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Body World
by Dash Shaw
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Bey, 5/28/2014

All the best writing these days is in comic books.

Agreement with this statement is certainly a matter of taste, and probably generational. But regardless of how you look at it, the conclusion seems inescapable that the exciting rebellious energy that used to reside in the novel has, for a couple of decades, increasingly been packing up shop and moving to other media.

This would seem to be especially true in the case of the “drug novel”. Distinct from the deceptively similar sub-genre of “recovery” novels (so beloved by daytime talk show hosts), true Drug Fiction is fiction written by and for people who are interested in drugs and their effects, as opposed to morality plays about excess and repentance. Drug narratives are stories where the plot is, in large part, a function of the drug experiences of the characters––and where that plot is actually interesting. Readers appreciative of such treasures of drug literature as Naked Lunch, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, or A Scanner Darkly who ask themselves “But where are the new drug novels?” tend to be long-hardened to disappointment.

The fact is that conventional novels (drug-fiction or otherwise) are no longer vessels for the cultural charge they once contained. Novels, at least “literary” ones, don’t matter in the way they used to (neither does symphony music). Consequentially, less and less has been going on in that realm. In part, this is because the cultural, economic, and political stakes of writing novels have changed. In addition, read-only text is no longer most people’s preferred mode of engaging with fiction. Drug fiction is out there, but it has been migrating to new homes such as television (Breaking Bad, Weeds) or film (Limitless, Enter The Void).

Another place where it has gone is comic books.

BodyWorld, written and illustrated by Dash Shaw, is a remarkable graphic novel and one of the best works of drug fiction in recent years. The comic is set in a mildly dystopian sci-fi future. It’s 2060 and there’s been a second American civil war. The surviving large cities are polluted hives, but out in the “experimental” woodland town of Boney Borough things seem peaceful, if insipid. Peaceful that is until the arrival of protagonist Paul Panther, a hardboiled “outsider” ethno-botanist posing as a visiting professor at the local high school while investigating reports of a hitherto unknown plant with psychedelic properties.

Panther is a Bukowski-grade asshole limping between fits of deluded self-aggrandizement and half-hearted suicide attempts who remains alive for reasons that must surely baffle science, despite almost daily overdoses. He is working on updating the third edition of an encyclopedia of hallucinogenic North American plants (after the death of the original author), and has come to the town to check out a small grove of mysterious plants with reputedly psychedelic effects. While his first solo experiences smoking the plant prove disappointing, as Panther attempts to share the experience with others he discovers that the plant has the incredible and deeply unsettling ability to cause people who are on it to experience one another’s subjective physical and mental sensations.

Shaw is to be congratulated on the meticulous design and execution of his fictional drug experience. Neither random nor strictly uniform in its effects, the plant, when combusted and inhaled, produces discernible stages of intensity with a consistency that would show up in any collection of experience reports about a real substance. As its effects unfold, they culminate with complete trans-personalization where those affected are so flooded by the thoughts, memories, and sensations of the people around them that they begin to lose track of whose identity is whose. It’s a trip where a person can see others seeing him seeing them, and where other people’s memories can become part of his own.

One particularly impressive aspect of BodyWorld is Shaw’s ability to make the specific effects of the drug into one of the major organizing principles of the plot. Not only does every interaction occurring through the drug make sense, but the parameters of the trips themselves change as more and more characters either intentionally or inadvertently end up getting high. As more individuals make telepathic contact with others who have tried the drug (and who thus include other people’s memories among their own) the psychedelic effects and their consequences start spiraling dangerously out of control.
As with other fictional stories of body-mind switcheroos such as Being John Malkovitch, it’s an experience in which it’s possible to become dangerously lost. Additionally, since Panther is not the only party in town conducting experiments and gathering data, the story converges towards an almost loving homage to 1960’s era horror scenarios of a small town driven mad by inexplicable occurrences (such as LSD in the water supply, or any number of classic Twilight Zone scenarios).

Where BodyWorld is truly virtuosic is in its use of the unique expressive capabilities of the comic book medium to portray the psychedelic experience. Human cognition is (for most people) neither entirely linguistic nor entirely visual but a mixture of these and more. As such, comic books can represent thoughts, feelings, effects and sensations in ways that are impossible for purely text or purely visual forms of communication. Shaw makes brilliant use of this potential, especially in his use of such effects as superimposing panel images to illustrate the telepathic experiences of the characters––or in his use of inventive diagrams and labeling systems to bring meaning to his pictures.

As a final point, to be really amazing drug fiction, a novel (graphic or otherwise) must be both believably and interestingly about the drug experience, but also really amazing fiction. Amazing fiction tends to be driven by intensely human characters, and BodyWorld has its share. The novel is populated by individuals living in crippling emotional isolation, in a wounded future that looks a lot like our modern world. As fair warning, BodyWorld can be a heavy read. There isn’t a single character in the entire book whose personality isn’t wrapped like a trembling fist around some appalling fetish. Themes include drug abuse, sexuality, emotional turmoil, the agony of adolescence, adult states of morbidly arrested development, and the brutal limitations of lives defined by failure, loneliness, and desperation. In equal fairness it’s also extremely funny. It’s timing and wit are out of control, and the drug humor is both excellent and accurate. While BodyWorld is not a light read, it still somehow manages to be improbably uplifting.

Ultimately BodyWorld is a story about that most personal of human tragedies––that (as conventionally understood) we live inside our skulls, and can never truly visit other people where they live inside of theirs. Despite profound attempts to involve ourselves in other people, we are ultimately alone in our personal subjectivity. On the other hand, if there is any experience that puts this life-sentence of solitary confinement to the test, it’s certainly the psychedelic one. True telepathy, transpersonal contact with other souls, transmigrations of subjective perspective––all may well be possible when well and truly high. The story told in BodyWorld serves as reminder however, that as much as true contact with others is so often our deepest wish, the consequences of making contact can just as often be disastrous.

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