Great Graphic Novels: From Inside, by John Bergin

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) — Mark

From Inside, by John Bergin

I am walking down a tunnel. No, it's the stairwell, the former stairwell. Its skeleton juts with unjoined charcoal ribs. I usually stay upstairs in the place where we used to lie next to each other and breathe.

Something important drew me down here. I remembered that sometime a message had come from Mark Frauenfelder, from Boing Boing. He wanted me to write about a graphic novel. The details elude me, the memory floats like a tiny grey cloud on the parched desert of my mind. I need a deluge. I have learned, though, to subsist on dew. There is no way to check email any more.

I push a pile of blackened books around with my burnt Docs, afraid to reach in with my hands. I don't remember when the fire happened. Maybe it is still happening.

The scorched tomes stir: Joel Peter Witkin's collection of Victorian death portraits, the title dissolved into the plasticky gloss of the book's cover. Marianne Wiggins' John Dollar, its spine worn off years ago. Jane Austen. Richard Kadrey. Colette. James Joyce. Edward Eager. Rumi. Susan Cooper. Lidia Yuknavitch. George Saunders.

George Saunders! I laugh, picturing the goats in Pastoralia and to laugh is such a good thing, I fish out the book with my hand. The book doesn't burn me. It simply disintegrates.

I resume kicking. Techgnosis. Skating Shoes. A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The midnight ephemeris of the 20th century. Twenty-three Lonely Planet guidebooks. Clown Girl. The Chicago Manual of Style. Touched with Fire. A little 'zine called Going Gaga. Four thesauri and the OED.

I reach the bottom of the pile in an hour.

I am ashamed. There are no graphic novels, only the dull white ruins of what must have once been the floor of our house. Did we really have a white floor? I cannot remember, exactly, what our home was like but I know these books followed me from apartment to apartment for decades, until I settled here. Until we settled here together. I and he.

My husband.

A temblor rustles through Southeast Portland. The floor groans and tilts, a gentle see-saw on a dusk-lit playground. The splintery floorboard remnants slide into a heap, where I see they are not floorboard remnants at all. I nudge them with my toe. They clatter in a particular way. Ah. Yes. I remember now. This room was full of people, laughing, hugging, wearing hats, drinking Champagne, singing a song about an old acquaintance we'd forgot. Now it is full of bones.

A book is entangled among them, its glossy paperback cover blistered. This time I put on my leather gloves before reaching in. The bones slide from its cover like the scales of a snake. From Inside, the cover reads, "John Bergin."

The pages unfurl beneath my fingers and I am turning, turning, turning the pages, swimming through images I have not seen in many years. The train, the lake, the floating dolls. The crow, the embryo, the mouse. The creepy nurse.

The baby. The girl's baby and the girl herself, the mounding of her belly, the depth of her fear. I didn't truly know that fear twenty years ago, reading the book for the first time. Now I know. It is one of the things I can still remember.

Wetness muddles the paper and I look up, my body aching toward the rain. But nothing is leaking through the hole in the roof above the collapsed second floor. It is dry and serene and oblivious to my thirst. I turn back to the book and lick the book's pages. Salt. A thin, salty trickle splashing down in slow, small drops. It seems so familiar — a substance I must have come across a lot, before the fire. I don't remember its name.

I don't remember when the fire happened. Maybe it has always been happening.