Thursday, March 10, 2005

Return of the Elephant

I have been debating for quite some time just how to go about reviewing Paul Hornschemeier's Return of the Elephant. It's a difficult book to approach critically, simply because so much of its impact depends upon a gradual inversion of the reader's assumptions. I don't want to give anything away for anyone who hasn't read it yet. That is not to say that there is a "shock" revelation at the ending of the book, as in an M. Night Shamalyan movie -- more to the point, until the book is almost over, you have simply not been given enough information to understand what is going on. The reveal, while jarring, is all the more effective because it is not truly a surprise at all. It merely makes sense, and in such a way as to cast the entire narrative in a wholly new and different light.

This almost seems like an attempt by Hornschemeier to break out of the reader expectations created by his earlier successes, notably the acclaimed Mother, Come Home. Much of his earlier work has been characterized by an almost mannered emotional delicacy, attuned to small moments of character nuance that necessitated a strong degree of empathetic response from the reader. Anyone who picks up Return of the Elephant expecting a story in this mode will not only be disappointed, they will be rightly repulsed. The story begins in that mode, with seemingly sympathetic characters is recognizably quotidian surroundings. Readers have been conditioned to expect certain things from certain types of stories, and Hornschemeier has enough awareness of the trappings of this genre to skillfully manipulate the reader into a false sense of security.

If you've read any Optic Nerve you know how these sorts of things are supposed to play out. Uncommunicative but empathetic and essentially decent characters stumble through a series of prosaic adventures, revealing themselves gradually to the reader until, presumably, the book ends with a greater insight into the vagaries of human behavior. These type of character sketches are the bread and butter of a certain kind of young cartoonist, the po' faced sensitive lad (or lass) with a lot of insight but certain insurmountable social anxieties which are inevitably revealed in their work. It can be a satisfying mode despite its limitations.

Hornschemeier wants to get under your skin. Reading this book, the reader's expectations are massaged in such a way that we expect a certain type of narrative to emerge. When in fact, the narrative slowly builds towards an entirely different kind of revelation than the one which we have been led to expect, the feeling is one of small black ants crawling underneath your skin. Truly unsettling. It's a short book, and it doesn't take very long to re-read -- and once you do, you will find that what you had taken to be a sparse and naturalistic narrative was actually dense with symbols and thematic signifiers. None of this is revealed until the end, when it becomes obvious that this is an entirely different book than you had been expecting at the outset.

The thing that keeps Return of the Elephant from being merely a trick, a gimmick, is the haunting simplicity of the eventual revelation. The front and back covers, which may seem on first examination to foreshadow a slightly whimsical tale of nostalgia or recollection, become thick with ominous portent. The elephant on the cover changes from a slightly goofy Babar figure to a disfigured and horrid monster, more akin to John Merrick's Elephant Man, reflecting the book's preoccupation with twisted and altered perceptions.

It's a small book but it carries a big impact, hitting like a kick in the chest and staying in your thoughts for a few days afterwards. It's definitely not for the faint of heart. It gives me hope for Hornschemeier's future projects, that he seems so willing to play against type and toy with the expectations of his audience in order to deliver something so blatantly horrifying. Perhaps the acclaim that accompanied his earlier work will not go unjustified.

(You can purchase a copy of Return of the Elephant here if you so desire – I don’t get any cash for this one but don’t let that stop you!)

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