Edmund and Rosemary Go to Hell by Bruce Eric Kaplan

New Yorker readers need no introduction to Bruce Eric Kaplan, whose blocky comics (signed BEK) are among the highlights of most issues. He’s also written for Seinfeld and Six Feet Under, firmly establishing a reputation for off-kilter, slightly dark humor, with a keen eye for all that’s preposterous about contemporary life. It’s a little disconcerting, then, to read Edmund and Rosemary Go to Hell described in its promotional materials as “wise” and “oddly touching.” No one wants to see BEK turn into Lynn Johnston. Happily, the book’s wisdom is of a decidedly ambiguous sort, albeit one that urges us to look more closely at our tendency to indulge freely in snark, misanthropy, and casual bitterness.

Edmund and Rosemary live in Brooklyn, and it turns out that they don’t so much go to hell as realize that they are already in it. (Since a chief complaint is that “People all sit around in coffee shops, saying they’re writers,” presumably they live near Park Slope?) While they gesture to world events such as war and genocide, they are mostly reacting to the petty irritations of modern life: the rapid obsolescence of appliances, warehouse stores, multiplexes, and the preposterous rudeness of many cell-phone users — and, worse, their ability to remain oblivious to our irritation.

This section of Kaplan’s “picture book for adults” is perhaps the best, with lovely little details about a certain kind of self-satisfied middlebrow liberalism: When Rosemary sighs at the cell phone users, “Edmund sighed, too. He always had to sigh if someone else did.” Edmund and Rosemary’s reactions to contemporary culture — from multitasking teenagers to organic food — are neither reasoned nor simply emotional, but are rather unconscious prejudices formed by the casual exclusive consumption of, say, the Times, the New Yorker, and Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s advertisements. Any time either of them begins to remember something good, the other points out that it’s just a fraud — in fact, that it’s objectively evil. (For instance, organic foods.) The glee with which the two retreat from accepting the world to denouncing it rings true.

At first blush, Kaplan’s point seems to be that there’s something outlandish about the idea that some of the most privileged people on earth can convince themselves that they are in fact tormented souls. (In a slightly different ideological frame, Tom Tomorrow frequently makes this point about the sort of people who call in to conservative talk radio shows — the idea that middle-class white males somehow feel themselves oppressed is just mystifying.)

But it turns out that Edmund and Rosemary really are in hell. A government official not only confirms it, but also rigs a lottery in their favor to buy their silence. Not even USD$300 million can provide a meaningful life, however, so the couple begins a rigorous internet search for a way out.

Without giving away too much, it’s fair to say that the couple isn’t able to leave hell. There are a couple of different ways to take this. On the one hand — and this is where the “oddly touching” bit comes in, it is certainly possible to construe this failure as a celebration of their love for one another. Love makes even hell tolerable, I guess, or, perhaps, not even heaven can overcome true love.

I think, though, that there’s a darker way of reading this ending: What’s unsatisfactory about heaven is that it eliminates bitching. As Rosemary admits, “maybe it’s all perfect up there and we’re all self-contained pieces of energy that don’t need anything or anyone and there’s eternal peace, but I’m just not ready.” Kaplan’s insight into characters such as Edmund and Rosemary is that they have come to relish their contempt for the world: It’s a petty jouissance, perhaps, but reliable enough all the same.

What makes Kaplan’s work so appealing is his ability to navigate several points of view — on the one hand, cell phone users are really irritating, damn it, but, on the other, no one should feel inexpressibly relieved when they admit they hate Pop Art. I of course mean “points of view” somewhat literally: his frequent use of forced perspective on Edmund and Rosemary manages to convey simultaneously how broken they are by the world and their insistence on their own virtue.

Edmund and Rosemary Go to Hell is not beach reading: You’ll finish it too quickly! But it is funny, engaging reading, promising a diverting half-hour or so. (And it re-reads well, too: Kaplan’s visual style stays remarkably fresh.) The first time I read it, I thought that $11.95 was too much for a book that read so quickly. However, I’ve come around a bit: It’s basically the same as a movie, and, as Edmund and Rosemary point out, movies these days are “so unintelligent and incomprehensible and simply not fun,” whereas their story is smart and accessible and fun throughout.