In her debut graphic novel, Stardust Nation, two-time Man Booker Prize shortlister, Deborah Levy, returns once again to the fore. In an adaptation of one of her earliest works, an original short story from her collection, Black Vodka, Levy proves her worth as she explores the human psychology within her literature.
In this graphic novel, Tom, the narrator, confronts his colleague, Nick, and his hyperbolic sense of empathy. This interesting angle on the theme of empathy relates it to their jobs at an advertising company. The narrator explains, “it is our job to crash into the unconscious of the consumer.” Contrary to this statement, it is the unconscious of Tom that Nick accidentally ends up crashing into.
After confiding in Nick once, Tom is forced to relive his own childhood traumas (including an abusive relationship with his father and the consequent escapism taught to him by his nanny) in much greater detail than he ever told Nick. Nick becomes so immersed within the unconscious of Tom that his sister institutionalizes him. Only then, sensing the source of Nick’s woes, does she try to shelter him from the close relationship with Tom that has lead to the over-empathizing.
The arc of the story is inconclusive and incomplete. However, this is consistent with the overall feel of the novel and perhaps even the nature of memories and empathy. Like many of her other works, Levy uses this novel as a means to expand on certain feelings and concepts without imposing one specific conclusion onto the reader, rather allowing a series of unexpected images and ideas to provoke independent thought in the reader.
Andrzej Klimowski illustrated the novel simply but evocatively, with a sparse and selective use of colour that plays up the intrusiveness of certain memories, as well as the comforts of others. The panels are large, often only one or two per page, and convey a sense of the uncontrollable and often inconsistent ways that time is perceived by the characters.
Stardust Nation and the other works found in Black Vodka are testament to Levy’s dominant position within the short story genre: one that she continually excels in. In an interview with Book Trust about another work, Swimming Home, Levy said, “I think the most successful short stories often resemble films: the writer is moving the camera to achieve close-ups, long shots, point of view, jump cuts.” This description of what she hopes to accomplish in short stories bears a striking resemblance to what she has accomplished with the narrative structure in Stardust Nation. Initially, the structure seemed unusual, incongruous within the graphic novel form, but later it seemed fitting. To have this sense of needing multiple levels of shots in both a conceptual and literal sense lends itself perfectly to the story.
This is not a book to get lost in. It is not a book that will immerse you in another world, or one to make you forget the woes of November essay due dates. Rather than consuming you while you read it, the story will stay with you after you have read it, haunting you, making you think about the people around you, the nature of memory, and the ways in which our past and present can clash, rupturing our concept of time.
Stardust Nation by Deborah Levy and Andrzej Klimowski (SelfMadeHero, 2016)
Photo credit: SelfMadeHero (Artwork by Andrzej Klimowski)