Booker Longlist Review: Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

by Sunita

Snap raised eyebrows among longtime Booker readers and watchers because it is unabashedly crime fiction, but it’s definitely in the traditional novel format. Sabrina, on the other hand, is a one-shot graphic novel, and a graphic novel has never been selected as a nominee. There has been a lot of debate in various social media venues about whether they even qualify. The Literary Director of the prize, Gaby Wood, said back in 2016 that “the Booker’s board would be open to considering graphic novels,” but that hasn’t had much impact on the naysayers. I was on the fence about whether they should be eligible.

Sabrina cover

I’ve read quite a few graphic novels and manga, but I wouldn’t consider myself an expert or devotee by any means. They are an interesting art and literary form which took me time to become familiar with, but they can definitely pack a punch. I wouldn’t have read this if it hadn’t been longlisted for the Booker 2018 award because it’s not my usual style, but it was an interesting read. Parts of it were very effective, other parts less so.

Sabrina tells the story of the aftermath and consequences of the disappearance and subsequent murder of a young woman living in Chicago. She is an ordinary person, no one in particular, but in our short introduction to her we find that she is loving, intelligent, and curious. She and her sister Sandra are contemplating a bike ride that circumnavigates the Great Lakes.

Soon after Sabrina disappears we’re introduced to her grieving boyfriend, Teddy, who goes to stay with Calvin, an Air Force friend stationed in Colorado Springs, to get away and try to deal with his grief and depression. Calvin, who works nights in a technical job, is generous and sympathetic even though he’s going through his own issues with his estranged wife and trying to maintain a relationship with his daughter (wife and daughter have moved to Florida).

Teddy stays cooped up in Calvin’s condo, barely eating and listening for hours to conspiracy talk radio. He gets more and more drawn in to these conspiracy theories, especially after Sabrina’s body is discovered, along with that of her abductor-murderer. Despite the open and shut nature of the case, the conspiracy kooks come out of the woodwork and speculate wildly about what might “really” have happened to her. They email the family members, Teddy, and even Calvin (he’s in the military, so obviously prime for coverup duty), and they fill the airwaves and internet with their theories. This is hard on everyone, obviously, but especially on Teddy and Sandra, both of whom are particularly fragile and isolated despite the best efforts of family and friends.

Although he is not the most directly affected by the tragedy, Calvin emerges as the centerpiece of the story. We see how his reaching out to Teddy makes him a central character, especially because his military position allows the conspiracy kooks to dream up all kinds of roles for him. Calvin is stoic and even-keeled, but the reader gets insight into his mental state through the daily reports he has to fill out in his job (levels of stress, sleep patterns, suicidal thoughts, and so on). It’s an understated but very effective way of showing not telling.

Drnaso spends lots of panels reproducing the oral and written language of conspiratorial types. To my mind they went on too long, especially the radio speeches, but if you aren’t familiar with these contexts then it is probably helpful to get more rather than less. His style alternates text-heavy panels with silent ones, and the overall color palette is very muted, with lots of gray. The style fits the subject matter well and conveys emotion and substance without heavy-handedness. The drawing style is extremely spare and simple. It’s been understandably compared to that of Chris Ware, a legendary comic artist who also happens to be from Chicago, but it also reminded me a lot of Mike Judge’s King of the Hill animated series in its ordinary, everyman evocation.

Despite the obvious strengths of the work, I had some real problems with it. Representation is an ongoing issue in comics and graphic novels, and this example illustrates some of the key tendencies. First, we start with a fridged woman. Although the comic is named for Sabrina, she is barely there. She functions almost entirely as the vehicle by which Teddy’s and Calvin’s stories are told. We do see Sandra throughout the novel (and the sisters’ early conversation passes the Bechdel test with ease), but she has far less on-page time than Calvin, who didn’t know Sabrina at all. Drnaso has said that he went back and added more on Sandra, and it does help, but the sympathetic scenes are undercut by a shattering episode in which Sandra berates Teddy for his absence and his detachment from Sabrina’s family. It’s not hard to come up with exculpatory reasons why she would behave like that, but the text and art themselves don’t motivate it well. The women in this comic are always secondary, and that bothered me, especially since we can infer that Sandra and Sabrina were very close.

The second problem I had with the comic is the extent to which this is an entirely white-people world. It makes sense for the conspiracy-theory part (the particular conspiracy theories here are white-person ones), but not for the overall context. Chicago has a tremendous violence problem, but Sabrina’s murder isn’t located within that context, even though we know it’s Chicago. There are no non-white people in the story that I can tell, not even in the military. This feels bizarre to me, given Chicago has a large non-white population, Colorado Springs has a decent-sized one, and the military has a lot of immigrant and other non-white personnel. Drnaso’s previous full-length comic, Beverly, has a more mixed cast, so I didn’t understand at all why this one failed so thoroughly on that front.

The only answer I have that fits the substance is that these types of conspiracy theories are the province primarily of white men, and so this wound up being a very white world. But if you go down that road, then it makes the subject matter much less “universally American” in the sense of explaining the US today. Sure, conspiracy theories and demagogues are more publicized, but that has as much to do with the way the media flattens all subjects into the same mold as anything (everything is fodder for reporting, especially if it engenders clicks). Radio shows featuring conspiracy theorists have been around for decades, Trump isn’t even the first demagogue US president, and media frenzies have changed platforms more than anything else. I’d argue these are differences in degree, not in kind (hate mail has been around for a very long time, and you don’t need the internet to SWAT someone). That doesn’t mean the issues raised in this comic aren’t important, but they are more germane to a particular swath of US society than to society as a whole. Members of minority groups tend to find that violence against them is under-reported and under-discussed, not woven into a larger web of conspiracy fear-mongering.

This was a very interesting comic to read, and I can understand why so many people have praised it. But it reproduces some of the problems that are endemic to the genre, and the extent to which it can be hailed as “universal” or a representation of “the way we live now” really depends on who you are and where you sit in society. It doesn’t deserve to be criticized for the outsized claims that are being made on its behalf, and Drnaso has achieved something worthwhile here. But it’s also a captive of its own narrow lens.

3 stars at Goodreads.