PRINT May 1988


The Magician’s Wife

JEROME CHARYN'S FICTION, FOR those unfortunate enough not to have read it, ranges from tales of childhood in the Bronx to a thriller—in the esthetic as well as in the literary-genre sense—about a Jewish homicide detective soured by the tapeworm of unrequited love. Much of it comprises a personal view of the city in which Charyn was born and raised, and in which we remain strangers and tourists until we die. This is a speedy, lyrical fiction, brutal and romantic. When it hits, it’s like reading Lewis Carroll and Louis-Ferdinand Céline while riding a steeplechase, but you soon come to see that beside you, on a parallel track, is the stalking horse of Charyn’s fiction, the sad nag of the longings and memories of childhood. His stories are peopled by children young and old—imbeciles, idiot savants, wild women with the emotional disposition of a child of eight, grown men who have never left the precinct of eleven, stunted and wounded all. For Charyn, the mark of our common humanity is the scar of childhood that penetrates even our most adult masks.

It is no wonder that the themes most germane to Charyn’s fiction have found their way into The Magician’s Wife, his first bande dessinée, or “graphic novel,” as the form is being called in the US. Charyn’s interest in comics began even before he was a student at New York’s High School of Music and Art. For his and my generation, the comic strip was what TV may be to kids now, or perhaps an equivalent to the movies but in a magazine format at once hoardable and transportable and tradable. Hot, lurid, sexy (ah, Wonder Woman!), and dynamic, it was—and remains—a bit outside the pale of the adult world’s respect and approval. What could have been more appealing?

Perhaps it is the playful child still in Charyn that animated his wish to make an adult-world’s comic book. But the desire of the mature writer to have his or her words stretch beyond the graphemic codes of the printed page into images approximating the dreamlike processes of the imagination is not new to contemporary times. Authors from Oscar Wilde and Henry James to Saul Bellow have sought to realize their visions in works for the stage, with varying degrees of success; Alain Robbe-Grillet, Susan Sontag, and Norman Mailer have scripted and directed their own films. The costs and the complexities of both stage and film production make it difficult for a writer to make the transition into these forms, but an expedient option, and one that allows the writer a measure of control over the result, is the graphic novel. Still, to exercise that option Charyn had to go to France, where he developed his original story into a scenario in collaboration with the young bande dessinée artist Francois Boucq. The result is a book more engaging than 96 percent of the fiction published in France or North America today.

The graphic novel’s status as a nether art remains current in America despite its extraordinary reception among a broad range of readers in Europe, and, more important, despite abundant evidence of its capacity for sophisticated narrative, intelligent characterization, and emotional and intellectual power. Witness the superb work of Tanino Liberatore and Stefano Tamburini, Enki Bilal, Daniel and Alex Varenne, and Charyn and Boucq in The Magician’s Wife. The book might well have been called “The Magician’s Wives,” for it is in part the story of two women, an unnamed mother and her daughter, Rita, who love the same man—the perverse magician Edmund. Rita is still a child when her widowed mother begins her affair with the magician, who courts for future use the daughter as well—if presenting her with a snake and the ghost of her dead father count as enticements to love. But Edmund’s lovemaking, even with an adult, as we and the shocked young Rita have the occasion to witness, has all the charm of a snake coiled for the strike. Nevertheless, the affair between the magician and Rita’s mother blooms into a working partnership—or, for the women, into something like psychological enslavement.

The trio tour the world and the magic act becomes internationally renowned. Over the years, Rita’s role in the act becomes more prominent as she grows older and more beautiful, becomes, as it were, the young version of her worn mother, whom she involuntarily supplants in the magician’s arc of desire. (One of the many arresting elements of the story is the inexplicable but somehow appropriate idea that the magician stay fixed in age while all others grow older, as if the power of his selfishness and the strength of his libido kept him forever young.) Rita eventually becomes Edmund’s wife and her mother her aide de camp, her maid, in short, to be as brutal as this brutal episode itself. To say this, however, is to make judgments where Charyn makes none.

The story is told dramatistically, objectively, and suggests a moral tangle worthy of Henry James’ Golden Bowl: villains have their cause when instinct rules, and even the noble-minded glimpse their souls scummed up by passion. Rita, for example, is not merely the victim of a Svengali-like seducer but a free agent caught in the addiction of audience adulation. Where she was once a dreamy waif, she is now a star.

The remainder of the narrative encompasses a scope of major and minor characters, years, and places, giving the book a complexity and density beyond the apparent limits of its physical container, its tight 88 pages. In keeping with some of Charyn’s other fiction, The Magician’s Wife is also a mystery thriller, and features a dandified (French) detective along with a cast of creepy thugs who maraud Manhattan’s Central Park. But the story line is constantly broken by excursions into unreality and the imaginary, so that the pictures work as much as indicators of states of mind as to further the plot. One recurring visual thread is the appearance of a group of 18th-century revelers in a danse masquée; these incursions of the past into the present, especially given the fantastic, carnival associations of these partyers in mask, transport us away from the dark shine of the contemporary narrative, only later to reinstate and ensure its mystery and luster. And always at the center of the story are Rita and Edmund, and the very weird nexus of love that binds the two beyond any call of goodness or warmth or affection. Its power, nonetheless, is great enough that neither Rita nor the magician can survive without it, each becoming broken without the other.

Charyn’s original scenario and Boucq’s drawings combine in a marvelous fusion of image and story. Where Charyn’s prose is synthetic and direct—a few lines of dialogue, and each character is present and clear—Boucq’s drawing is wispy and cagey, his frames subtle and nuanced. His best strength lies in his editing, which has a smooth, effortless feel and an uncanny psychological heft. In just four frames, as an example, he convincingly follows Rita from marriage ceremony to wedding kiss to icy self-disgust to fending Edmund off on their nuptial bed. The action could be hottest in the last of these images, but Boucq shows it in a medium-long view, deemphasizing and distancing and cooling down the obvious struggle. He rarely invokes the rhetoric of the Big Picture, the image that zooms at you for immediate drama.

It is a telling index of the effectiveness of the Charyn-Boucq collaboration that the visual artist’s component of the book is considerably more than an illustrative, frame-by-frame enactment of the story line. A running theme in the dialogue, for example, is the recurring reference to animals: human qualities and behavior are continually described in animal terms. Edmund may threaten to turn Rita into a pony, or may use words like “duck” and “rabbit” as terms of endearment. A caption describes Rita as a “stage ‘animal’ ”; part of the story concerns her second nature as a wolf. Correspondingly, in visual terms, it is part of the unexplained mystery, the fantasy of this graphic novel that a bestiary of animals large and small visits or lurks in the living terrain of the action, as if the characters’ words summoned it up from a zoo of the unconscious. An association between Edmund and snakes is established early in the story, and snakelike images cut through the narrative as Edmund’s motif: in the coils of electrical wire, for instance, at the base of the stage where the trio perform, or in the vines entwining branches and benches in Central Park, where Rita walks dreamily brooding on her lost husband. And horses, bears, seals, rabbits, tortoises, and other creatures populate the pictures as Rita’s audience of familiars, only ambiguously figures of her imagination, now more and now less real, now comforting and now indifferent.

The more genial presences of the merrymaking band of 18th-century phantoms also punctuate the narrative—indeed, the book closes with an enigmatic farewell scene of animals and these ghosts, a scene, some have remarked, taken from a painting by Tiepolo. Are these the imaginings of Rita’s lonely childhood come to live beside her as liberating guides, signifying her reconciliation with her past? Or are Edmund and Rita here slipping away from all contact with reality? However you construe it, Charyn and Boucq have given a new complexity and emotional richness to a genre that continues to hold them, as it now does us, in its graphic power.

Frederic Tuten is a writer who lives in New York, where he is the director of the graduate program in literature and creative writing at the City College of New York. His novel Tallien: A Brief Romance will be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.