May 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
It is a routine now: every Friday, near the end of the afternoon, I go to the Guardian web site to see the latest episode in Chris Ware’s graphic novel, The Last Saturday.
The series began last September, and as its opening panel wryly indicates, is meant to hearken back to the days of patiently waiting for serial comics (especially one “as inscrutable and patience-testing as this”) to come out in print on the weekends. In this age of binge-watching cable dramas, that investment in the unfolding of characters and events over time, the room to wander and wonder, is lost.
Ware’s work looks into the complicated shadows of modern households, the lonely, blank-faced folks who inhabit them. Even if you haven’t read any of his novels, look at his New Yorker covers. Even one of his happiest covers, the 2013 Mother’s Day edition: you get the day-to-day depth of that entire family in that one image, from the jackets hung on the rack to the coffee mugs matching the couple’s robes to the memos on the bulletin board.
Then there’s the October 11, 2010 cover, which folded out in a multi-panel comic.Set right in the middle of the recession: a couple with a young daughter sit at a counter, trying to work out which bills they are able to pay. (Unfortunately, there’s no good, readable image of the foldout online anywhere.) The daughter’s choice of toy—a cash register, with play money—hints at a wish to understand the source of the adults’ frustration, a need to simplify their entanglements in order to connect. As often happens, fear and pessimism breed rotten luck, distraction and carelessness (leaving the gas burner on, the quiet blue flame in the corner). The mother trips and falls. A doctor bill to come.
In The Last Saturday, we get to know six characters living in a neighborhood in Sandy Port, Michigan, in the 1970s. First, take in the details of the era: the suburban tract housing, the old brand designs (Kellogg’s Corn Pops, Prell shampoo), the cigarette smoking in public spaces. Putnam Gray is an only child. His father is in school, studying psychology; his mother works during the day. There is stress in the relationship, sourness: they are receiving financial support from her parents. At the corners lie clues to a darker cloud of discontent. Putman is supposed to be nine or so, but notice, in week 10, the high chair in the kitchen, where mail now piles up. A sibling recently lost?
The color palette changes as the seasons change. As arguments are heard over his head, through walls and floors, Putnam comforts himself with deep, imaginative questions about the space-time continuum and philosophical cause and effect (Weeks 1, 25, and 36 in particular). He befriends a new girl, Sandy Grains, who makes an effort to speak his odd language. But he is so comfortable with his invented scenarios that he struggles to treat her as a friend in the real world. He would rather remain convinced that he is in love with pretty snob Rosie Gentry, who ignores him. When Rosie insults Sandy, Putnam defends the wrong girl.
Ware is incredibly subtle with delivering outside-the-panel information. The adult conversations that take place over Putnam’s and Sandy’s heads, ominous like stratus clouds, literally fall off the panel’s edge. Week 7: Sandy and her mother meet Putnam and his father at the beach. (Where is Putnam’s mom?) Mrs. Grains is recently widowed. Mr. Gray is nicer to her than he is at any point to Putnam’s mother. Ware teases at misbehavior that wouldn’t be picked up by Putnam. Week 21: they flirt as he refills her wine glass. Week 34: a magazine in a doctor’s office with the headline “The Swingers Next Door.”
For how long will the story go on? I didn’t pick up The Last Saturday until about Week 22. Now I don’t want it to end. Snow comes down in Sandy Port. School is canceled. Putnam is seeing a psychologist. There is a sense, as in a Rick Moody novel, that some kind of crisis point lies on the horizon, or that Putnam, forever hamstrung by his passivity, will be tested with a chance to redeem himself, and realize that Rosie Gentry is not worth his time.