in The Guardian; I suspect that the project lacked a strong enough editor for the bestselling author.

My second complaint is more involved, and it involves a raft of plot spoilers:

Alexandra, the main character, is leading an unhappy life. She sets out on her first night walk because of a fight with her boyfriend. She discovers a winnebago filled with all the books she's ever read, and becomes so obsessed with it that he leaves, and then she throws herself into a new career as a librarian, all with the eventual goal of working in the Library with all the books she's ever read. When, encountering the winnebago again, she learns she can't work there, she kills herself... and discovers transported to an afterlife where she gets a flavor of what she wanted: she now works at the Library, but as curator for the collection of someone who is still alive; the dead don't have Libraries.

First: the solipsism. This is your life. Think about that. This is your one life.
To dedicate your life to something bigger than yourself is generous, it is empowering, it is noble. To ever end your own life- especially, to end your life at a point when you could continue to live a productive, full life, to live a life whose promise is still beyond the scope of your imagination- that is the one thing that I would argue is an unforgivable sin.

And Niffenegger's afterlife might actually be a punishment for Alexandra; for the first time since we've known her, Alexandra will be forced to devote her full attention to another person. On the other hand, she's been given the thing she longed for the most, to work at the Library, despite never having to reconcile herself with any of her faults.

Second: the questions. Is this heaven reserved for book lovers? What happens to the doctors, the mechanics, the teachers? Do they go back to life to try again, or is there a version of heaven where they heal and fix and educate all day long for eternity? Or do they get nothing? All questions go unanswered.

Third: the Architect. My main complaint about Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven was that while waiting for the chance to make your peace with the people who have most influenced your life might feel cathartic, it misses the ultimate opportunity, the chance to meet the Creator and ask a few pointed questions about Why?

This is what's missing from Niffenegger's world- we see life, we see death, we see what comes after. But without an encounter with the divide, we never get to move beyond the questions. You could read The Night Bookmobile as either a confirmation or a condemnation of our love for books, but I don't see how you could come down in the middle.

This was book 51 of my book-a-week challenge.

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