The literary establishment has always tended to turn its nose up at graphic novels but this has changed with the inclusion of one in the nominations for 2018’s Booker prize. The book is “Sabrina”, by the American author Nick Drnaso, and it tells a sorry tale about modern life.
A woman is visited by her sister, Sandra, and over the course of a friendly chat Sandra warms to the idea of accompanying her on a cycling holiday to see Lake Michigan.
The storyline then switches to another meeting, that of an Air Force soldier, Calvin, and a friend from childhood, Teddy, who is in very low spirits. Teddy’s girlfriend has mysteriously disappeared and as Calvin has a spare room in his condo – having recently separated from his wife and child — he offers his old friend a place to sleep to help him recover from the trauma.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Teddy’s lost girlfriend is Sandra’s sister. Her name is Sabrina and she has been murdered by a psychopath who filmed what he did before taking his own life. The book charts the effects of this terrible deed on Sandra and Calvin.
What follows in this sick tale about sadism and depression is a litany of conspiracy theories and fake news, emanating from the dark corners of the internet and the darker corners of some people’s minds.
Being a graphic novel that has received some rave reviews, its panels of pictures are just as important, if not more so, than the text. The drawings are flat, unadorned and unemotional, the colours muted; presumably designed to embody the hollowed-out, one-dimensional world of the characters.
The faces of the characters are mostly expressionless, consistent with the overall style of the drawings and the authorial intention to allow the plot itself to probe acutely upsetting states of mind.
“Sabrina” is a picture story about individuals badly hurt by the loss of a loved one but the pain is not registered in searing images of their faces.
It’s as if they are wearing masks to disguise the pain that dictates what they do and how they act: the plot is everything.
Teddy, for instance, finds himself listening to an unpleasant radio show promoting scepticism about the reality of murderous acts and mass shootings.
The harm this poses to Teddy’s parlous state of mind is choreographed in the flatly drawn panels that depict him gradually succumbing to the false comfort of the radio programme.
“Sabrina” opens a window on a world where belief in sinister global conspiracies prevails and where online, semi-anonymous communication becomes more convincing than face-to-face encounters with three-dimensional people.
Rather like flying with Ryanair, reading Sabrina is an ultimately depressing experience that – given a choice – one would not wish to repeat. But like the airline, it represents an aspect of the world we inhabit.
Get me out of here.
“Sabrina”, by Nick Drnaso, is published by Granta.