With the overwhelming supply of comics production of our time, it is as easy to overlook certain titles as to overreact about the need to “correct” the course of that attention. More often than not, when a reviewer wants to defend a book or an admired artist’s new title, the standard thing to do is use hyperbole (“the greatest,” “the best”). But sometimes there are books whose contributions to the thematic development or the stylistic treatment of their subject matter that are rather calm, unassuming. So we need a different set of tools. I believe that Stardust Nation is one of those books that must be read attentively, not because it makes a grandiose entrance into the scene but precisely because it poses its questions in an underwhelming and unexpected way.
Stardust Nation is the tale of two men, Tom Banbury and Nikos Gazidis. Tom is the boss in a marketing company, and Nikos is his best employee and, it seems, confidante and friend. Nikos has been feeling discombobulated, and seems to suffer from insomnia and anxiety, due to the fact that he is assaulted by memories not his own. In fact, Nikos has been “remembering” memories that belong to Tom’s childhood. Being awakened in the middle of the night to be told of these memories makes Tom grow increasingly surprised by this strange appropriation. However, at the same time, Tom starts to come to terms with those very same memories thanks to Nikos’ strange reminiscences.
As human beings, we are able to recognize or to understand another person’s feelings, worries, and pains. But we do not feel those feelings and pains. It is not a vicarious experience; it is a mode of openness towards the other that respects the limits and the otherness of the other. Kaja Silverman calls this “heteropathic identification,” that allows to go beyond the self, or what Dominick LaCapra described as “empathic unsettlement”, defined as an “aesthetic experience of simultaneously feeling for another and becoming aware of a distinction between one’s own perceptions and the experience of the other.” Nikos however, goes beyond such limits in an unbound, dangerous manner. His proximity to people opens him up as an empty vessel into which the memories and experiences of those others pour into him, and he has no way of realizing that they do not belong to him. Nikos, in other words, becomes almost merely a shadow of the ones close to him. This time around, it’s Tom. And it’s a shadow in peril of dissipation.
The title plays with the ages-old idea that all the atoms of which we are comprised have been, at one point in time, created inside the stars. “We are made of starstuff,” Carl Sagan famously said. Physically speaking then, we may imagine that the commonality between people goes well beyond culturally-inflected identity traits and goes to matter itself. Stardust Nation does not explore any specific fantastical dimension in this strange relationship (mutant powers, magic, or a sci-fi setting), but leaves open the whys and wherefores of such a strange situation. The point is rather to trigger Tom’s returning to his own past and, accordingly, to his own present self.
This is a short novella, with many, very tranquil moments across it, which makes its diegesis quite simple, on the one hand. Its complexity arises precisely from the fact that the two men’s personalities seem to dovetail into one another, plunging Nikos into an ever more problematic psychological unbalance and Tom into a self-discovery journey. Based on one of Deborah Levy’s short stories, and seemingly adapted by herself, Stardust Nation reads as a short play or film (straight out of good ol’ Channel 4?), where melodrama has no place. Or, when it does, forces the attention to go elsewhere, in a permanent fugue. The absurdist aspect of the tale is dealt with calmly, despite the mythological overtones that it takes in its final acts, when Nikos’s sister enters the picture. Elena comes to Nikos’s side to, after a fashion, wean him from the strange proximity and addiction to Tom’s memories. It is inevitable to dig up metaphors from Greek mythology and tragedies, given the fact that she is depicted successively as a werewolf, a three-headed dog, a fanged woman, and finally, a sort of Sphinx. Actually, sexuality issues are not clear in the book. Not that they are not present, but they have no place in the foreground, or directly, is a way to put it, so the reader is invited to deal, perhaps, with archetypes in order to extract from the plot and the relationship dynamics a probable, complicated picture. There’s enough fodder in the book to explore this notion. One has but to look into the awkward Oedipal triangle Tom, his father and the voluptuous babysitter, on the one hand, and Nikos’s closeness and Elena’s defensive/guardian dog position in relation to Tom, on the other.
But the general feeling is that of tranquility, made of morning walks, slight hangovers, sophisticated meetings, serene vacation spots, and soothing hospice gardens, which are vividly, if calmly as well, buttressed by Andrzej Klimowski’s art. Of course, we have moved slightly away from Klimowski’s previous contributions towards the “graphic novel” momentum at the late 1990s and early 2000s. Not only were his previous book solo efforts, as the very expressive tools were quite specific. Both The Depository, a dream book (1994) and The Secret (2002) were comprised of “silent,” stark black on white images, mostly one per page in square panels, with Surrealist overtones that put him directly within the heritage of Frans Masereel’s The Idea (but not the Belgian’s artist more realist, always socially conscious books) instead of any other more conventional comics tradition. Horace Dorlan (2007) was a mix of his own silent comic approach and a literary novel closer to some of the experiments of the Nouveau Roman than Surrealism proper or the ironic absurdist writing of Kafka, with whom many comparisons were drawn by critics at the time. But in Stardust Nation the artist brings something quite different to the table.
The addition of a softer pencil and the subdued color hues changes Klimowski’s intensity somewhat. The linework is very loose in the representation, almost flirting with a naïve approach, sometimes even eschewing the characters’ consistency. It would remind one of Loustal, to a certain extent, but it’s even softer, and some of the scribbled lines and shadows, instead of giving depth and texture to the characters and settings, remind one of the accumulating passages of graphite in a William Kentridge film. This last reference is not out of place at all with Stardust Nation, as it questions, as the South African artist’s oeuvre, self-memory and the possibility of empathizing or identifying dangerously with the Other. This softness, as it were, is bolstered by the backgrounds, quite often reduced to aplats of color, or a reduced number of objects and scribbles for trees, vegetation or a building.
I don’t think that this book creates an immediate impact in its readers, but more of a slithering sensation that creeps after the fact. Tom’s attitude before Nikos’s retelling of his own memories does not come as a shock for him. It’s rather like a dirty mirror you come across: you see a shadow that you almost recognize so you clean the surface with your hands. The repetition and closeness of the gesture startles you but you continue. A curiosity first, it then becomes a chance for Tom to become even closer to Nikos and finally a sort of goal and source of longing (materialized in the quest for Tom’s childhood nanny’s name, who in turn was a pivot for his liberation from his oppressive father, quite distinct from Nikos’ own family background story). And after the “resolution” (a whimper, not a bang), Tom resumes his morning strolls, but the world around him becomes different. Perhaps more menacing, perhaps more interpellative.
A final comparison I would like to make, but one that would warrant further study is with Alan Moore’s and Oscar Zarate’s A Small Killing. It would be interesting to read them both under the light of British identity, for instance, a framework against which those traces, in Stardust Nation, are also slightly subdued, perhaps given the exploration of a certain globalization of commerce and commodification that erases them. And that, in turn, would also be a pertinent theme, as both books star people working in publicity, advertisement, and the manipulation of desire, mirroring the protagonists’ rediscovery of identity. Finally, although that other collaboration between an English writer and a foreigner artist delves deeply into the culture of its time, filled with specific and epoch-stamped references, the idea of smothering little parts of ourselves in order to grow up and be free to explore new relationships outside of family dramas produces a theme that is rather universal and eternal.
And such a lesson on empathy, while not melodramatic and boisterous, will perhaps have a longer, lasting effect.
Read Stardust Nation or other works mentioned in this review: