The Wrong Place, the Right Place
Yesterday I ate oranges and drank wine and re-read Brecht Evens’s graphic novel The Wrong Place. My copy is seven years old, purchased from Chicago Comics with money I made writing about music. I’d paid rent and groceries and had enough left over for a book and a bowl of cholent down the street. I include these details because I’m proud of a life that makes rooms for finding books and reading them, then reading them again seven years later. Is this a luxury? Maybe. It is also a plan.
The Wrong Place was published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2010, and translated from Flemish by Rhian Heppleston, Michele Hutchison, and Laura Watkinson. Though I don’t read Flemish I understand its original title to ring like Somewhere you don’t want to be, which is nice because these places are not necessarily wrong, and in French the book is Les noceurs. The people who stay up late. I am naturally one of these people, for now. I think about what Tove Jansson wrote in Moomin Midwinter, that “there are such a lot of things that have no place in summer and autumn and spring. Everything that’s a little shy and a little rum.” A little rum: a little weird. I think new stories start here. Little mouthbreathers. Phoenixes. “And then when everything’s quiet and white and the nights are long and most people are asleep -- then they appear.” At night, borders are softer. Magic is easier to see. Evens is a nightwalker too, or at least he was in art school, where he made The Wrong Place as his final project at Sint-Lucas in Gent.
I picked up this book because I’m a sucker for color. I like color, especially in the way Vladimir Nabokov talks about it: as a vector of “creed, neckties, eyes, thoughts, manners, speech” that eventually meets a mob in time and space. He calls this a “sacred danger,” one held specially by blessed freaks. It’s true I use color in a very practical, near-mathematical way -- to keep myself afloat at night. Here I guess night means depression. My apartment is full of crystals, a salt lamp, little pulsing bottles of nail polish I look at more than empty. My notebooks are color-coded, and my body responds synesthetically to extreme pleasure or pain. I have other tools -- sadness needs more than neon, and this column isn’t about my health -- but colors help so much. “One must use the night,” says Jansson. So I do.
I picked The Wrong Place up off the shelf because it takes back the night too. The book’s cover is five flights of stairs in greens: lime, khaki, tea. Everyone here is going up. Everyone is excited and gesturing forwards, losing hats or wine in the dizzy. Everyone looks an impeccably alien cool, dressed best on this night even if they live in bathrobes the other six. Looking at the cover feels like listening to music, to me, however of course this is a comic not a song. Inside, the march morphs into conga. Everyone in the line is comfortable touching and being touched, though nobody talks or wears the same dress. Everyone seems fully themselves, in the way characters are allowed to be in a Dan Clowes story, where each weirdo is fully visible one after the other, in specifically terrible beauty. One gorgeous soul train. There is only one man with a huge blue head, one woman in a Braille-print bra, one girl whose hotpants match the red burn of her legs. Looking at this cover again and again I feel the way I did as a kid, reading Janet and Allan Ahlberg books. I look for friends and see they are still here, galloping around the margins like always.
The Wrong Place’s plot is simple, pared from its visual gymnastics. This guy Gary is throwing a party in his fifth floor apartment, with folding chairs and ice-cold vodka, and lots of people come only everyone leaves once they realize that Robbie, a man everyone knows and loves but never sees -- like Tino in My So-Called Life -- that Robbie’s not coming. Nothing else happens -- truly: Gary’s not even all that bummed Robbie spoiled the party from a distance -- but Evens sets the tone through an empty chair that looks like train windows, that look like prison bars, and color-coded conversations in the smokers’ corner, and watercolor washes that blend dress patterns into tiled floors. What we know about Robbie is that he makes everyone happy, and so we want Robbie to be everywhere at once. He isn’t, but the party still looks beautiful, which makes the reader feel kind of stoned. Perspectives here melt, never shift. (In another book, Evens draws rainbow-spotted panthers, playing Twister and looking confused about whether to step on the floor or each other.)
The story loops on, wafting always into spectacular watercolor, but hovering back to a girl -- Naomi, who she goes by Lulu when she’s wearing cat ears and looks a bit like the teenager in Evens’s short Night Animals -- she spends a night of mixed drinks and boning with Robbie at the disco, and later, Gary again, who is apparently an old friend of Robbie’s and ends up occupying the book’s starring role when he says no to a cheering crowd. There is also a hair salon, a swordfight, and white space around sections that rely on monologue or dialogue, not party. If this book were a person it would be a tenderhearted tattooed lady. The sex scene is my favorite transition: bodies double and triple, and anatomies shift, and it is elegant and hot but also silly when Lulu and Robbie almost lose their eyeballs.
It’s funny, reading the written narrative again, which isn’t to say the visual one is separate, just less compact -- I remember feeling pop rocks in my stomach when Robbie jumps around a tree in the dark, to kiss Lulu, but this time it felt controlling. It felt like maybe he should have asked her first (though maybe she didn’t care; I would want my daughter, if I had one, to make him ask first but honestly I might butterfly-brain it myself). Lulu certainly looks happy, and content. The parties still seem full as fists, beautiful organisms, but now they are a little smaller because generally everyone is wearing the same kinds of clothes, and while there are ghosts nobody has a cane or is missing an arm (for example). I notice mirrors and patterns like a drunkenness, like Nan Goldin saying she kept a notebook too only she could never read her handwriting the next day. This is not a criticism of Evens, just a book witnessing my changing idea of a good party. Here is a book I once loved because I wanted to live in it, and now I love it because it is a gorgeous dream-world. I’ll read it again later.