Author's note: Levi has asked me to write a review of the book he gave me for my birthday this year. Nominally this is because he needs someone to fill in while he's catting about Europe all week, but it also puts me (intentionally?) in the awkward position of having to evaluate his gift in a public forum. Undaunted, I hereby present to you, the many readers of this blog, that review. Oh yeah: overall, I liked the book.
The inside front jacket flap of Black Hole (Pantheon, 2005) displays a self-portrait of the author, Charles Burns, as a young man, while on the back flap is a portrait of Burns presumably closer to his present age, worry-lined and bereft of hair. Young Burns is in the front, old Burns at the end. This is a book about the transition from child to adult, and we can presume it is to some degree based on Burns's own youth. Although I'm guessing his did not include most of his high school being infected by a body-altering mutant virus.
Burns's use of the fantastical, or at least highly improbable, at the center of his plot suggests there's more going on here than "the nature of high school alienation." The symbolism-strewn mis-en-scene, the long dream sequences, the narrator dropping acid; all suggest a fascination with a deeper kind of transition, from ignorance to enlightenment, or some facsimile thereof.
The problem is, Burns never does more than suggest this kind of philosophical depth. He runs out of steam before he can explore it. Early in the book, he introduces a motif of vagina-shaped gashes. They appear in the flesh of dissected frogs, human flesh, even the fabric of reality. They variously seem to represent the fragility of life, fear of the other/female, entering a scary and unfamiliar place, and a desire to return to womblike oblivion. Burns would have us infer that all these things are connected. That's interesting to think about, but we'll have to do that on our own time. So too with the snake symbols, the garbage symbols. The book tantalizes us with these signs, but at the same time seems to want little to do with them.
About halfway through, Burns introduces a murder, and an escape into the woods, and guns. The vivid dream sequences dry up, and we're left with Bonnie and Clyde meets Freaks. Given the long period of time over which he wrote the book, maybe it's not surprising it abandons its original themes midway through, but it's still frustrating. It also appears to have prevented Burns from conjuring a satisfying ending. The final pages attempt a hasty return to the slow contemplation and symbolism of the earlier chapters, but it doesn't really take us anywhere.
Black Hole is: intriguing, entertaining, disturbing, straightforward, occasionally brilliant.
Black Hole isn't: sure what it wants to be, thematically coherent, pleasurable, uplifting, or something you'd want young kids to read.