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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
The Cardboard Valise (Pantheon Graphic Novels)
Format: Hardcover|Change
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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.
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on March 20, 2011
The Cardboard Valise is an interesting book.

In most illustrated narratives, people are the motivating characters, but in this case, the valise AND Outer Canthus becomes the link between 3 different individuals.
Ben Katchor is not your average graphic novelist, his writing seems different, and his art is interesting, yet competent.

Emile Delilah, Boral Rince, and Elijah Salamis live in the same tenement, and along the same shores, the same derelict washrooms, hamburger stands and high rises. Each experiences something different, yet each experience is connected in some way.

It is difficult to describe WHY I like this book, perhaps it is the wistful way Katchor manages to represent life lessons in less than ordinary situations. Readers, who look straight on, will miss them, tilt your head to the left, and you will catch a waft of what he is trying to tell us.

Some books are good for one read only, while others reappear for frequent trips of discovery, just like a good valise.
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on September 26, 2013
This graphic novel/work of art is a very odd thing. Those who have reviewed this book as too obtuse or disorganized missed the point. And the point is strange and lovely. I picked this up at a library sale on a whim and felt like I fell down the rabbit hole. Read it.
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on October 27, 2013
...but the fabrication of the book is very poor. Made in China to my surprise, and the quality does not compare to previously published books by the same author.
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on November 17, 2012
I have to say I expected more from this book. I had read Katchor's three previous collections of Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer strips, Stories, Cheap Novelties, and The Beauty Supply District. I knew Katchor's work was not intrinsically funny, having read the strips before in a local free paper. But I knew they were...interesting.

I've been reading and re-reading those three books for years. I'm always charmed by the sweetness of the stories, of Mr. Knipl himself. A strip in Cheap Novelties where Knipl attends the funeral for a friend and is moved to tears on the street instead always makes me misty. Knipl is easy to identify with. The strangeness of other characters is always filtered through Knipl and his gentle observation of events.

There is no sweetness in The Cardboard Valise. There is storytelling of a sort. There are strange characters. Odd things occur to odd people. But there is no anchor. The main characters are not like Knipl. You can't identify with them. They either confuse or annoy, really. I found myself reading each strip, waiting for the hook, waiting for Katchor to lure me with nostalgia, but he never did.

If you must have everything by Katchor, it's worthwhile. But it's nowhere near as good as the Knipl collections.
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on July 14, 2011
I have read this book completely, and still have no idea what it's about. Strangely enough, I still thought it was pretty good. It seems that the author spends page after page presenting a series of ridiculous beliefs, actions, and products people buy. All made up, but in some vague way reminiscent of real things.

The weird thing is that by half way through the book, you sort of get pulled into this commercialized world. To the extent that you can't really tell anymore if the things he presents are more or less bizarre than the actual stupid touristy products we buy and the new age religions we follow.

It's not easy to write a review on a book I don't understand, but this thing grows on you. You come back to it though you had dismissed it earlier, and it cheers you up like good comedy, which you're not at all sure it is.
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on April 8, 2013
Ben Katchor is a master of the short form comics strip - 8 frames or so. His longer efforts are OK but his plots can be convoluted. This one leaps about and eventually kind of comes together but I miss Julius Kniple walking around with his camera making pithy observations. He has a newer book. Perhaps it is better in this regard.
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on October 20, 2011
To me this book is about people, about human life. It strips away conceits. Surrealistic in that it presents our basic human foibles without the pretense inherent in an examination that tries too hard to explain the unexplainable. There are no explanations here - only the illogical made to look perfectly normal. Just like life...

PS: the human anatomic references in the names are perfect.
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on January 25, 2013
A narrative that has stories falling in and out of each other. A brilliant alternative universe just a page thickness away from this one.
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on April 18, 2011
His strips are little stories of life and death import to his sad sack characters caught out of their element.
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