It looks bigger than it actually is, if that's physically possible. A 720-page tome that lands with an imposing, Tolstey-esque thud on any surface it might happen to be dropped upon, Dash Shaw's Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagraphics, June 2008, $29.95) is a serious brick of a thing, which may actually work against it. As Shaw notes on the title page (after identifying the work to follow as "not for children"), the book that follows is divided into three parts, and readers should "take breaks from reading between them." Given the propensity of the reading public to avoid most things this hefty that aren't the Bible, it might have made sense to split Shaw's work into three, less-imposing volumes. It's fortunate, though, that they didn't, because—Shaw's admonition to the contrary—no breaks are necessary or even desired while reading Bottomless Belly Button; he's right, though, that it's not for children.
While Shaw's novel gives off the first appearance of something culled from the darker fringes of the graphic novel universe, where magical realism and nonsensical happenstance are the rule of the day, its root story is a well-examined dissection of the family, in extremis; in other words, the bread and butter of American fiction. The Loony family (it's an admittedly weak joke, almost saved by its pointed obviousness) is a four-decade-old amalgamation of dissatisfied children and quietly seething parents, the latter of whom have just announced that they are getting a divorce. Shaw builds to the ramifications of this decision after laying out the family history and current situation in a series of flashbacks and diagrams, even including some helpful piecharts. It's a pointedly scientific beginning to what promises to be a disagreeable mess of a meltdown.
Arriving at the family's beachside house to deal with the ramifications of the divorce, the Loonys face their several grown children, none of whom seem to have any ability to function in the world they've long since decamped for. The oldest, Dennis, is a blowhard with a wife who seems on the verge of leaving. Claire is divorced herself, with a teenage daughter, sullen behind goggle-like glasses. The youngest sibling is Peter, a slacker pothead of a filmmaker who seems disengaged from most human activity, until he falls for a beautiful woman living further down the beach. (In one of the book's only nods to comic surreality, Peter is drawn as a human with a frog's face, the reason for which is only revealed in a couple of frames much later in the book.) In the finest tradition of dysfunctional family fiction, the Loony spends most of the book sniping at each other, coming to grips with their parents (whose blasé announcement and blank reactions to it only add fuel to the fire), and occasionally digging up long-buried secrets (the house has a secret compartment, always handy in these situations).
Shaw's story is bereft in many ways of forward momentum, instead hanging about in the fraught spaces between these people, so alike in their dissimilar miseries, and peeling back the layers of sadness and disappointment. While his art bears some resemblance to the bristly realism of Jeffery Brown, Shaw has a cleaner style, displaying the nonpicturesque realities of life (runny noses, hairy backs, flopping genitalia) while still looking outward to reveal some unfathomable beauties. It's an invigorating mix, one sure to win over at least a few fans from the non-comic-reading side of the aisle. Big, but not daunting, funny and sad without being either slapstick or tragic, Bottomless Belly Button is sensuous and grounded graphic fiction of the highest order.