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[The following contains spoilers.]

I never read graphic novels – there is enough on my plate already! – but I am making an exception for Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, which was given to me recently as a present. It is quick to read, I marvel stupidly, as I clatter through it. I will indeed finish it in a single sitting. This would normally confirm me in my view that if a real novel is a meal, a graphic one is only a drink. But the drama in Sabrina is so haunting that I am moved to place it on an uneasy parity with a regular novel. I could not imagine Sabrina working as a regular novel, but it functions as well as one in its current alternative form. It is the first graphic novel to be long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Drnaso lives in Chicago and his book was published earlier this year. It begins by recounting the circumstances in which the eponymous character goes missing from her neighbourhood in Illinois, before being disconcertingly deflected into a far lengthier sequence that is set mostly around a military base in Colorado. Calvin Wrobel, one of the personnel on the base, went to school with Sabrina’s boyfriend Teddy. He agrees to take Teddy into his condo home and keep an eye on him. It is soon apparent that Teddy is undergoing a devastating nervous breakdown. Calvin drifts helplessly around Teddy, passing daily between him and the military hive, whilst Teddy rots in the condo, lying about largely comatose in his underpants. When a video emerges online that purports to show Sabrina’s violent murder, none of the characters quite capsize in the crisis and each of them is eventually given a little push. They will all move on.

I was initially dubious about the tone and feel of this book. Drnaso’s artwork is so bare, and his story so suburban, that it is as if you have been fobbed off with a copy of the storyboard in place of a Todd Solondz film. As somebody who occasionally dabbles in drawing myself, I am always mindful of these scenes’ perspective, of how the lines of each room and corridor converge, and I often catch myself checking to see if every object in a room accurately lines up. There is no detail to the pictures and no shadows, other than in the most extreme lighting. There is surely something almost perverse to this aesthetic, to how Drnaso can suppress the artist’s default hankering for swirling fronds and writhing foliage to force down scenes of such remorseless plainness. With his characters’ pinhole-eyed stolidity, Drnaso sometimes appears to be trying to replicate the look of those illustrated cards in aeroplanes that show passengers reacting to an emergency.

Even so, you are increasingly sobered by the deftness and control within these compositions. Most of the story is observed from above head height, from where a watching CCTV camera would usually be, and this gives its characters a hunted appearance. There is a lot of dense silence in this book, so that you almost give a little jump whenever somebody speaks. The desolation of out-of-town housing units is reproduced with an arresting accuracy. You feel that you know condos such Calvin’s, and that you know it has been captured with exemplary faithfulness, even though you could not say from where you have in fact got this knowledge.

There is an unnerving joke, which swiftly suffocates as a joke, in which Teddy discovers something like a Where’s Wally? book in the condo and he pours over it, presumably scouring for his girlfriend. The pace of the narrative is quickened by other loose, wry incidents, such as the failed attempt by Sabrina’s sister Sandra to meditate or a midnight meeting between Calvin and one of his workmates within a computer game (the indifferent conversation that they exchange in the middle of a gun battle seems to cruelly caricature the listlessness at the military base).

I have fallen into describing this book, when I had set out to establish what it means. We, and the characters who we accompany, are always adrift at the margins. The pumping horror at the heart of this story – the execution video – is completely inaccessible to us. The story would lose all of its tension if this video was even glimpsed. Calvin encircles Teddy but cannot access him. Sandra is likewise estranged from Teddy, complaining (by phone) that “you’ve been gone for two months and we haven’t even heard from you.” Our own mean and undignified suspicions about whether Teddy is somehow implicated in his girlfriend’s death cannot fail to become synced with a growing frenzy of online paranoia, from a population of frustrated, anonymous, physically removed strangers. Like it or not, we are one of them.

Yet Teddy equally cannot access Calvin. He ends up lying superfluously in the bedroom of Calvin’s absent daughter, until his own name gradually comes to chime with the discarded toys and children’s books that are littered all around him. When Calvin and Teddy realise that they haven’t seen the condo’s cat for days, we can see that Teddy has assumed the animal’s place. Calvin explains, without the analogy occurring to him, that, “he hides sometimes. You know I keep weird hours. Most nights I come home and go straight to bed.” If Teddy went missing himself, as Sabrina has done, and as Calvin’s family has to some extent done as well, then would Calvin be at his core untroubled?

Calvin is the only character who we can reliably access and perhaps this illustrates that there is nothing really within him to get to. There need be no preventative barriers put up around his shallow, empty life at the installation. Or maybe Calvin has some subtle affinity with Sandra, who is left with nothing but grief for her sister. Calvin and Sandra are the only characters to be ever depicted in dazzling light and, consequently, they are the only people in the story to ever cast a shadow. It is as though they possess some shared human substance in a universe of inaccessible beings.

In a moment of inevitable weakness of character, Calvin watches the execution video and he thus, unlike Teddy, procures the last fragment of Sabrina. This is not to access her though and it proves worthless as a fragment. You can hardly understand what it means for a human being to be annihilated if you simply watch footage of their body getting broken. The video is no doubt the most real thing in Calvin’s world, whose muted palette is otherwise missing anything as bright or gleaming as splashed blood. But its reality is inaccessible even when directly confronted.

Sabrina is effectively another 9/11 in microcosm. We are given the distinct impression that everybody in the USA aside from Teddy and Sandra has watched the execution video, creating a vast but unspoken shared national experience. What is so original about Sabrina is the implication that this is not exactly barbaric. The general inability to process the meaning of Sabrina’s destruction has led to a compensatory coping response: the proliferation of innumerable conspiracy theories that she cannot be dead and that she must be still a hostage somewhere.

Teddy and Sandra cannot watch the execution video because it would simultaneously confirm the reality that Sabrina is gone and set running the possibility that she is not. Because they are in on the secret of who Sabrina actually was, both of these conclusions would be equally unbearable. Everyone else, however, for whom Sabrina is merely the image of an unknown woman, is free to happily fantasise away. Here, Drnaso gets his finger into the vitals of conspiracy theories. They are not really fighting for truth but irresponsibly rebelling against it. They do not want people to “wake up” but to dream. They are basically a painkiller. Conspiracy theories try to dumb down the world and render its complicated nightmare easier and more palatable. Drnaso’s sterile, simplifying drawings are ostensibly trying to achieve the same thing but fortunately they only manage to demonstrate that nothing in adulthood can be innocuous. It is impossible to disable reality.

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