August 30th, 2011
Being: the second of three posts on Carla Speed McNeil’s “aboriginal science fiction” comic Finder…
He did not want to compose another Quixote —which is easy— but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.
“My intent is no more than astonishing,” he wrote me the 30th of September, 1934, from Bayonne. “The final term in a theological or metaphysical demonstration—the objective world, God, causality, the forms of the universe—is no less previous and common than my famed novel. The only difference is that the philosophers publish the intermediary stages of their labor in pleasant volumes and I have resolved to do away with those stages.” In truth, not one worksheet remains to bear witness to his years of effort.
You find yourself bored and lost in your local comics shop on a crisp Thursday afternoon. You’ve exhausted all your usual favourites, or at least, you’re pretty sure that you’re not paying that amount for that hardcover collection today. Thankfully whoever does the ordering for your local shop has anticipated your boredom, and has made sure that one of Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder comics is waiting there on the shelf for you.
You’ve read a lot about Finder and — your friend Cat’s admonition that you “like music that’s fun to read about instead of music that’s fun to listen to” still fresh in your ears — you have to admit that this counts for a lot for you.
The specific Finder comic that’s in front of you is Talisman:
You seem to remember that this is a particularly well-regarded volume. What was it Douglas Wolk said about it in his Reading Comics? Ah yes:
McNeil didn’t entirely hit her stride until the fourth Finder volume, Talisman, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s her most tightly focused story: it’s about a girl who falls in love with a book, loses it, and becomes a writer in her attempts to find it again.
Well, imagine that–a storyteller inspired by other people’s stories!
Imagine that indeed. As you flick through the comic itself, this praise starts to seem like a warning. The book’s opening dedication, in particular, starts the sirens ringing:
Still, you’ve been meaning to read Finder for a long time now — Warren Ellis said it was “a densely imagined walk in the clouds, a piece where the destination isn’t always as important as the journey“, and much as Ellis is prone to hyperbole, that still sounds good to you — so you decide to give it a chance. Sometimes it’s better to take a wrong turn than not to, you decide, thinking with some frustration of your inability to get lost in your home town these days.
Later on, while having drinks with your girlfriend, you’ll raise the topic of whether the book’s dedication isn’t a little bit cringey. “Not really, why?” she’ll say, and you’ll fail to make your case because you’re suddenly aware of the fact that at age twenty nine you are still as cryptically self-conscious as a young teenager.
Thinking about talismanic books from your childhood, you start to think of the first book that mattered to you as a physical object. Typically, it wasn’t actually your book at all, but rather your friend’s copy of Lord of the Rings that you read until the binding burst. You tried to tape it back together and make it presentable, letting your own crappy handiwork overpower whatever world-building ambitions Tolkien might have had in mind. This was your first taste of your own power over books, and maybe even your first taste of deconstructionist criticism too. You felt bad about it at the time, and your pal’s cheerful response (“I finally get the hardbound copy of Lord of the Rings I always wanted”) failed to convince.
When the topic is raised at a wedding some twenty two years later, a small amount of bitterness will directed at you for this act of vandalism. Ah well, fair is fair. None of us will ever pay off the combined debts of our history.
It strikes you that this is one of the more interesting aspects of the comic you find yourself reading – its insistence on the significance of physical objects in a world in which they are obsolete. It’s a silly conceit, of course, but just because you’re bringing the meaning in with you doesn’t mean that it’s not real.
Everything’s in the cloud now, or that’s the idea – copies of copies roaming as far as your bank balance and ingenuity will take them – but you’re not ashamed to be in thrall to tactile pleasures, and only slightly ashamed of your fondness for ordering and reordering books, cds, dvds and whatever other bits of bric a brac get in your way.
You are no doubt being sentimental about all of this, but then, so is the protagonist of Finder: Talisman, right?
Still, here’s a thing – one of your pals went on record to say that you can own a book, while talking about the affordances of such objects versus those of their electronic counterparts. Actually, he went on further, to say that “you can own a book’s contents by owning its physical substance; the physical substance of a book cannot be separated from the information it contains.”
And yet this is exactly what you get in Finder: Talisman, where the book the protagonist fell in love with when read to her by her mother’s wandering boyfriend doesn’t match up to the elusive physical object. You know this feeling; after all, you’ve been there yourself, albeit metaphorically rather than literally. You know that to read is to make your own date-stamped copy of something, and that this is separate-but-related to your love of so called “real” books. You know that the version of Lord of the Rings you physically took apart wasn’t the one you mentally took apart years later, and that neither of them quite add up to the version of Tolkien’s book that currently exists in your head.
Thinking of all of this, you think of Borges again, as people with your sort of literary damage are want to do in such situations:
The earth we live on is a mistake, a parody devoid of authority. Mirrors and paternity are abominable things, for they multiply this earth.
(Jorge Luis Borges – Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius)
Every time you think you can see to the end of this story, you realise that you’re just catching strange glimpses of the start in an awkwardly positioned mirror. The idea of living free of such multiplications is ridiculous, of course, so perhaps you’re better off just accepting the fact that the world has worked upon you from the moment you arrived in it. Maybe, just occasionally, you could find some strange freedom in returning the favour.
Well, imagine that–a storyteller inspired by other people’s stories!
Ah, well – no need to imagine that anymore! You are the kid with the book everywhere and you always will be, but you now know that this isn’t just a twee call to introspection. Instead, it’s an admission of incompleteness, an acknowledgement that you are always going to be found raiding through other people’s intellectual property in the hope of finding some sort of soul…