Is Dylan Horrocks' Hicksville the Great New Zealand Novel?
That sounds like a facetious question, but it isn't meant as one.
This 'Great [...] Novel' idea stems, of course, from all the palaver about the 'Great American Novel.' Is there such a thing? Certainly there have been many attempts to write it, and many somewhat premature advertisements for its appearance: The Great Gatsby, Of Time and the River, Gravity's Rainbow - show me a great American writer, and I'll show you their entry for the elusive prize.
The problem, of course, is that the actual Great American Novel was written long before the idea gained currency. Or one of them had been, at any rate. Personally, I would argue that there are two. The term came (according to Wikipedia) from an 1868 essay by Civil War novelist John William De Forest.
Herman Melville: Moby-Dick (1851)
Candidate 1 has to be Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851). Among all the 19 claimants listed on Wikipedia, only this one has the necessary critical heft to have survived all the winds of fashion and the warring schools of interpretation to sail on majestically into the sunset.
It's an impenetrable, Mandarin text, written by an Easterner - a New Yorker, in fact - which is also a great adventure story spanning the world - not to mention all the depths and shallows of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It embodies paradox - is readable and unreadable at the same time - combines libraries of quotations with poignant accounts of the simplest human interactions.
Many people don't get the point of the first, most famous sentence of the story: "Call me Ishmael." This doesn't meant that the narrator's name actually is 'Ishmael', or even that he's adopted that as a useful nom-de-plume (like 'Mark Twain' for Samuel Clemens, for instance). It means that he is a wanderer upon the Earth, like Ishmael the eldest son of Abraham - in contrast to Isaac, Abraham's younger (but legitimate) son by his wife Sarah, the patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel.
To a contemporary, 1850s, Bible-soaked reader this would have been so obvious that Melville doesn't even trouble to explain it. We are forced to refer to the narrator as 'Ishmael' for convenience's sake, but it's a description of character, not (strictly) a piece of nomenclature.
You see what I mean? Moby-Dick invites such speculations simply because of the oddball way in which it was written. Leslie Fiedler could cause a furore in the 1960s simply by suggesting that Queequeg and 'Ishmael' really are making love in the first chapter of the books - rather than simply lying together chastely like chums. And once you've thought that unthinkable thought, it opens up a whole serious of new perspectives on the novel (cf. Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel).
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn (1884)
The real problem arises from the almost equal and opposite claims of Mark Twain's masterpiece Huckleberry Finn, which has to be Candidate 2.
Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes - I knew them all and all the rest of our sages, poets, seers, critics, humorists; they were like one another and like other literary men; but Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of our literature.So intoned William Dean Howells at the end of his long elegiac volume My Mark Twain (1910). Ernest Hemingway put it more simply (and quotably), in The Green Hills of Africa (1935):
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.The book grows and grows in its implications - with all its admitted faults - on repeated rereadings. It's hard to imagine any book so embodying the spirit of a country, or (at any rate) the spirit of both the old South and the advancing frontier.
If that isn't the Great American Novel, what is? 'There's been nothing as good since,' is the simple truth, for all the greatness of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway himself, Toni Morrison, and all the other great novelists who have flourished on those 'dark fields of the Republic,' that shopsoiled 'green breast of the New World' (to quote The Great Gatsby).
It comes down to one of those classic oppositions: Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? Schiller or Goethe? Wordsworth or Coleridge? One would like to answer all of them with the formula: "Both - and ..." - yet it must be admitted that a sneaking preference always creeps in.
There's always one of the two whom your hand brings down more enthusiastically from the bookshelf. Sometimes it's a simple classical / romantic face-off (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, for instance) - but such is the complexity of each of their bodies of work, that it never resolves entirely to that.
Jane Austen / Charlotte Brontë would be another, I suppose - or Lady Murasaki / Sei Shōnagon. After a while they dissolve into triads, then groups, then just the whole spectrum of colours and shades of expression ...
Mark Twain and/or Herman Melville, then, is the best I can do for that elusive entity (or should I say chimera?), the author of the Great American Novel. It's a pretty magnificent choice to be confronted by, however!
Dylan Horrocks: Hicksville (1998)
Once before I've asked this question about the Great New Zealand novel. My answer then was a bit facetious, much though I admire the intricacies of Chris Kraus's I Love Dick (1997).
Hicksville, to me, seems to present far more solid claims. In his original article, William DeForest defined the Great American novel as "the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence." He went on to say:
"Is it time?" the benighted people in the earthen jars or commonplace life are asking. And with no intention of being disagreeable, but rather with sympathetic sorrow, we answer, "Wait." At least we fear that such ought to be our answer. This task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted, and has never been accomplished further than very partially — in the production of a few outlines.
Art Spiegelman: Maus (1980-1991)
I'm sure that Dylan Horrocks had no such lofty intentions when he set out to create Hicksville. From what I gather, it came together from bits and pieces, written and drawn at various times, very much in the mode of his great contemporary Art Spiegelman's Maus, which first appeared, piecemeal, chapter by chapter, in Raw (1980-1991), the comics magazine he co-founded with his wife Françoise Mouly.
The first volume of Maus, 'My Father Bleeds History,' appeared in book-form in 1986, the year of the great graphic novel explosion. It was one of the three groundbreaking works which appeared during 1986-87 to confound dismissive critics (as chronicled in Douglas Wolk's 2007 book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean).
Frank Miller: The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
They were (in no particular order), Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore's Watchmen.
Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons: Watchmen (1986)
I suppose if you live in a cave you might have avoided encountering any of these classic works. The film of Watchmen (in its various versions) is more illustrator Dave Gibbons' gig than Alan Moore's - it left out one of the graphic novel's crucial subplots - although an animated version of this, a pirate story, was released separately. It's a critique of superhero comics (as Don Quixote is a critique of novels of chivalry), but that's only one of the many things it does.
The Dark Knight Returns is only loosely connected - more on a thematic than a plot level - with Christopher Nolan's 'Batman' film trilogy, though it's hard to imagine the latter existing without the former. It's the most conventional of the three, though Frank Miller's subsequent projects 300 and Sin City show that he, too, is a creative force to be reckoned with.
Dylan Horrocks, ed.: Pickle (1993-1997)
The second volume of Spiegelman's Maus, 'And Here My Troubles Began,' appeared in 1991. Dylan Horrock's Hicksville began to be serialised in the second volume of his magazine Pickle, devoted to 'the finest in New Zealand comics', in 1993.
When I met Dylan Horrocks at the 2018 Manawatu Writers' Festival, he told me that in many ways he still considered that the best way to read the novel: in its original serialised form, surrounded by other comics, and all the other contextualising bits and pieces by him and other artists which had to be edited out in book form.
I tried to explain to him something of what Hicksville had meant to me when I first read it in the late 1990s (I was late to Pickle, unfortunately, though I certainly followed his Milo's Week strip comic which ran in the NZ Listener between 1995 and 1997).
Hicksville was an achievement of another order, however. And - much though I enjoyed its follow-up, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen (2014), it couldn't really be said to have quite the same heft. But then, the same could easily be said of Twain and Melville's follow-up books: respectively, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), and Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852)).
Dylan Horrocks: Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen (2014)
So what did speak to me so powerfully in Hicksville? First of all, it was a piece of identity literature: intimately bound up with the problem of what it is to be a Pākehā New Zealander - stuck in what seems to be the wrong hemisphere, with the wrong cultural conditioning, and yet with an increasingly powerful sense of place and identity.
The strip comic with Captain Cook, Charles Heaphy and Hone Heke included at various points in the narrative gives a perfect metaphor for this sense of cultural drift - not quite knowing where you are, but engaged - consciously or unconsciously - in learning how not to worry too much about the fact.
There are nice vignettes of exile, too: strip comics drawn on the kitchen table in a London flat, side-trips to Eastern European countries to pick up on their own complex comics traditions - not to mention Sam's phantasmagorical journey to Hollywood to see the world of his alter-ego / nemesis Dick Burger close-up ...
Above all, Hicksville is a comic obsessed with comics. Everyone in the imaginary town of Hicksville, set on the tip of East Cape, reads comics all the time, and is intimately knowledgeable of their strange, compromised history: caught between the devil of commercialism and the deep sea of unfettered artistic experimentation.
And then there's that Name of the Rose-like secret library of manuscript and limited edition comics, including the greatest works of the greatest creators, the ones that they longed to write, but somehow never managed to, stored in the old lighthouse on the point, watched over by the enigmatic Kupe.
Dylan Horrocks: Hicksville (1998 / 2010)
Into this situation comes Leonard Batts, an American comics journalist, author of a biography of Jack Kirby, who is investigating the latest comics sensation, Dick Burger, by paying a visit to his mysterious Antipodean hometown. (I don't know if the resemblance between his name and that of Leonard Bast, the hapless victim of class snobbery in E. M. Forster's Howards End (1910), is intentional or not, but given the general level of erudition in Dylan Horrocks' work, it wouldn't surprise me at all ...)
Dylan Horrocks: Hicksville (1998)
There's a lovely sense of recognition when the comic reenacts a classic scene from John O'Shea's pioneering NZ film Runaway (1964) to herald Batts's arrival in town. Things only come into existence the moment they're written about - or filmed, or drawn - in this novel, and such imaginative acts appear to be stored forever in some kind of Akashic tablets of the soul. That, at any rate, is how I read the book's overall message.
Is it strictly a work of speculative fiction, could one say? That's harder for me to answer. Certainly the fact that it's set in an impossible place - a town in a parallel universe (not unlike the one in Moore's Watchmen, where Nixon gets perpetually re-elected, and pirate comics have the place superheroes hold in our reality) - would appear to substantiate the claim.
It's less realist at its roots than either Moby-Dick or Huckleberry Finn: that much is certain. Less, too, than any of its possible rivals for 'Great New Zealand Novel': the bone people? The Lovelock Version? The Matriarch (either in the original or in its rewritten version)?
However you classify its genre, for me Hicksville holds all the aces: it's funny, sad, wise, intricate, and incorrigibly from here. It took a long time for the Americans to notice what they had in Melville - not to mention the fact that Mark Twain was something far more than a clown. I hope it doesn't take us quite so long to see the merits of Dylan Horrocks' masterpiece.
Dylan Horrocks: sketches (2012)
The latest, 2010, edition of the comic includes a wonderfully elegiac introduction. In it Horrocks charts his earliest comics influences - Charles Schulz's Peanuts, Carl Barks' Donald Duck, but above all Hergé's Tintin.
Talk about the landscape (or dreamscape) of my life! I, too, grew up on those comics: Tintin and Asterix, Peanuts and Eagle (my father's particular favourite) - though for us the unquestionable pinnacle was occupied by the seemingly endless permutations of Carl Barks' imagination - even though we didn't even (then) know him by name.
Perhaps, then, I should admit that I am prejudiced. Comics may not be the all-consuming passion for me that they are for Dylan - just one amongst a number of loves - but I understand (and can share) the magic of childhood associations he evokes so well in the Hicksville corpus as a whole.
Dylan Horrocks & Richard Case: Timothy Hunter: The Names of Magic (2002)
Funnily enough, the introduction also touches on his Dick Burger-like decision to get involved in the mainstream comics industry: his work on Timothy Hunter and Batgirl and other titles from Dc's edgier arm Vertigo. As he himself puts it:
The money was great and I worked with some nice people ... but the stories didn't come easily. For the first time in my life I was making comics I couldn't respect. As time went on it grew harder and harder to write or draw my own comics. Soon just looking at a comic - any comic - filled me with dread ... I could no longer see the point of it all ... I should have listened to Sam. [viii]
Dylan Horrocks: Incomplete Works (2014)
Twain and Melville, too, suffered through their long nights of the soul. Both of them ran into a creative doldrums after the supreme effort of their great novels. It was good to see Dylan Horrocks back on the bookshops again in 2014 with the double-whammy of Incomplete Works and Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. It seems he has learned to listen to Sam again, after all.
Dylan Horrocks (2019)
- Hicksville: A Comic Book. 1998. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2001.
- Hicksville: A Comic Book. 1998. New Edition. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010.
- The Names of Magic. Illustrated by Richard Case. 2001. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2002.
- New Zealand Comics and Graphic Novels. Wellington: Hicksville Press, 2010.
[available for download as a pdf here].
- Incomplete Works. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2014.
- Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2014.
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