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Hop on the Couci-Couci Bus for the Flight to the Hem of Marie
on September 9, 2012
Imagine yourself a collector of cultural bric-a-brac, always on the look out for the unusual, and adept at finding it. So when your eye spots a Railway Express depot notice for an auction of unclaimed baggage, you make it a point to attend. Your take: the cardboard valise of the title of Ben Katchor's latest and greatest work. And now you find yourself about to open it, to examine your treasure. You hit the jackpot.
The valise is in fact a suitcase large enough to hold all of Emile Delilah's worldly goods. A denizen of Fluxion City, a megalopolis delisted from all maps and directories, seven miles southeast of Bayonne, N.J., Delilah packed for an extended holiday on Tensint Island and, from there, moments before the island is vaporized, to the Hem of Marie in the People's Republic of Outer Canthus. As you can see from his itinerary, Delilah was off on the trip of his life, and you are in for an extraordinary treat, as you follow him with a hop, skip and a jump. But it's a treat that you must unpack with great care that you won't miss the best parts.
It's probably best to approach "The Cardboard Valise" as a work of absurdist literature, a genre, according to Wikipedia, that "posits little judgment about characters or their actions; that task is left to the reader. Also, the `moral' of the story is generally not explicit, and the themes or characters' realizations--if any --are often ambiguous in nature." But if that seems a bit of a stretch, think of "Valise" as nonsense literature, which Wikipedia describes as using sensical and nonsensical elements to defy language conventions or logical reasoning. There is a good case that "Valise" combines elements of both traditions.
"Puncto: The International Language of Incomprehsion" spoken on Outer Canthus, is characterized by "masculine, feminine and bisexual forms of punctuation" and by the fact that "all articles are indefinite." In Puncto, "A cup fo coffee, a mashed sardine, and a rainy day are all expressed . . by the same two words. Youno copsa." Classic absurdism. And there is nonsense galore. You will meet Sizmal Platus, the Pelagian virtuoso ladle player; Calvin Heaves, who offers his weekly "Sermon from the Mouth" at the Quiver Tabernacle; Sylvie Wan, "The pigeon-toed dancer [who] premiered her `Venusian Footbath" at [Outer Canthus'] Insulazian;" Dr. Magsman, inventor of the sub-atomic hand-towel and his wife Athena, a "passionate collector of popsicle sticks," among a host of such folks.
The word play is insistent and ingenious. There is no doubt that several of Katchor's fictional places will end up in the next revision of "The Dictionary of Imaginary Places" (Harcourt Brace & Co.): "Gazogene City," "Pasal Tedium," PolyWalla," "Spoonfed Bay," "New Feelia," "Hindaralla," and "Jumpara" among others. Other proper names are good fun, too: "The Marrowbone College Dictionary," "Neatsfoot College of Faith Healing," "Club Galactose," "Syrupian Pastry Cafe" and "Gravamen Hotel."
The story line in "Valise" is anything but linear. The narrative is carried on at two levels, the text in the bubbles records what the characters are telling you; the narrator's accompaniment at the top of many of the panels will help you keep up with the action. One way to read "Valise" is to read the narrator's contribution on each page and then read what the characters have to say, bubble by bubble, panel by panel. The pages of the book aren't numbered (I counted 125), but the pull-out blue cardboard handles, which allow you to carry the book as if it were a valise, are a nice touch.
Take the time to unpack this valise carefully and to linger over its contents. You won't be sorry.
End note. "The Dictionary of Imaginary Places" (see above) is a splendid reference book. It identifies over 1200 of them, many illustrated with maps, diagrams and/or illustrations of comportment buildings. Not surprisingly, a great many of these imaginary places are islands, many of the others exist far under the earth's crust, but some, like Fluxion, N.J., are tucked away on the mainland. Significantly, very few reveal an absurdist landscape comparable to the one Katchor creates in "Valise." One which may be is "Leonia", created by Italo Calvino for his 1972 novel "Le citta invisibili". And here is one that should please the author of "Valise." In "The Son of Tarzan" by Edgar Rice Burroughs (!915) there is an Arab village named Ben Khatour.