As a writer, it’s hard not to revel in Tom Gauld’s “Revenge of the Librarians.” So many of his comic strips, which have appeared since 2005 on a weekly basis in The Guardian, are concerned with matters literary and the writing life. In fact, his latest compilation takes readers on a funny dive into what could be described as those silence-loving caretakers of society’s great book collections that are the winking focus of this volume.
And its pages are sure to delight even the most serious bibliophile. One strip, for example, “The Writer at Work,” shows a thought bubble of the landscape upon which slowly emerges the word “great,” then the words “great idea,” (has he solved world peace?) then the words, “great idea for … lunch.” So it goes. Such a fall, these great aspirations of intellectual achievement when the undeniable lure of things gastronomic call. Most of this collection of Gauld’s work over the years offers the same winking cleverness, a reflection on the absurd and the disappointing in our lives as lovers of art and literary practice, that our greatest aspirations must also fall prey to the foibles of simply being human.
It rightfully pokes fun at our current obsessions, including the occasional punchline about “Game of Thrones” or “His Dark Materials.” Or, for instance, there’s the strip on “Halloween Costumes for Pretentious Children,” which includes the one dressed as the bloody ax from Dostoevsky‘s “Crime and Punishment,” the cholera epidemic from Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice,” the dead tree that gives no shelter from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and a costume fashioned from the trauma of the first World War that lingers throughout Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.”
But what Gauld does well is avoid wearing down the subject into just another lifestyle calling-card typology, bringing his humorous and often lighthearted perspective into the lived daily experience of the writer and the literati, their fears and failures. Nothing quite hits home as much as when, in one strip, a man’s wife reads a letter wherein his newest work is described as “a ghastly, malformed monstrosity, shambling dismally from the shadows, jabbering horribly in a chaotic, unearthly tongue.” “Spooky!” the wife asks, “But I thought you were writing a romance novel?” to which the husband replies, “I am. That’s the editor’s opinion of the new draft.”
Ouch! Deep, dark and all hilarious, smart, and threading clever, sanguine narratives of writer’s travails, offering an unavoidable appeal to those of us who’ve signed up for the drudgery and tiny, word-arranging joys of the writing life. The transformation of these universals into the stuff of everyday amusement is no small feat of Gauld’s expansive talent, drawn in a style at once simple but pointedly effective. Populating his comic strip’s multiple shapes and sizes are elegantly poised stick figures, bobble-head-style characters, all acting out the eternal returns of literary tropes and narrative structures, all neatly and happily fit into a soft color palette throughout, his visual style situated somewhere between Dilbert’s Scott Adams and a varietal of pared-down Milt Gross.
It’s also a beautifully crafted book as an art object in its own right, with its foiled embossed hardcover and, as an added touch, a mock library sleeve and card on the inside, making it all well worth the modest asking price. Delightfully recommended.
“Revenge of the Librarians”
By Tom Gauld
Drawn and Quarterly, 180 pages