Daniel Quinn is in love with impossibilities. He loves trying to create complicated tales that not only demand a narrative juggling act, but that also demand that the reader stretch his or her own limits to absorb information. He loves the fact that these impossibilities have worked in his favor, to the point that Ishmael became an instant literary classic and earned him the impossibly large Turner Tomorrow Fellowship award for literature, the largest literary award on the planet. And he loves the fact that no one wants to publish his stories until he convinces someone to take a huge risk on the impossible.
These are all things we learn in Quinn’s introduction to his latest work, The Man Who Grew Young. If it sounds like a conceit, it’s one that he’s earned the right to maintain. Ishmael propelled him into the national literary consciousness, and the notoriety surrounding the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship only added to the mystique of Quinn himself. Fans are devoted to his works. Critics usually fall into a love-him/hate-him division of camps. And his books sell, which is enough in this day and age to earn attention.
The Man Who Grew Young is Quinn’s second book of 2001. Earlier this year he published After Dachau, which was hailed as a return to the surreal cutting edge that had made Ishmael and its sequel My Ishmael such successes. The Man Who Grew Young and After Dachau are completely different creatures, yet the former is, in keeping with Quinn’s modus operandi, just as concerned with impossibilities. TMWGY began as an impossible book idea, which evolved into an impossible screenplay for an impossible-to-make movie (a question of which we’ll return to later), and in its current form attempts to do something that is not often possible for literary authors: break itself open in the usually impossible-to-sell form of the graphic novel.
So what’s so impossible about The Man Who Grew Young? Well, to begin with it involves an extremely intricate plot device. The book attempts to ask a question also posed by theoretical physicists, namely that if the universe expands and contracts like a yo-yo, what effect does that have on time and its relationship to humanity? Quinn answers that question with a decidedly unique twist by claiming that we would all wind up living our lives in reverse. It’s an excellent premise for a science fiction-inflected story, simultaneously as pulpy as early SF while also being well-thought-out and -conceived. Imagine it—instead of being born, we are raised from our places in the earth in ceremonies like a funeral in reverse and emerge in the age and state that we died in normal forward time. Slowly we grow stronger in hospital beds and continue to shed years as we grow younger and younger, until the ultimate moment when we are reunited with our mother’s wombs. Now complicate these matters a bit. Imagine further that we don’t have any recollection of living in a birth-to-death timeline, that what you and I perceive as backwards is the only conceivable reality and is seen as forward. We don’t know how people wound up in the ground or cremated, but with some unquestioned sense, we know where to find bodies to raise them up and into life. We celebrate the dissolution of marriages as a releasing into freedom. We shed knowledge and skills as we grow younger because in our “advanced” age as children, they’re simply no longer important.
But the plot is contrived even further. At the center of The Man Who Grew Young is Adam Taylor. He opens the story with the raising of his wife and introduces us to his world of time reversal. But as we quickly learn, unlike all the other people around him, Adam doesn’t seem to be getting any younger. As his son, then his wife, then his parents proceed to the point of reuniting with the womb, Adam is caught somehow out of time. The one steadfast certainty in this “new” world is that we all have mothers and will all find them in the end, regardless of circumstances that may have separated us from them. Unfortunately, Adam not only doesn’t know anything about his mother, but he doesn’t even age, forward or backward. So, after suffering heartbreak and the fear of those who know of his agelessness, Adam embarks on a journey through time, forward to what is paradoxically the beginning of it all, in search of his own origins.
This would surely have been a difficult book to write and probably even more confusing to read in straight prose. Quinn realized that a visual medium would have an even greater impact on his audience, so he considered telling this tale in a movie, but even that seemed impossible. The only recent movie that has tackled something this difficult with precision is the excellent film Memento, which had audiences buzzing all summer. Perhaps after seeing that movie Quinn would have changed his mind about the impossibility of putting The Man Who Grew Young onto celluloid, but in any event he’d already opted for the much-ballyhooed form of the graphic novel.
Being a graphic novel presents TMWGY with as many problems as it solves, however. First of all, there’s the nature of the medium itself. Not often regarded as worthy of true literature, graphic novels have their fair share of detractors. Convincing literary audiences that a graphic novel is as important as a book seems to be another of the challenges of defeating impossibles that Quinn so enjoys. Add to that the fact that graphic novels have a complex history that is continually expanding. Most often they’re collections of a number of traditional comic books into one volume, but there are also graphic novels that are created specifically for the form itself and these have a tendency to push the creative limits of comic artistry to new and interesting heights. But another, perhaps unforeseen, obstacle presented by the graphic-novel format to show reverse linearity is that pictures here are static. Each panel might show a change through sequences, but the action itself is frozen and the impact of what occurs must be explained through words. Furthermore, these words must be abbreviated to a minimum of narration for space constraints. Which leads us to the last concern, the fact that an author like Quinn must now leave his vision in the hands of the artist in order to convey his meaning.
Working backwards through these issues, the last shall be the first, which means turning the lens on TMWGY‘s artist, Tim Eldred. Eldred is a celebrated artist in his own right, who won an Emmy for his work on the animated PBS series Dragon Tales, but is in many respects a comic book artist of the most generic type. Eldred draws in a classic comic style, one that is stylized and flat despite the use of bright and lurid coloring. While his pictures convey the essence of a scene, the artistry is simply par for the comic course until the end of the book where, in some truly breathtaking panels, Eldred illustrates a crucial scene at the site of the famous Lascaux cave paintings (as can be seen on the cover of the graphic novel’s paperback edition) that throw the rest of the book’s art in an even worse light by comparison. Which leads us to the next issue. As a graphic novel among graphic novels, TMWGY is remarkable solely for its concept. Not only is it ultra-traditional in terms of art, but the panel-to-panel sequence is rarely approached in any way different than the run-of-the-mill Prince Valiant serial. Hal Foster is old school, and a legend, but he’s been outclassed over the years by innovation, innovation which makes TMWGY seem like a throwback.
Then there’s the nature of comic-strip and graphic-novel interpretations of texts. Because the images are static and the narration minimal, a lot of the impact is necessarily left up to the reader to develop, which then leads to inconsistencies. Certain aspects of Quinn’s book work the way we’d think they should while others don’t, usually with no explanation. People in Adam Taylor’s world think they’re living forward and they don’t walk backwards or talk backwards, yet factories are pulling pollutants out of the sky, we’re putting fossil fuels back into the ground, and photographs are undeveloped and their captured moments reabsorbed by the camera’s flash into nothingness. It creates a level of uncertainty for the reader that makes events hard to understand. How can lovers be seen putting their clothes back on after sex and not going through the throes of foreplay that they most likely went through in forward time? Because of these seeming inconsistencies and a general blandness to the art, how are audiences supposed to accept a graphic novel as an important addition to a writer’s bibliography? It seems entirely more likely that readers will come away wishing that Quinn had simply plugged away for a bit longer and achieved the impossible in a pure text form, his real strength.
This could have been a movie. While TMWGY even more convoluted than Memento, discerning audiences like a challenge. The most difficult hurdle to overcome would have been the scope of the film, for while Memento takes place over a few days within its hour and a half, The Man Who Grew Young takes place over the course of human history on Earth. Maybe a made-for-TV, four-night-special-event then? Nah. The fact is that Quinn took a risk with one of his brilliant ideas and stumbled. TMWGY would have been a hard book to write, and to read, but one that probably would have been entirely enjoyable. In the end, this concept should have been spelled out in long sentences and intricate detail, with exposition filling in the chunks that the action leaves unanswered. As a graphic novel, TMWGY is certainly not a failure—it still has a real charm, compels the reader as well as a novel, and is full of great ideas—but there is general sense of incompleteness, like only hearing the beginning and punchline of a joke but completely missing the middle. For Quinn fans, this book will certainly be a hot item and will probably inspire its own debate and adulation. But as a fan of graphic novels, complex science fiction, surreal plots, and intelligent literature, I can only say that The Man Who Grew Young is ultimately two-dimensional.