Empathy Is a Mirror in ‘Stardust Nation’

"Memories arrive instead. Uninvited, they crash through the sky."

Stardust Nation offers readers a story of a journey to self-awareness as an alcoholic learns to identify his problems through the empathy of his employee. The book doesn’t flow with the narrative simplicity presented in the publisher’s summary. The story begins with the abrupt transitions and blunt metaphors reminiscent of a student art film, but as it progresses, these structural attributes morph into an exploration of thought, consciousness, and empathy for a faceless public.

Deborah Levy and Andrzej Klimowski deconstruct the minds of Tom, an alcoholic boss at an advertising agency, and Nick, an employee who has no choice but to feel empathy so powerful that others’ lives become the narrative of his psychosis. While the choice of profession is central to the characters’ awareness, readers don’t confront the advertising machine or a general skepticism of consumer influence. Instead, it utilizes the careers as a way to demonstrate the fluidity of identity and perception.

Structure is consciously disrupted in ways that break the traditional sequential art model and replace it with the disconnected scenes of arthouse cinema. Following in the footsteps of the surrealists, Levy and Klimowski utilize a Lacanian/Freudian symbolism to link characters’ minds and actions to their place in society. This reviewer would argue that most of the book seems like a collaboration between the Spanish surrealists and the French new wave auteurs as formal, realistic settings get juxtaposed with fetish symbols and fanciful illustrations of consciousness.

At times a reader may feel they are viewing a cinematic storyboard only to have the experience become organic as it spins connotations from the reader’s own experience. One such scene is a full-page panel showing red lips across a blue sky with the foreground a formal park landscape and the background a city under construction. “Memories arrive instead. Uninvited, they crash through the sky.” The text becomes a catalyst to draw the readers’ memories to give the scene meaning. For me, the lips evoked sitting by the Stravinsky Fountain outside the Centre Pompidou in Paris in a quiet moment of self-reflection. The narrative, on the other hand, describes a forced moment of memory that occurs at a bus stop where people wait agitated at the interruption of their daily lives. This rhetorical dissonance produced by the symbols consistently maintains a focus on the internal condition of the characters without allowing the readers to broadly interpret the text with their own analysis.

Indeed, memory creates dissonance for the characters. Nick has grown up in a working class, urban home with a life that doesn’t offer him many conflicts but also nothing exceptional every happens. He replaces the mundane with an identity-disrupting empathy for people experiencing physical and emotional elements close to him. This explains why he takes on the problems and history of his boss. Tom had everything Nick lacked. Tom’s father was abusive, so his mother hired a tutor to help shield her son from the abuse. Tom had a meadow from which he could escape his home life. Like a good advertiser, Nick takes on Tom’s story and frames his perception through a higher social class.

Tom’s story follows the surrealist trope of combining abuse with a sexual/maternal intervention that leads to a fetish object absorbing his unrequited desire. In his case, he has transferred his reward into a glass of vodka. His alcoholism seems to have taken the place of the protection and reward his tutor brought to his life. As Nick tries to “remember” Tom’s experiences, Tom gets drawn into his incomplete memories. As he does, he begins to perceive his own sickness through Tom’s empathy, playing on the concept of a Lacanian mirror as an embodied other.


The art offers a blend of sketch style figures and expressionistic background and shading tendencies. Colors are reserved and purposeful in shaping the tone of the scenes while emphasizing the emotional state of the characters. Dream world elements blend seamlessly in the scenes, creating punctuating moments for the visual rhetoric. The book offers a cohesive whole, melding the visuals with the text in a way that lifts both to produce a focus that transcends the common expectations of sequential art.

While a quick read, this is not a text a reader should expect to divulge all of its secrets in a shallow reading. Purposely confused perspectives layered on the psychoanalytic symbolism disrupts and redirects the flow of the story, achieving multiple threads of consciousness that have the potential to engage the reader in a complicity of identity politics within a broader cultural spectrum.

Stardust Nation offers readers an interpretation of contemporary culture’s rhizomic consciousness where others’ stories get confused in our identities. It’s a world where individuals take on and live narratives of pain, pleasure, nourishment, and fear. Readers confront the confusion of people who can only identify themselves as others.