Monday, November 21, 2011

White Rapids by Pascal Blanchet

White Rapids
by Pascal Blanchet (translated by Helge Dascher)
Drawn & Quarterly, 2007
156 pages

This was a somewhat random read for me. fishy has been bringing home various graphic novels from the library, and I knew nothing of this book before it appeared on the bedside table. Apparently, however, Pascal Blanchet is a rather famous graphic novelist in Quebec; this is, I believe, the first of his work to be translated into English. Because fishy and I read it so close together, and are reviewing it at nearly the same time, we're going to respond to the others' review, too -- fishy has his own blog over at Nominally Robotic, if you're curious to see what he thought (beyond what he's said below). We also tried not to contaminate the other's impressions prior to writing our own reviews, though we were only marginally successful. Since we're both home and spending a lot of time and brain energy looking after smallfry, one of the adult, intelligent conversations we tend to have is about whatever we're reading at the time.

I quite liked this book, overall. It's a very quick and easy read, and doesn't have much of a plot, exactly. It is more of a window on the real town of Rapide-Blanc, a town that was built by the Shawinigan Water and Power Company in the 1930s to house the workers needed to run an extremely remote hydroelectric dam, and their families. In the 1970s, when the dam was taken over by the Quebec public hydro utility and the dam automated, the town was shut down and the families forced to leave. White Rapids reflects on the construction of the town, life in it over the fifty years it was in existence, and the end.

What sticks out for me is the atmosphere of the book, and the depiction of the setting. The graphic work is very polished, deliberate, and absolutely gorgeous. It feels perfect for the era it is describing, right down to the faux-wood-panelled endpapers. The colouration is perfect, shades of orange plus white and black. The drawings of the buildings, particularly the dam, are absolutely stunning. I would describe a lot of the architectural drawings as elegant and very evocative. Blanchet is by far at his strongest when drawing the bold, static lines of man-made structures. His work with people is slightly less successful, but I think perhaps that's only because the setting is so very successful.

And unfortunately, I have to mention the font work. Which I hated. Every page has a different font, and I honestly can't imagine why. In some cases, the text is integrated right into the images, and while sometimes that made sense and worked well, at other times it didn't. Some of the fonts were nigh on impossible to read without squinting. I am sure there were reasons for the choice to do the fonts that way, but it was the only thing that really detracted from the enjoyment of the story for me.

White Rapids was charming and interesting, and I love the idea of it -- a peek into a time and place that no longer exists, without being overbearingly melancholy. Plus, I learned about a rather obscure piece of Canadian history, which is always a bonus. Font fiasco aside, this is a book well worth finding.

***

And now... husband-and-wife discussion time! fishy and I had a bit of a conversation via email regarding our reviews (his can be found here):

kiirstin: I like your thought of just having the book be about the views, as opposed to trying to stick in a plot and characters. I think maybe the views could have told the story, although to be fair I'm not sure the views alone would have done it -- the people are necessary to breathe narrative life into the tale. None of those buildings or structures existed in a vaccuum. The town was built to house the workers; you can't really have a book about the town of White Rapids without the workers.

fishy: Well, certainly you can have a book about the buildings of White Rapids, though. They have their own sort of narrative of place and style. The most human point in the whole piece for me was the moment with the empty bedroom which you can tell had been a child's room. It had atmosphere and history and narrative all in a single image.

There is no question if you took out the characters then you wouldn't know much about their lives and histories and personal stories, but... did you get any of that here? If you had just shown views of the hunting lodge and the porches and so on, then I think the reader would have substituted a more interesting reality than his explicit one. To be fair, there were a number of places where his depictions of humans was nice - the cocktail party would have been hard to do any other way, I think. Though there, as most places, the text could have gone.

kiirstin: I did love that image of the empty room; it was, for me, more memorable than pretty much any other image in the book. You're right, it had a perfect quality and told a whole story in just that panel.

The thing about taking the people away is that I'm not sure I would have bought the town as "lived-in" at that point. The empty room would have meant nothing if we didn't have a sense that there were humans behind it, that there had been someone who lived and loved in that room. I'm not sure that the previous scenery work had established enough to sell the sweet melancholy that the image otherwise provided.

The text is a different thing. Font aside, the text itself often didn't add much that couldn't have been done, and done more elegantly, with the images. I do wonder if something was lost in translation.

...

Drawn and Quarterly has published a book called The Native Trees of Canada which is just page after page of lovely painting of a single leaf. So perhaps plot is not necessary.

fishy: I don't think you need to discard the plot along with the humans. Chris Ware has frequently dedicated sections of story to just depicting place over time, or views of place in a narrative way, Seth has combined narration with objects to tell stories, I am sure many others have too. I think it would be hard in non-graphic fiction to tell a story with no human or anthropomorphized characters, but in graphic fiction you can tell fairly complex stories with images that don't contain the human form.

kiirstin: I can buy that, though not for this particular piece. I think that's why it felt imperfect: the place component was beautiful, but lacked (generally, not always) soul, and the people component was not quite up to the challenge of providing that soul.

...

Incidentally and a minor thing: I liked The General. Maybe because it was a cliched trope and I'm nothing if not forgiving of those, but I thought the fish added just the right touch where the human "characters" failed.

fishy: I could definitely enjoy a good story of man's struggle to catch the big one, right from Moby Dick on down. It was the ham-fisted symbolism of the fish that took me out of the story.

kiirstin: All right, I can concede that it was a bit heavy-handed. I still liked him. He probably wasn't necessary, and as you say in some cases may have detracted from the true story, but to me he added the soul that I felt was lacking elsewhere.

...

I wonder if we were trying to infuse this story with a gravitas Blanchet was never going for? I mean, the suspense at the beginning set a tone, but I wonder if the whole thing was meant to be more light-hearted than we took from it. Which may be a failing in the writing, but might also just be us.

fishy: It is possible, he did have a bunch of cartoony moments, right down to a couple of explicit Chuck Jones references. There is something very nice about a light comic romp with a nice sombre moment in the third act, and in some ways this does achieve that.

kiirstin: I think it might have achieved it better without the manufactured suspense at the beginning, but otherwise I think it succeeded in just that sort of lighthearted/bittersweet dichotomy.

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