Sabrina by Nick Drnaso — the graphic novel Zadie Smith has called a masterpiece

The Times
By Claire Lowdon

Menace and conspiracy theories lurk in Drnaso’s second graphic novel.

Just like the kind without pictures, graphic novels come in all different flavours, from the luscious dark fantasy of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series to the piquant, playful satire of Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds. But if you are unfamiliar with the medium, it might surprise you to learn that it lends itself particularly well to memoirs — of an entirely uncomic nature.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis casts a knowing child’s-eye view on Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and its aftermath. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, opening at the Young Vic this week as a musical, is about growing up gay with a loved, feared, controlling, closeted father who dies, perhaps by suicide, at the age of 44. And then there’s Art Spiegelman’s unsurpassable Maus, in which Spiegelman’s own story fuses with his father’s account of Holocaust survival.

All three of these gems are narrated by their authors and all of them are unashamedly smart. Bechdel’s, for example, includes an extended discussion of James Joyce’s Ulysses. What this means, visually, is lots of writing — and writing outside the pictures.

Nick Drnaso’s graphic world is at the opposite end of this spectrum. His drawings are as simplistic as Satrapi’s, and somehow deader, less drawn, as if created on an iPad. A faded colour palette, heavy on the greige, adds an extra hit of emptiness to the atmosphere. Everything takes place inside the box, the neat white space between frames literalising the isolation felt by his characters.

The obvious comparison is with film. If Fun Home is a Woody Allen, then Drnaso’s comics have taken a Dogme-style vow of chastity. At times it feels as if you are watching CCTV footage, piecing it all together. Which can be very effective. Making the reader/viewer do the work, at the far extreme of show-don’t-tell, creates a powerful sense of realism.

Drnaso’s first book, the unforgettable, haunting Beverly (2016), was a series of interlocking short stories adding up to more than the sum of their parts: truly a graphic novel. As in Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, the title works hard, putting us on the look out for “Beverly” from page one. When she finally appears on page 114, the entire work coalesces around this quiet revelation.

In Beverly, Drnaso’s loose, large subject is the female body in society. One story depicts a family holiday during which the teenage son’s violent and sexual imaginings are projected onto the streets of a seaside town. Alone in the hotel room one night, the boy dresses a pillow in his sister’s underwear and gets naked with this disturbing surrogate. His family walks in and catches him. Drnaso provides the narrative shock in just a few devastating frames. It’s up to us to fill in the thoughts.

Readers of Beverly will open Drnaso’s new book, Sabrina, on high alert, wise to the menace beneath the bland surface of Drnaso’s images. And sure enough, Sabrina is not long for the page. Most of the novel takes place after her violent death as her boyfriend, Teddy, and sister, Sandra, struggle to cope with the public reaction to the release of the murder video. Soon conspiracy theories abound, claiming that Teddy and Sandra are actors.

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes, a lot less. The drawback of Drnaso’s hands-off approach is that some kinds of information are hard to deliver “naturally”. There are radio broadcasts, shown while we “watch” the view from a car window, and lots of telephone conversations while a character “in the know” clues another one in.

In U & I, Nicholson Baker fingers cinema’s crude code for emotion: how “in movie after movie whenever the character gets a piece of terrible news the scriptwriter immediately has him or her bend at the waist, grasp the front bumper, and… ‘snap lunch’[vomit]”.

Drnaso doesn’t show us the murder video, and he can’t tell us anything about it because he doesn’t have a narrator. Instead, he shows us Teddy’s friend watching it, then crawling to the lavatory to vomit. When this friend delivers some bad news to Teddy, we see them from a distance, their words inaudible (“-----”). Then Teddy slumps to the ground. It’s no more subtle than a caption reading: “He’s devastated!” Towards the end, to illustrate Teddy’s tentative emotional healing, the neighbours help him look for a lost cat.

This is the price, the blood money for the death of the narrator, and in Sabrina the fee is simply too steep: the use of graphics leads not to speed and economy but to profligate narrative inefficiency.

In terms of his reputation, Drnaso’s stock is high. Sabrina has been endorsed by Zadie Smith, who thinks it “a masterpiece”. Interestingly, Smith’s 2016 novel Swing Time is also fascinated by conspiracy theories. “Wasn’t it all a way of explaining power, in the end? The power that certainly exists in the world? Which few hold and most never get near?” Her first-person narrator’s gloss on the problem does more in three sentences than Sabrina can in three pages of diligently transcribed radio broadcasts and internet searches.

With Smith’s puff on the cover and a handsome edition from Granta, Sabrina will likely be most readers’ introduction to Drnaso. Which is a shame, because it’s Beverly that’s the true treasure here, achieving the fairy-tale transformation of all good fiction. You turn the paper pages, with their monopoly bank-note colour scheme, and come away with your fingers unaccountably smelling of real, dirty money.

Nick Drnaso