The Cardboard Valise

Perhaps you recall the famous story by Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius."  In that fable, the steady  accumulation of thickly detailed invented descriptions and faux encyclopedia entries relating to an imaginary place eventually results in the literal instantiation of the fictive world.  Well, in The Cardboard Valise, Ben Katchor's latest graphic novel, which consists of an intricately interwoven yet loosely collated collection of one-page strips (some of which do cohere to form more extended shaggy-dog narratives), artist and storyteller Katchor has achieved the goal Borges only imagined.  Exiting this oneiric, shamanic, yet utterly naturalistic and sensual masterpiece, the reader steps out into a revitalized continuum richer and more exotic than the one he or she inhabited prior to the reading, a realm full of strange, alluring and bewildering lands, populated by oddball folks with odder customs.  Never again will our common globe seem like a small, homogenous, boring place, given Katchor's affecting and humorously melancholy revelations about undeniably real venues such as the Tensit Islands, Polywalla, Panta Lucia, Outer Canthus and other "bathwater republics."


Our excursion begins with the purchase, by one Emile Delilah, of a literal cardboard valise (although the title is also a pun on the physical construction of this and every book, a pun wittily made real by foldout handles on the front and back covers of Valise).  Delilah is intent on visiting the Tensit Islands, home to the world's most magnificent public restroom ruins.  What transpires with him there cannot be encapsulated in mere rational synopsis.   Let it only be stated that he narrowly escapes the "sublimation" of the whole island.


A scattering of other strips centered in Emile's homebase of  Fluxion City, New Jersey, intervenes before we encounter our next running character, Elijah Salamis, who is attempting to engender a universal culture and attitude blended from the entirety of human custom.  Needless to say, this quest proves to be more than a little quixotic.  Ultimately, the destinies of Elijah and Emile will intersect, but not before a myriad other bizarre travelogue moments, some of which are reminiscent of the surreal wanderings of Bill Griffith's Zippy.


In his Julius Knipl  series of strips, Katchor proved himself an expert at discovering and chronicling the unseen peculiar talismans of everyday existence—even if he had to invent them first—freighting such objects as the metal discs which hold down newspaper piles at corner newsstands with hyperreal significance.  He became a poet of the tawdry, humble quotidian, and his artwork is beautifully matched with his themes.  No one draws homely, Fellini-esque faces or clotted and palimpsested urban landscapes with the unremitting facility and love that Katchor exhibits.  The gentle grey washes that seep over his people and places conjure up a Weegee-like atmosphere of life as she is lived, below all headlines and high ideals.


The Cardboard Valise is worldbuilding on the order of Jan Morris's Hav, Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia, Brian Aldiss's Malacia, and Ursula Le Guin's Orsinia:  places that are attached to our world by extradimensional roads, down which only the sharpest and most sensitive of literary guides can lead one.  Get your ticket immediately!



The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo's column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.



by Bill_Tipper on ‎03-30-2011 06:43 AM

The Jew of New York has a similarly Borgesian quality, I think.

April 23: " 'A job,' the woman repeated again, smiling, as if I hadn't heard her. 'Would you like one?' "

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