New Construction, Two More Stories
(Uncivilized Books, 2015)
In “Backyard,” the first of two stories in Sam Alden’s recent New Construction, a radical commune in a southern-seeming town must sort through tensions when one of its members—a young woman suffering from an unspecified sexual trauma—begins behaving exactly like a dog: going around on all-fours, barking, and antagonizing the communally kept chickens in the backyard.
“Household,” story number two, finds an adult brother reunited with his older sister after a separation of years, their shared history marked by the psychic pain and loneliness of having lived with a paranoid father who shuffled them between motels, sad one-room affairs offering only the consolation of shared viewings of Rugrats. Regardless, or perhaps resultantly, they are now adults in New Orleans with adult bodies living in the most vacuous of proximity. (Brandon Hobson’s Deep Ellum offers a pronounced literary antecedent.)
The coloring of Alden’s book is black-and-white, the drawings penciled in in unique fashion for each story. “Backyard” features finer lines, more precise detailing, with clearly delineated characters; “Household,” a thick scrawl, and pervasive dark shadings with vague likenesses: the single panel reproducing an image from Rugrats is by far the most crisp on display. Both narratives depict casually realistic but confused realities, with jump cuts between panels in the spirit of cinematic mimesis, even if the actual effect in a comic book form is more disorienting. Neither story includes a narrator.
Disorientation, however, is part and parcel of what Alden’s about in New Construction. Tim, the brother in “Household,” works as a set dresser for a movie about a family in danger of breaking apart; abrupt cuts between the bare apartment in which he’s presently crashing with sister Celeste and exchanges of dialogue that at first seem to be flashback but turn out to derive from the movie shoot in progress bring home the sensation of vertigo. As a reader, the only way to make sense of what’s on the page is to keep reading. And by continuing to read, flying forward through images that seem to ask so much less than would a page brimming with words, a reader inevitably approaches Alden’s spring-loaded finales.
There is, it has to be said, a feeling of walking into a trap with both of these narratives—which is not all that strange for a medium employed principally over the years for propounding myths about scheming villains trying their damnedest to ensnare heroes of whatever stripe, and usually failing (or if succeeding, succeeding only briefly). Snares are what Alden has set here, and with little to no dramatic follow-up or resolution: subtle betrayals, quiet unmoorings, personalities whose casual assumptions lead toward squirm-inducing precipices. Not quite fully fleshed out stories, these play more like scenarios, rendering them nonetheless resonant in their reach, if maybe less substantive in their embrace.
The images, of course, are the point, and in Alden’s visible hesitations and shading ins, his crossing outs and bold (if minimalist) hairdos, there is something like Alberto Giacometti. In his heavy swirling skies, there are visual echoes of Van Gogh, as fitting a patron saint as any for these explorations of agonized sadness. Sketchy, yes, but about its very sketchiness, the substance of New Construction casts light on what it’s like to inhabit the fringe of the appropriate—and then to go beyond it.