Steven Harris’s new graphic novel, Eustace, manages to be both very English and engagingly Surreal. It is published by Jonathan Cape, an imprint of Random House, who have seemingly cornered the market in what might be termed, in a back-handed kind of way, ‘literary’ graphic novels. The two recent Costa award nominations, Dotter of her Father’s Eyes by Bryan and Mary Talbot (which went on to win the biography prize), and Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart, were both from the publisher’s stable. The imprint also acts as the British publisher for a legion of established North American and continental creators – Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Guy Delisle, Brecht Evens, Joe Sacco, and Chris Ware have all published their work through Jonathan Cape. Eustace itself is commendably ambitious: at once irreducibly English in its tone, characters, and setting but also thoroughly European in style and narrative.
Originally serialised online (published under the pen-name spimcoot), the comic has been reworked and revised into an extended, digressive but still coherent narrative. The eponymous character is a sickly eight-year-old boy confined to bed in an intimidatingly gloomy room; the background is a declining and decadent aristocracy; the setting is inter-war, both depressed and depressing. Eustace is often left with his own delirious daydreams and nightmares – his father distant and disinterested, his mother mentally fragile, and his affectionate older brother closeted and unpredictable. His days are filled with visits from an army of aunts who smother the young boy, a pair of bullying vulgar cousins, and an unsympathetic housekeeper who provides ash-flavoured soup.
Having established all of this, Eustace’s story takes an abrupt turn with the sudden appearance of his Uncle Lucian, wickedly ambiguous and on the run from creditors. Uncle Lucy hides in Eustace’s room and is rapidly followed by a swelling cast of prostitutes, madams, criminals, and other hangers-on. Eustace becomes the centre of a spontaneous, carnivalesque demi-monde that swirls around him in his bedroom, before a rather sudden conclusion.
Such paraphrasing really fails to do justice to the accumulative and affective enchantment that the book casts on the reader. Harris uses a delicate pencil style, at times reminiscent of Edward Gorey, to communicate a dreamlike, cloyingly nostalgic sense of time and place. Eustace himself is an androgynous, almost corpse-like presence, his features both childish and cadaverous. At times he is simply forgotten by both his parents and family servants. At one point he develops a heartrending friendship with Veronique, a prostitute barely older than him who shares his bed and who is herself used by the lecherous Uncle Lucy. There’s a light touch of caricature in the drawings of the characters, just enough to signify an atmosphere of grotesquerie, but not so much as to overpower the story or completely alienate the reader.
Surreal is an overused and somewhat debased adjective, often lazily invoked to suggest the mildly absurd or annoyingly bizarre. Historically the term is associated with an inter-war continental avant-garde who were devoted to the transformation of the everyday into the marvellous and spurred on by the apparent insights and self-mythologising language of Freud. Eustace adopts a woozy dreamlike logic that approximates Surrealism at its best. There’s a suitably Freudian subtext at work with the implied incest of Eustace’s mother and revered older brother, Frank, which is only gradually revealed but forces the reader to go back and re-evaluate what they have already read. Sex and disguise lie at the heart of Eustace, the boy himself mistaken for both an adult punter and an underage prostitute.
Panels in which rooms fill up with people also superficially recall Luis Buñuel’s classic film The Exterminating Angel, in which the guests at an haute bourgeois dinner party find themselves inexplicably unable to leave the host’s house. Here, though, Eustace’s room is over-populated by a cross-section of society from high to low, monitored by an increasingly paranoid Uncle Lucy. Harris makes good use of both individual panels and entire pages to suggest Eustace’s isolation, first in a largely empty room and then in a progressively overcrowded one.
The ripeness of the story conjures some evocative and perhaps obvious interpretations. Eustace can be seen as a metaphor of corrupted innocence engendered by an aristocracy in its death throes. But while such a reading inevitably proposes itself, it also spins away, unable to be tethered by the sheer visual and narrative suggestiveness on display. A reader could equally locate religious connotations within the story – shades perhaps of Dali and Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or. What are we to make of the uncle’s suitably Luciferean presence? Or Eustace’s nightmare of his brother crucified and mutilated on a battlefield? History makes itself felt by an offhand reference to Hitler, but otherwise the story retains the quality of an enticingly appealing bad dream.
As with all carnivals, the party has to end sometime, and Harris concocts an outrageously abrupt conclusion that will possibly leave some readers feeling short-changed. The fragmented, episodic structure – surely an echo of its online serialisation – only enhances the oneiric ambience. Harris has indicated that this is the first part of a projected trilogy, thereby, perhaps, removing some of the ambivalence of this ending. This shouldn’t detract from what is a shockingly good graphic novel, superior to the oddly insubstantial Costa nominations and one that deserves a wider audience. Whether Harris’ atypically English Surrealism manages to attract one is another matter.