The House That Groaned…. groans slightly under the weight of expectation…..
The House That Groaned is the debut graphic novel from Karrie Fransman, and she’s certainly not frightened of really going for it. No thin little volume is this, no lightweight simplistic story. No, this is heavyweight, thick, literary stuff. Deliberately so perhaps, and definitely appealing to that literary set.
Before we start, a reminder that we’ve already had the pleasure of listening to Fransman have a schizophrenic conversation with herself in a director’s commentary article on the blog. And I’d certainly recommend reading that, marvelling at some of the behind the scenes stuff, and then visiting the frankly brilliantly done website for the book.
Now, on the book itself……
The beautifully designed double cover – a cut out house with its windows full of the characters you’ll find inside, reminiscent of a doll’s house of old, really catches the eye, a better piece of book design I don’t think you’ll see all year.
So welcome to 141 Rottin Park Road, an old, decrepit house, full of fairly rotton and decrepit people. The residents are all damaged in so many ways, ways we explore throughout the book, journeying through the house’s rooms, throught the inhabitants lives, their foibles and obsessions, their pasts and what little futures they all have.
(Barbara meets Janet, holding herself together, just barely, but aren’t they all? Aren’t we all? From Karrie Fransman’s The House That Groaned)
It’s Barbara that ties the book and the residents together, a make-up artist (only temporarily of course – she’s got plans) just moved into the building, our eyes on the various goings-on around her.
She’ll meet and greet everyone in the house in turn; Janet, the dietician whose weight loss only came about through need and remains through obsession and despair. Matt who works with the beautiful people, but only through the photographs he obsessively retouches for others, and he just can’t bring himself to take off his gloves. Brian is the immediately disgusting one, a “diseaseophile” whose desires bring a procession of ill, broken, disfigured women into the house and maybe, one day, into his bed. And then there’s old Mrs Durbach, a nonentity who genuinely blends into the background of her flat, and is glad to do so.
And opposite her is Marion, the opposite of so many of the residents in the house; decadant, hedonistic, fetishistic, the extravagant to Mrs Durbach’s invisible, the gluttonous to Janet’s calorie counting obsessive, the dedicated pleasure seeker to Matt’s touch averse nature.
(Brian retreats to his work, safe, alone, sealed off from the world)
And all of the strange, isolated characters will come together in one way or another, brought together quite slowly at first by a house that is crumbling, leaking, dripping, breaking, hissing, creaking and groaning towards entropy seemingly in sympathy with those inside.
Along the way we’ll look back, observing those moments that set each one on their path, ending up lost, isolated, alone, damaged in a rotten house on Rottin Road.
(You could almost imagine it’s the house talking about itself in that sequence above, and if that’s the case, it’s speaking for itself and everyone inside.)
The House That Groaned is all about looking at how past events, often disturbing and long buried in our psyches, can twist characters, setting them on paths to a disturbed, dark future, full of contemporary lifestyle commentary, where everyone seems to be dealing (badly) with isolation, body image and obsessions, that affect everything they do, define who they are, and ultimately will lead somewhere dark and disastrous.
(PoorBrian, trapped in his desires, incapable of escaping a house of damaged people)
You want a strange image that came to mind during this? Imagine Rising Damp done now, with a Lynchian sense of body shock. That pretty much covers just how dark and disturbed the territory The House That Groaned covers in its pages.
Fransman’s style is nicely (not perhaps the right word, given the people she’s dealing with) cartoonish, simplistic yet expressive. And the book reads exceptionally well, Fransman’s storytelling is really solid and good. Her characters are exaggerated stereotypes, her situation veers towards the surreal.
My big problem comes not from the execution but the characters surrounding the concept. The assortment of freaks are simply too stereotyped, which wouldn’t be a problem as a starting point, but none of them really move that far away from the starting point to make them truly interesting and engaging. The one original character is Brian, with his diseasophile’s sexual attraction to the ill and diseased, but even he really doesn’t develop past something reminiscent of Fight Club’s obsession with the emotional crutch of various dependency groups.
So that lack of originality, the inability for the characters to really develop much beyond the starting stereotypes and the lack of engagement with the characters because of it puts me distinctly at odds with many far more famous names. Nicholas Roeg is a vocal fan of the book – and although I freely admit it’s hugely impressive for a debut graphic novel, I’m certainly not convinced, as Roeg is, that it “breaks all the rules of storytelling accumulated over the past thousands of years”. It’s good yes, but it’s not that good Nic.
So all in all it’s a damn fine book; hugely, spectacularly impressive for a debut. But the flaws in it make it more a technical and storytelling success than a really great, engaging, intriguing, fascinating thng. The real disappointment in many ways is that everything is in place to make this truly, utterly wonderful. It fails and it falters slightly, but still rather great.