The Motherless Oven
By Rob Davis
In which we get into Rob Davis’ The Motherless Oven and ask ourselves such burning questions as: How much do you like to have things explained? Are happy endings a form of social control? And is it the English Scott Pilgrim?
The Weather Clock said knife o’clock.
So I chained Dad up in the shed.
Let’s just get this out of the way right from the start: I really really love this book. My quick capsule review = “The English Scott Pilgrim.”
But also – well: there was loads loads more that I wanted to write in the Blue is the Warmest Color thread about all the stuff (but there’s just never enough time gah): but having questions of identity floating around my mind just makes it all the more obvious: oh look – more adventures of white guys. Because yeah you know – part of the problem (and I’m happy to put my hands and admit that I’m totally guilty for doing this) is that we only do the chin-strokey identity stuff when we talk about (what’s the right word?) “marginalized media” (?) instead of well – thinking about it when we’re dealing with the mainstream stuff which well – just reinforces well – the divisions between us. Cis straight white guys are accepted as the default / as what’s accepted / as what’s “normal” and so anything that’s not that is a deviation.
And I’m not saying that to have a go at The Motherless Oven (because like I said I love it): because well – you could cut and paste that paragraph above and put it in pretty much any of the other books that we’ve talked about on here (and yeah yeah – I know: I’m the one who choose them): but then that’s the point and that’s the problem. The causes are all so diffuse and yet the cumulative effect is still toxic. I really kinda liked my “background radiation” comment I made before: because that kinda sums up my feelings best and the predicament we’re all in. It’s not just one thing – it’s everything.
(And also well – there’s a Motherless Oven sequel coming out in October called “The Can Opener’s Daughter” so you know: could be I’m picking on the wrong person here: in which case – sorry Rob Davis!).
And sorry for front-loading this stuff – especially because well: I’m probably only doing it to relive my guilty conscience. Because well yeah: it just seems wrong to only talk about all this stuff (which I’d argue effects us all whether we want it to or not) when we’re doing the “marginalized stuff” when really it’s the mainstream stuff that needs the critique the most. Because well – the only way any of the stuff is going to change (and the only way we’re going to get better) is everyone being more aware of it and making more of an effort to change – right?
But going back to the reason why I love The Motherless Oven (and oops – I think this might lead me back on to more mainstream bashing so you know: prepare yourselves now): but yeah man – this is kinda one of the things that I love love about stories in general (and – sad face – is one of the things that I feel like I get to feel less and less) and that’s the exhilarating feeling of discovering a strange new unfamiliar world for the first time.
Take Star Wars and Harry Potter: I mean – man: back when those things started – it was all about the strange new worlds and the sheer giddy childlike delight that comes from each bit being unwrapped to expose some different fresh thing. OMG? There are wizards? And they have a school? And that’s not a moon: it’s a space station? And holy wow – that’s his father? You know: it’s the surprise and the exploration that’s the fun right? I mean – I haven’t read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (who reads a play?): but it kinda seems like it’d be a pretty good example of diminishing returns (but hey who knows I could be wrong): but my point I guess is that it seems like it’s obviously more fun (if difficult – because yeah: there’s a lot of stuff out there): to find something that takes you somewhere new: which is hopefully starting to give you some idea as to why I love The Motherless Oven so much.
But yeah I mean: come on – what is this world that Rob Davis creates? I mean: how does it work? What are the rules? What’s a Weather Clock? Why is it knife o’clock? What is knife o’clock? And why is Dad chained up in the shed?
I mean – at the risk of being too much: it seems like everyone is always wanting to know more answers to everything: and The Motherless Oven (god bless it) is nothing but questions. Which is what makes it feel like such a beautiful goddamn adventure.
Talking about it in the Barbican Comic Forum (it’s been the book that I’ve been trying to get everyone to read this year) the whole strangeness of it is kinda off-putting to a few people: which you know – (and I know this is probably too much) I put down to a spoon-fed culture. Where everyone wants to know how everything works and is put together and everything has to make sense. Which kinda relates it to two other books I really like – East of West and The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman: both of which do the same thing – of creating a deep strange world and then throwing the reader into the deep end. And for people who complain that they don’t get it – I’m kinda tempted to say: well tough. Keep reading. It’s good for you. Because well yeah – I guess that’s how I want all my stories to me. I want them to confuse me. And show me new things. And take me to places I’ve never been before. Because – damn it – that’s where the good stuff is.
But what do you think?
Barbican Comic Forum
I would like to state right from the beginning that I enjoyed this book. I increased it’s rating when I found out there was a sequel because one of the few critiques I had was the way it ended. I can see why Joel might call it the “The English Scott Pilgrim.” and that’s high praise coming from him….I actually think it’s far more creative and original than Scott Pilgrim ever dared to be. the characters are also a lot less annoying (although probably not as amusing in the ha ha sense).
I know this will ruffle some feathers – Scott Pilgrim is not as original as The Motherless Oven (TMO) . Instead of the usual super hero story, Scott Pilgrim has video game based abilities instead. Boy meets girl, boy falls for mysterious girl… Done to death. Now that aside it’s still a very amusing comic and at least tries to be different in its own way.
Moving swiftly back to TMO, I can’t think of a comic that constructs a world as different and as difficult to predict or come to grips with. That challenge is part of the appeal of this book. I agree that the feeling of breaking new ground (even if it’s only new to you) while reading a story is part of what differentiates good from great! When you find your mind pondering things in a way you’ve never quite done before, or when you reconcile a concept that’s cool and seems so obvious (like mixing magic and science in Saga to create something greater than its components) that you can’t believe you’ve only just experienced it.
Raining deadly knives… Although impractical why not? Everyone knowing the day they die… No biggie. Parents you make yourself? Erm… Not phased (I lie, I’m completely thrown). I could go on, but my point is TMO hits you with so many different ways of altering reality to make it different to ours that I don’t think you can help engaging with the story or the characters. I like the way it does this without being smug or trying to announce how very clever it is. The impression it gives is that things are just like that, and although that’s weird as hell to me, it’s just the norm for the inhabitants of that reality.
There’s a certain sense of humour that permeates the story that is so British. I know that’s not a great way to describe it but my words fail me.
I found myself fascinated by the police, who aren’t fast, but never stop. I felt that created a strange sense of tension that never quite went away. Even when they were out of the immediate plot I found myself wondering how close they were, or screaming to the characters to get a move on before they arrive (all quietly in my head of course. I’d hate to be committed for that)
The story is undoubtedly creative, whether you find it too ridiculous or not you’ll want to finish reading it. It’s a surreal tale of friendship, betrayal, adventure and all that good stuff set from the perspective of a young adult. Whether or not all this world building lives up to the possibilities and potential available to it is still up in the air. All I know is that I really want to find out.
I didn’t like the way it ended, especially when I thought that was the end of the story. It left too much open, promised so much and then left all the heavy lifting to the reader. I found that truly disappointing but as mentioned earlier, there is a sequel so I spoke to soon and the author has a chance to continue the story and redeem themselves or spectacularly mess up something that could be entertainingly unique. One of the dangers the story faces is becoming so full of weird and wonderful concepts and situations, that it becomes tiresome and gets in the way of the underlying story. I look forward to finding out. I suspect this might only be the first part of at least a trilogy. I wonder if I’ll stay interested…
I really enjoyed this book, I’ve re-read it a few times since it came out, and shared with several friends and family. I’m a big fan of Rob Davis’ recent stuff (Nelson, the Quixote adaptations) – all that time in the comics industry’s obviously paid off. Motherless Oven’s a very strange book (at the risk of understating), and could easily have gone wrong in the execution, in less capable hands.
At one level, it’s an exercise in world-building – dropping the reader into the strangeness of the setting so that it starts to make sense to the reader. Making matter-of-fact references to the various elements is a standard sci-fi technique. I like the way the various elements become part of the storytelling style – the recording vase thing he’s been given serves as narrator in some later sequences (I’m on holiday, don’t have the book with me, so cant look up the details). I like the overall feel that the accumulation of weirdness brings. A lot of the elements fit together, the improbable low-tech looking machinery like the TV wheel, the kitchen gods and the parents themselves all contribute to a sense of burring between the living and the inanimate – as does the notion of a predefined deathday – and this captures the sense of teenage alienation pretty well. (And a few details, like the school lions, don’t fit in that pattern, and don’t work nearly so well for me.)
I think that’s what holds the book together on the whole – the teenage protagonists live in a world where they feel they don’t fit in, where the rules make no sense – and all the surface weirdness does make sense at a different level – poetic, symbolic, whatever.
So, the other odd thing about it – it’s a book about teenage rebellion written by a man in his mid to late forties, and the teenage rebels don’t win in the end. As I remember, Rob Davis is on record as saying that he deliberately chose to end it that way because, as an older man, he didn’t believe that youthful rebellion always wins out. Which makes a lot of sense to me. I liked the ambiguity of the ending, it was unexpected, and quite a jar the first time I read it, but it made sense.
I’m aware that I’m just at the right age and demographic to “get” Rob Davis’ work. I’m about the same age, and I’m a white male. (So, Nelson ticks all the cultural boxes for me – I was a few months old when the Apollo moon landing happened, the punk-y feel of Motherless Oven just fits). And I do note that Motherless Oven is told from a male point of view – we’re given an inside view of Scarper Lee’s view of the world, whereas Vera Pike is a mysterious, more competent outsider (right up to the end, where her confidence turns out to be misplaced). There’s no exploration of Vera Pike’s inner life – maybe The Can Opener’s Daughter will provide that? And the third member of their gang, the coloured lad with autism (?), is very much in a secondary role too (to the point where a google search to remind me of his name turned up a blank). It’s a very conventional white dude + girlfriend + coloured sidekick setup.
I heard about the sequel a few weeks ago. i’m not sure how I feel about it, tbh. Having another big chunk of story set in this strange place would be great, but being half back-story, half-sequel doesn’t feel like a great starting point, and I really hope it doesn’t try to explain away any of the strangeness. Nana mentioned a trilogy – I hope not! – Davis is phenomenally gifted and imaginative, and creatively, I’d far prefer he move on to other, equally innovative stuff. Guess I’ll have to trust him to recognise the potential pitfalls in a sequel, and turn out something good.
Let me end on a positive note about the art. It’s very simple, and straightforward, and just a perfect fit. There’s enough detail to realise the strange world (I love the daily wheel full-page splashes), and his control of face and body language is superb. He cites Mike McMahon as a key influence, I can see where that comes from. I love the loose organic design of the parents, somewhere between steampunk, Miro and Henry Moore.
Cheers, and thanks for picking this book, Joel. Looking forward to what other people have to say about it too.
All the best, Dave
Barbican Comic Forum
So as pointed out, the big obsession of TMO is “the hell is this place?”, it’s cool, exciting and just barely tethered enough to our reality to make it awesome.
I mean, to me, what it really feels like is an exploration of rebellion, not the logic or philosophy or history of it, but the emotion of it. Basically painting what rebellion feels like, a big broad brushed emotional look at it and the idea of growing up as looking around at the rules of the world and dealing with the sense of “wait….this is all horseshit”. Like trying to create a world of a teenager realising what Nihilism is, Scarper Lee’s story is about a teenager saying fuck you to a world that has turned meaningless to him. He doesn’t really understand why it’s raining knives anymore and he slowly moves to defy a world that is basically “Oh yeah, you’re going to die today. It’s just happening, so be cool with it”.
And that ending – that end to the rebellion? Fuuuuuck. It hits right? It just happens and you’re on the tube for a few beats and you can’t quite believe it just happened and your angry and confused and and – it works. The old lady fired, she got lucky and Scarper doesn’t make it over the fence. His friends disappear and the story ends and that’s it. Go home. …If that’s not the best summation for the chaos that is reality and the random terrible and great things that can happen to you, then what is?
But outside the “abstract puberty” theory I’m lending the book, there’s even more cool stuff.
There’s the Calvinball logic of the Motherless Oven world, which is just fun (and clearly the hook of the piece). Putting the piece beyond the adolescence prism I’ve rammed up it, the way Davies is basically saying “this is all weird mad shit, it looks cool, it’s fun and that’s it. Don’t piece it together, follow the characters” is pretty great. And it’s a get out of jail free narrative card he wrote and stuck to the front cover – he can do whatever he damn well pleases with the technicalities of knife rain and dads in sheds – just so long as the emotional logic of the character lines stick.
Dave – yeah I think I’m in a similar place with the sequel. I think my main issue is that Davies has to do something spectacular to justify touching that ending (which apparently I’m obsessed with). The prequel stuff too though sounds a bit risky, a big part of the appeal of this story, for me at least, is how he doesn’t explain his world, he just throws cool shit at you and runs. I worry it’s going to be a bit of a Boba Fett situation (I mean this in terms of how most old fans reacted to his origin, I for one fucking loved it and the Jango/Obi fight in the rain you’re all too precious to realise is amaaaaazing).
The art – It’s Hewlett but less messy, easier to comprehend and less likely to give the brain the feeling of heatstroke brain freeze through chaotic hyper detail. I’ve tried a bunch of times but I can’t actually read Tank Girl – it’s too much. A mesh of a hundred different shapes and gags and notes and whatever in a single box demanding my attention, it splits my brain up and everything goes fuzzy and bad. Davies, I mean look at the first page, it’s sparse and simple but detailed and striking as hell. Here is an ornate weather clock telling you that’s it knife time – yep, I know you want to read pages 2 and 3 you lucky bastard. He gets all the information across, without assuming your some ADHD’d coke head doing the Phillip J Fry coffee record.
Also, the watercoloured grayscale is a dazzilingly effective choice, a really great way of conveying the increasingly bitter tones the story takes on as it progresses – for all it’s insane fun, this is a dark, depressing piece and it’s great Davies split from Malley and Hewletts road of thick lines and nothing else to add some depth and weight where he needed to.
That wild world though? It sucks you in, intrigues and captivates – in terms of pure readability, it says alot about the balance to strike between intrigue and Warcraft.
*Falls off stage*
*Crushes audience members*
Everyone is really hitting the nail right on the head. I don’t even know what more to add. The Motherless Oven is fantastic. And it is 100% truly unique, in a time when hardly anything is unique anymore. This is excellent surrealism. Top notch. Even though it’s quite different, I’m reminded of Ted McKeever’s work in the late 1980s—Eddy Current, Transit, Metropol, and Industrial Gothic—both visually and narratively. Dreary and brooding (but riveting) worlds that don’t make much sense, but don’t have to make sense. Rob Davis’ gorgeous art style kind of reminds me a little bit of Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon, but maybe I’m way off. In any case, Davis’ pencils match the tone of his bleak narrative, which is sprinkled with a kind of hilarity that evokes even more bleakness.
Barbican Comic Forum
I realize I didn’t comment on the artwork of this comic which is a major part of what makes it so good. I thought the art was be clear and crisp. The story is surreal enough that if the illustration had turned to something… not a sharp or overly colorful, I think the focus may have been taken off the quirkiness of the world the author built. It might have even tipped things over into the region of “too much” and made it seem like the story was trying too hard. I know that wasn’t the clearest sentence so let me try to rephrase. What happens in the story, the things, and creatures that inhabit that world are different to ours and fantastical enough that there is a bit of an effort needed to fully digest it all. The artwork does a great job of presenting this, sometimes hard to comprehend, universe in a clear and simple way. It allows your mind to focus of making sense and delighting in the strangeness of everything without questioning what you’re actually looking at as well. This is an example, IMHO, of story and artwork coming together in perfect harmony.
Going back to the story itself, I seem to be the only one who wants a sequel (and maybe even a third book). I guess I’m the overly optimistic one (never thought I would be that guy) who thinks the author will manage to expand on the initial tale without ruining it. In my mind the story was clearly incomplete. I could have imagined my own ending but…I don’t want to 😛
I don’t think a prequel is needed though, so if that is really happening I have the chance to go back to being on the less optimistic side of the spectrum (hello comfort zone). I think a measure of how good this book is that whether you think a sequel is a good or bad idea, you’ll want to read it anyway. Let’s see what happens…
Hey everyone. Lots of cool comments so far – but can we talk about the ending now?
Because well yeah – I mean: as much as I love the rest of the book and the dry British sense of humour that soaks through it all like a newspaper left out in the rain: I mean I totally totally love how it ends.
Full disclosure: I was a VHS kid. Brought up on video nasties and staying up extra late past my bedtime to watch fucking cool movies on BBC2 and Channel 4 (well – actually: I guess most of them weren’t that cool: but all the ones that survive in my memory are the good ones: like – a random sample off the top of my head = The Blob (1988), Akira, Alterted States, Phase IV, The Andromeda Strain (1971), Demon Seed, Evil Dead 2, Dellamorte Dellamore, Prince of Darkness, Videodrome, Shivers, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, : you know – stuff like that. Cheapy made pitch black horror where basically everyone dies. And oh my god – I love it. Because I saw it at the right age where it warped my personality and tastes in all sorts of messed up ways: to the point where I very much have a taste for it (please don’t no one recommend Stranger Things to me: because gah after watching one episode it seemed pretty much total rubbish: like a cup of room tempature flat lemonade when what you really want is heroin).
But yeah: a big part of films like that (we can call the Genre: “Stuff that Joel likes”) is that things will turn bad and your main antagonist / hero whatever will probably die in a horrible way right before the end. And ok yeah – you can call that a storytelling “trick” if you want (spoiler: everything you do when you tell a story is basically a “trick”) but the effect it has on me (less so now – but as a kid = WOW) like: it just upends everything and makes you feel like you’ve been punched in the gut (kinda wanna mention that it happened in this TV show I was watching last night in a perfect example kinda way: but I wouldn’t want to ruin it for anyone so I won’t mention it by name: but oh my god yes – you all need to watch it like NOW: altho good luck working out what it is I’m talking about LOL).
And well yeah: The Motherless Oven goes to the same place and that’s a big part of why I love it. Because without wanting to get too tin-foil hat about things – I mean: I think it can be a very good thing to have stories with endings that are brutal and upsetting and I think it’s kinda terrible how pretty much everything we read and watch always ends all happy and upbeat. I mean: I wish it was the opposite but the world can be a terrible place sometimes and so maybe it’s good when not everything does end “happily ever after.”
Note: this is also pretty much the same reason why Cloverfield is one of my most favourite films. So erm yeah.
Better sorry than safe.
Yes, great ending. Here’s Terry Gilliam chipping in on the topic, and hitting the nail on the head rather well, I think : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAKS3rdYTpI
You know the atmosphere of the book seemed very familiar to me. The main thing it reminded me of is Ishiguros ‘Never Let Me Go’. Teenagers hanging out together with a lot less oversight than might be expected and something quietly wrong in the background that you don’t quite get. (I totally missed the bit in the Never Let Me Go where the main guy had a very low social status amongst the other boys because he was rubbish at art, though good at football. In what world is football not important? Clone world). I think it also reminded me of Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones, again a boarding school, for orphaned witch children, who can’t help playing with the magic that bubbles up inside them, who will be burnt at the stake if they are caught (their parents already have been), so again, a lot of teenagers without much oversight and something quietly wrong.
Of course the Motherless Oven is not at a boarding school and Scarper Lees parents are around, but somehow a talking hair-dryer doesn’t seem very present, though she did make sandwiches for their escape, but she had the presence of a science fiction house-automaton (though I think that’s an artefact of not having a face, she probably cared deeply, but even people with a paralysed face who can’t smile have trouble making friends, so for us to notice someone faceless…).
Throughout the book, I was wondering, do the children really build their own parents (which is impossible!) or is this an elaborate social experiment they were stuck into when they were too young to remember? (Probably not???). So all along I kept looking for cracks that would reveal the kind of world they lived in. While I certainly didn’t figure anything out, it does seem as though all those machine parents are real. But to explain… no there’s too much, let me sum up: What is going on?? What kind of world do they live in?
I really love stories where you are thrown in the middle of an inventive world and you have to figure things out. I like them most of all when there is a big punch line (haven’t gotten one yet) that explains everything and which makes you go back and reread the whole thing with a whole new understanding, picking up and reinterpreting all these tiny clues, I’m not sure that’s possible over a novel, though Look to Windward had a pretty good version with a hidden first chapter (hidden even when your read it first!) but a short story or comic is perfect. I’m thinking particularly of a short story I read (cluey sentence that you only understand later: ‘Women sometimes formed friendships, they had nothing left to loose’. I can’t find it at all, what have I done with that book? it’s such a great story). On the other hand we don’t have to have everything explained and definitively answered.
Gilliam argues that films can either give you comforting answers, OR raise unhappy questions. The short story above still left questions because, having revealed that, ‘it was earth all along’ (but not that at all), you could still ask how such a society could work, what it would be like to visit etc.
(Though for this book I definitely am like people discussing the end of Inception and wishing the camera could have stayed running until we had an answer. They didn’t stop because they ran out of film!).
And while we are asking if the world presented to us is ‘true’ or an elaborate deception: was Scarper Lee’s deathday an inevitable law of biology? Or was he injured in his capture and did he die of his injuries? Or do you just get a lethal pill on whichever day the ‘deathday computermatron’ picks out of a hat for you?
So do we know that the sequel will continue the story of those who got away? I think some of you are afraid Rob Davis will explain too much, but I hope he will explain something (though that Planet of the Apesesque twist that explains everything in a big brain explosion that makes you rethink everything, must be pretty tricky to think of. I’d much rather have too little explained, or leave the little spinny top spinning, than have midichlorians).
One thing I thought quite poignant is that in the whole book, Scarper Lee only smiles one single time. Saturday, his favourite day, walking down the high street, he has a tiny microsmile. That’s it! I guess heading towards your death day will do that. Of course he does say he feels happy later in the book but it’s not the sort that wreaths him in smiles.
(And what about the Henry-Moore-statue Dad? You can build or sculpt your parents).
In summary. Best. Book. Ever.
One line I really liked – (although to be fair it’s got lots and lots of really great lines) is when Scarper goes: “Stories don’t have points. They’re lies for keeping the truth in. They’re sort of rounded, not pointy at all.” Which I kinda feel is all sorts of perfect.
I mean – the trouble with most stories tho is that actually (sadly): most of them are written in a very pointed way. Easy example yes: your common garden superhero book is pretty much always: “Be good. Don’t be evil. Maintain Status Q” etc. And the mulitplicty of happy endings are there to reassure us that everything is fine. Go back to bed America. Your government is in control (#reference). etc
So yeah – The Motherless Oven in showing us the victory of Stour Provost (best bad guy name EVER) and oh man that sly smile she does at the end is killer (the glance downwards and then the look up) and ripping out my heart and then leaving it beating on the floor. I mean – it’s radical. In more ways than one.
(And brrrrrr – totally forgot about the bit about the jars – dude that shit is creepy).
And in terms of the sequel (and the book after that). I mean – I hope that Rob Davis just takes things wierder and makes the world more inscrutable rather than less. I mean – if someone can explain to me when they need to have things explained to them then that would be great. But a mystery is evovative as hell and an explanation is dull and plain and pretty much bores me to tears.
(Having said that: I mean – isn’t the “answer” that they’re all in hell? I mean – the grey and bleakness and the cirular history books and the no escape ever: I mean – it really put me in the mind of a great book that I’d really like to recommend only I’ve kinda ruined the twist now. So instead I’ll just say if you’ve ever met a person that reminds you of a bicycle then I guess you’ll know what I’m talking about).
But also yeah Stour Provost (oooh check it out: it’s actually a place: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stour_Provost !) and the police. I mean – you can cash it out and say that they’re the advancing onset of age and death and time and authority and all the bad things that you can’t outrun. Only well: that makes it feel lesser somehow. Like: the coolness is in how they’re combination of all those things in a way that you just can’t quite put your finger on: because well – it’s rounded rather than pointy.
Also: in terms of the end and relating it to probably my favourite film ever ever ever: but it’s totally Truman Show isn’t it? You finally get the end of reality and beyond there’s only blackness. I mean: again it’s evocative as anything / everything (and oh man – actually – it’s another one of my favourite films: Cube – which you really really must see if you haven’t already).
I mean I’m kinda doing a mini lol at all of the films I keep referencing especially how I started this all off with “Oh yeah The Motherless Oven is great in how it’s a whole new world” but here’s the thing: it is a whole new world and it is all fresh and different and new and strange: because the films and stuff that it all reminds me of – I mean: it doesn’t rip off any of the situations or characters or icongraphy so much – rather it rips off the feeling. Or actually – maybe the other way round: it makes me feel stuff in the same way that the other stuff does.
And yeah: it’s the English Scott Pilgrim. Only instead of being obsessed with computer games it’s fixatated on knives and the weather (which is basically our national character right?): and it’s that same feeling of feeling like you’re experiencing the world only in a more direct way. Like someone took off the sunglasses and let you see the lions outside your school, the gods in your house and the wheels inside your TV.
I know which book, and bicycle, you’re referring to – great book, and a good comparison to ‘The Motherless Oven’. (Spoiler for everyone else – google “The Third Policeman”). Unless I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, but google it anyway 🙂
On the topic of films, and taking away the mystery – I gather that the directors’ cut of Donnie Darko explained what was going on, and kind of spoiled it. (I should say that I full expect Rob Davis to avoid that pitfall, he’s a very canny storyteller, with a much broader range than just the strangeness of this book.)
Barbican Comic Forum
I’m going to rain some knives on everyone’s parade, here.
This should’ve been exactly up my alley: strange, a quality I tend to enjoy; compared to Scott Pilgrim, a book I’m quite fond of; but English, a thing I find fascinating. And to start on a positive note, I did like a lot about this. Nana’s point about the clarity of the art and how it does so much heavy lifting for the world-building is spot on, and I think the art style completely suits the mood. The use of greyscale, the black shapes of the school uniforms, the grey smudges creeping in from the corners of every sky, and Scarper Lee’s thick, eternally-furrowed eyebrows give the story such a heavy, dreary feeling. Coming from a part of the world that gets (apparently) 2405 sun hours per year but now living in London (annual sun hours: 1481), England can be a pretty dreary place. Sometimes I feel like the winds are mocking me and the rain is trying to kill me.
Where this fell apart for me is probably the same for many other people. We’re presented with this weird world, where we assume there’s an underlying logic or reason to things, but we aren’t given (m)any clues for how why it is the way it is or how it all works. I generally enjoy being dropped into weird stories and having to find my way around, as long as there are enough crumbs to follow to start piecing together the internal logic and background information.
Going back to Joel’s first post, have I been spoon-fed all other culture? Maybe, but I think it’s just a personal thing. I question everything (like, my phone’s browser history is almost entirely searches about what things are or how they work) and it’s unsatisfying not having answers. Things don’t have to make perfect sense for me to enjoy them (e.g. at last month’s meet-up I went on about how much I enjoyed Elektra Assassin, a book nobody would ever describe as ‘sensible’), but I’d at least like to stop feeling disoriented at some point.
About halfway through I realised this book reminds me a lot of the Unthank chapters of Lanark. Both drop you into a surreal, disorienting like-ours-but-not-quite place; both settings are oppressively dreary; both feature young male protagonists whose understanding of/place in their worlds is being upended. Both were difficult for me to get on with, for the reasons above. Christine’s comparison with Never Let Me Go is also fitting. (The comparison with Scott Pilgrim, maybe not so much—I see the connections but the mood is so far off!)
Despite my mixed feelings, I’m oddly intrigued by this book. I actually found myself recommending it to a friend this weekend (with caveat of “look, it’s definitely weird, but worth a try”). I’m in favour of sequels if it means I can understand this world more. I know, boo! hiss!—but you know how some stories are loaded with ideas that seem cool then don’t go anywhere? This doesn’t feel like that. The weird elements of this story feel way too thoughtful and deliberate to not explain. Why bother, otherwise?
There’s a Quentin Tarantino quote (that I can’t be bothered to look up properly) that goes something like: make a sandwich and then give them half the sandwich.
Case in point: Amanda – you say you’re “oddly intrigued” by The Motherless Oven? I mean: I don’t think that’s a bug – I think it’s a feature. I mean: if there was a glossary / interview at the back where Rob David went through each element and was all “well – this means this and this means this and this means this and this means this” I mean: what else could that be but massively deflating? Like: I respect your hunger for wanting to know more: for wanting more of the sandwich – but I would argue that it’s the hunger that makes it good. I mean: has there ever been a case of a prequel or add-on that explains things that has made the original thing better? I mean – I realise this is a little below the belt – but did anyone watch the Star Wars prequels and go: “Ah great. Now I finally know how Darth Vader got started.” Compared to the first Star Wars film (which I’m not the biggest fan of – but whatever): which is just inexplicable thing after inexplicable thing. Not knowing can be a very cool thing. It’s like a great song lyric or something. Something that just exists on the tip of your tongue.
Good call on the Lanarkness and yeah I totally agree – but actually – you know what the perfect Motherless Oven reference is? (And oh my god I can’t it believe it took me this long to get here): but doesn’t it all just feel exactly like a dream? That same feeling of things not quite making rational sense but making sense nonetheless? All building up to this big amazing thing: but it’s a place you never see and then – bam – it’s all over.
This is my first time on the LGNN, so please do your best to be gentle with my extremely basic opinions. I wish I’d got here sooner because pretty much everything I wanted to say has already been said, but here I go anyway.
I really enjoyed this, and it was partly because of the sense of being thrown headlong into this world that seems simultaneously absurd and laden with meaning. I spent the whole book trying to figure out what everything meant — the knife rain, the school lions, the hand-crafted dads — and trying to second-guess what they were all metaphors for. I think the book defies this kind of interpretation, and I really like that about it. As well as it being a very bold creative risk, its refusal to explain itself helps create an incredibly atmospheric experience. Just like the kids in the story, we’re stuck in this incomprehensible world with its disorientating juxtaposition of dull, oppressive domesticity and very real physical danger. Nana’s point about the police sums this up perfectly, I think — that sense of foreboding is at the heart of the book’s appeal for me. The art contributes to it as well, as Amir and others have said.
I just wanted to quickly talk about the ending. When I was a kid I read one of those fantasy-adventure books starring a bunch of anthropomorphic animals. I can’t remember what it was called, but it was about two characters who go on a voyage and get caught up in some adventure or other. They beat the bad guy, save the day, and everything’s fine. So they get a boat back home, and when they step off the boat one of them slips and falls in the water and drowns. And that’s the end of the book. And the book is for children. Anyway I just wanted to tell you that little story because the end of TMO reminded me of it, and that kids’ book might explain why I liked it so much. You have these kids making a lunge for freedom in their weird purgatorial monochrome world, and it doesn’t work out. Because, well, why would it?
I don’t think the rubbishness of the star wars prequels is an argument for not explaining things. Films are made by committees, or maybe it turns out the first committee worked well together and then Hollywood gave all the artistic licence to the wrong guy, anyway. The question isn’t whether some answers are good or bad, the question is whether this author can pull it off well. Though ‘it’ isn’t the mystery, it’s the story. And leaving a good mystery is better than a rubbish explanation, though I suppose it could also be better than a good explanation? You can see which way my vote is. I’m like the ‘public’ in a Saki story who liked their paintings to tell a straightforward story, a horse coming into the castle without a rider to two worried looking women, ideally titled, ‘The Disaster’ to make it even clearer. :-). Huh look at that, this theme about people liking ‘answers’ goes back quite a way.
In Lost the authors promised there was some grand explanation and they weren’t just making it up as they went along, but they were (and reviewers I read said to the detriment of the ending). So if there is some proper thought behind the mystery, then it will be far more internally consistent with whatever is going on, whether or not the story reveals that mystery. To quote Plinkett, “you might not notice, but your brain did” (by the way, judging by how Rob Davis described creating the world at Broken frontier, that unified thought is buried in his subconscious, but that can still work).
To tell the truth the mystery could be summed quite well by saying ‘these are just kids rebelling but they happen to live in an evil dictatorship (like in Palastine, the comic). But the evil dictatorship supposes an unevil one just the other side of the Berlin Wall, and they’ve got a wall right there. (Though Media Lens shows our news is quite biased and maybe we are the bad guys we just don’t think so, like taking fishing rights from poorer countries. Giving them a little bit of money doesn’t make it ok when they are not in a position to refuse a bad deal. And when does the bad guy ever think they’re the bad guy). So what IS behind the wall? Some ‘real’ nice, kind civilisation? (like in Windham’s the Crysalids or Hoover’s, Children of Morrow). Or is it just loads of wolves that they were keeping out?