This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
“The Carnival” is an exquisitely wrought piece of melancholy fantasy, and a high point in the blossoming career of Lilli Carré, the most poetic of contemporary North American cartoonists.
Lilli Carré’s “The Carnival” is featured in MOME, Vol. 14: Spring 2009 and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010.
The Chicago-based cartoonist and illustrator Lilli Carré is one of the most exciting and accomplished comics artists working in North America. She combines a fanciful imagination with an interest in quiet emotions, and she pulls it all together through a rigorous devotion to form--especially poetic form. Her stories are invariably melancholy, but her effects are so nimbly achieved that one can’t help but smile in applause. Two of her most notable works, “The Thing About Madeline” and Nine Ways to Disappear, offer superb examples of poetic narrative in comics. But my favorite of her efforts to date is “The Carnival.” It presents her themes of longing, disaffection, and acceptance with the most resonance, and her aesthetic touch has never been more deft or sophisticated.
“The Carnival” opens with Henry, the story’s protagonist, wrapping up the day at the auto dealership he works at as a salesman. Like the title character in “The Thing About Madeline,” he is stuck in a dull, unfulfilling job, and he just seems to be going through life’s motions. His pitch to a prospective customer, “This one’s a little beauty. A diamond in the rough,” sounds like he’s projecting his hopes of himself onto the car he’s trying to move. As the story continues, his salesman line comes to seem less like a voicing of hopes than it does of reassurances. We see why when he arrives home. He lives by himself in a small apartment, beset upon by a nagging landlady, and his only comforts are a pet fish and eating an apple before falling asleep while watching TV. Later that night, his feelings of dissatisfaction overwhelm him, leading him to drive off aimlessly into the night. He eventually checks into a hotel that has a traveling carnival running next door.
Henry is the sort of fellow whom many would look at and say that he just needs to get laid. Carré seems to recognize this about him, but she knows that he doesn’t need sex so much as the opportunity to relax. She gives him a romantic interest, an unnamed free spirit whom he meets when visiting the carnival. The young woman inspires him to loosen up, but he resists his desire for her. At one point, Henry imagines her sitting topless by a pond, her legs dangling in the water, but he fights against idealizing her appearance in his mind’s eye. He concentrates on her body, and he finds her most conspicuous physical aspect is the unsightly pudge around her midriff. It’s as if he’s trying to convince himself of her unattractiveness. Things begin to get physical between them later on, but she sees his anxiety (he’s trembling) and stops. She can tell that sex and its attendant pressures are not what he needs. She appears to recognize that he has to find comfort within himself before he can share it with another.
Fantasy plays a strong role in Carré’s work, and it springs forth most resonantly in her handling of this nameless woman who enters Henry’s life. As the story progresses, Carré increasingly implies that the woman is not a person at all. She has no name, no sense of propriety (she initiates sex with Henry knowing that a young child can and probably will walk in on them), and in the end Carré demonstrates there’s something definitely supernatural about her. But Carré also makes clear that the woman is not a figment of Henry’s imagination (as much as he’d apparently like to think so in the story’s penultimate scene). The only answer that seems to make sense is that she’s a nymph, a spirit of nature who stands apart from society and follows her whims. Carré certainly suggests it visually; her portrayal of the woman in Henry’s pond fantasy recalls images of the water nymphs in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. But Carré never really resolves the question of the woman’s supernatural nature. She’s fond of evoking the uncanny in her stories, and that demands leaving certain things unanswered. What’s most important in the story’s terms is that the woman becomes an effective metaphor for Henry locating peace and calm in his life. The woman does just that on the story’s final full-page panel, and Carré, in the story’s most dazzlingly poetic moment, evokes it by absenting the character from the image altogether.
Moments like the finale in “The Carnival” establish Carré as perhaps the most poetic-minded of contemporary cartoonists, and one of the great pleasures of her work is her facility with creating, developing, and redefining tropes. Her capacity for using them to advance the narrative is especially striking. Throughout “The Carnival” she introduces odd, discordant details--water dripping from the ceiling, or an omnipresent moth flying around a character’s head--and then infuses them with meaning to create a turning point in the story. For example, the dripping water that nags at Henry in his apartment initially seems like a typical annoyance. However, it becomes increasingly (and fantastically) pervasive. It ultimately floods the entire building, leading him to drive off into the night. It’s clearly a metaphor for his dissatisfaction with life. But sometimes the trope isn’t the detail so much as the action the detail prompts. The moth’s presence is initially nothing more than a character idiosyncrasy. But Henry’s impromptu smashing of it against a wall is a synecdoche for his need for control, conformity, and keeping his feet on the ground. However slightly, he is intolerant of things that go against his sense of order. It’s no wonder his nameless, wayward nymph sees this small act of violence and immediately flees; she likely realizes he will ultimately and forcibly shackle her to his world. Nymphs seduce men into their own world. As the ending shows, he can only be seduced into hers through his memories, and only then with her gone from them. These tropes are just a few among many. Even incidental images like a goldfish carry their own reverberations.
Carré’s poetic effects are the richest and most enjoyable aspect of her work--one feels as if one could discuss them forever. However, it’s an injustice not to note the extraordinary elegance of her visuals. She’s always been very economical with them; if an element doesn’t substantially contribute to an effect, she doesn’t include it. The knowledge that everything counts makes the reader look more closely, and the sleekness of Carré’s panel compositions and breakdowns makes it a smooth, gliding effort. She’s not averse to decorative effects, but her rule seems to be that they enhance what’s already there. That’s certainly true of her beautiful color work on “The Carnival.” Blues and oranges are dominant, and the hues are very subtly orchestrated to create a wide range of dissonances; every panel is remarkably vivid. The panels would certainly work in black-and-white, but imagining them without the color is like imagining a symphony stripped of its supporting arrangements. In other words, the soda would still have its flavor, but the fizz would be gone. Lilli Carré’s cartooning has reached the point where she makes everything feel integral; one can’t treasure any of a piece without treasuring all of it. And “The Carnival” is a rare treasure indeed.