Alice in Sunderland

The most interesting review that I’ve seen of Alice in Sunderland (and there are plenty to choose from) is probably that by Steven Flanagan at Gad, Sir! Comics!. It’s done as a comic in the same sort of style as Alice, and so gives a better idea of what the book is like to read than any of the other reviews. Flanagan, like pretty much every other reviewer, and like me, rates the book (although he has some valid criticisms, one of which Talbot responds to in a comment), and is probably better at articulating why than I’m going to be. But for the record, here’s my take.

Alice in Sunderland is an argument about history, couched as a lecture in a dream. It is, specifically, an argument about the history of Sunderland, or perhaps at a stretch the history of England – to paraphrase Crowded House’s marketing people, according to this book you know more Mackems than you think you do – but in its general form, as a provocation to think about who writes history and what they write and why, it could be applied to just about anywhere. From a stage in the Sunderland Empire, and in another guise (referred to in the text as “the pilgrim”) wandering around Sunderland itself, Talbot narrates, explores, and invigorates the history of the city he has made his home with a fluidity and range of reference that is dizzying, and certainly more than I can decode in one reading. Some individual stories or legends are highlighted, such as the story of Jack Crawford, Hero of Camperdown (and source for the phrase “nailing your colours to the mast”), or the Legend of the Lambton Worm; these are generally presented as traditional panel-driven comics, some with guest art or script by such luminaries of British comics as Leo Baxendale. For the most part, however, Alice is a work of collage, a tremendous mish-mash of many different styles of artwork. The signature look is a black and white line-drawn figure against digitally manipulated photographs of the area being discussed, perhaps with other elements – manuscript pages, older artworks, and so on – overlaid. Such a variety of styles is no doubt intended to reflect the variety of ingredients being thrown into the melting point that is Sunderland’s story, but without pictures, it’s hard to convey how ambitious some of the layout is, nor how playful it can sometimes be.

It’s an approach that allows Talbot to bring many different versions of history, intimate conversations and epic battles and everything in between, convincingly to life in a way that, yes, is not possible in a prose work. Which is not to say the script isn’t important. Throughout the book, Talbot keeps the narration in present tense — that’s one of the things Flanagan expresses reservations about, but on balance I think it works, giving the whole book a panoptic quality, all of its events taking place at the same moment, seen from a god’s perspective. It’s not so much a criticism as an observation to say that the book lacks a strong narrative; it doesn’t do anything so obvious as run through Sunderland’s history from its early days to now, and Talbot is forever freewheeling (or so it seems) off to riff on some seemingly tangential element. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel he’s reaching a bit – to imply that Sunderland University is an older centre of learning than either Oxford or Cambridge because it’s built on the site of an earlier monastery seems a little tenuous, while the explanation of how to “read” pictures, and the repeated justification of comics as a serious medium feels a bit unnecessary in this day and age, particularly when the book itself is the best justification you could ask for. Talbot, for example, links Sunderland to the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry, which he calls “the birth of British comics”; this strikes me as about as useful as some of the claims for Greek or Roman texts as the first science fiction novel.

But looked at another way, the digressions and six-degrees-of-separation revelations are part of the point — you can find interesting facts about anywhere, if you put your mind to it, the book says, and more often than our brains expect everything is connected to everything else. (I have a connection to Alice in Sunderland, as loose as some of the connections made in the book: a couple of the people who contributed photographs of the area are acquaintances.) Moreover, Talbot quite reasonably points out that, thanks to heavy bombing in World War II, much of Sunderland’s history is invisible even to most of its current inhabitants. Perhaps some excess in bringing the history back is forgivable. And if it means the book is best read in small doses, which it is, and that it can get a bit wearying towards the end, which it does, well, those are prices worth paying for the many pleasures Alice in Sunderland offers along its way. It is many things – informative, funny, inventive, argumentative, beautiful – but perhaps above all, as the cover declares, “an entertainment”.

So read it for all those reasons. Of course, I read it because it’s on this year’s shortlist for the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel, and I want to talk about that a bit if only to see if I can get Jeff VanderMeer frothing. Look at it this way: any description of a book is in part about expectation management. If I enthuse to you about a book enough, I can probably persuade you to read it, but I don’t want to do so if it means raising your expectations beyond what the book can meet, or actively misleading you about what the book contains. Equally, shortlisting a book for an award acts of a description — it says, this book is eligible for this award — and similarly generates expectations. Admittedly this is more true in the case of a juried award, where you can probably assume a degree of intentionality (say, considering Quicksilver to be a science fiction novel; or considering alternate history to be science fiction [or not]) than in a popular-vote award like the BSFA, which exists to reflect the taste of a diverse group; but still, expectations are set. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that because I came to the book the way I did, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Alice in Sunderland is, and is not, instead of just being able to enjoy it as what it is advertised as.

The appearance of Alice on the shortlist constitutes an argument that it is a fantasy novel (despite the name, both science fiction and fantasy are eligible for the BSFA’s Awards), which is certainly an interesting way to think about the book, if only because it’s not even clear that it’s fiction. Oh, it’s framed as a story, as I suggested — it opens with a man walking into Sunderland’s Empire Theatre, and ends with Bryan Talbot waking up at the end of a performance of Swan Lake taking place in the same venue, realising that the previous 320-odd pages were all a dream — but for most of the book the frame is irrelevant. What you get is a narrator and a historical lecture; a lecture that often takes the form of a story, and indeed includes sub-stories, but a lecture that we’re told is entirely true (to the best of Talbot’s ability to determine such things). That means that the fictionality of Alice in Sunderland inheres entirely in its frame; it seems to me you might almost as well call Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics fiction; after all, it uses a similar type of narrator in its exploration of how comics work.

But say we accept Alice in Sunderland as fiction; and accept it as a novel, although you could probably argue that it’s better considered as an anthology; and accept that a graphic novel is comparable to a prose novel, although that’s not an unproblematic stance. We’re left with another question: is it fantasy?

Again, technically, yes: as I said, the ending reveals that it’s a dream-story, even if a dream of things that are true. It’s also true that there are occasional moments when, presumably to break up the lecture, Talbot has one or another historical (the White Lady who is meant to haunt the Sunderland Empire; or, from more recent history, Sid James) or contemporary individual (in one of the book’s most interesting sequences, Chaz Brenchley and Colin Wilbourn turn up to explain the genesis of a riverside sculpture park), or even fictional character (mostly from Alice), butt in, somehow, and assume an equal level of reality to Talbot-the-narrator. These are, effectively, moments of fantasy. But even when they add something to the book’s general argument they are also, by and large, intended first as jokes, gimmicks, momentary diversions from the main thrust of the book. Of course, one of the threads that runs through the book, as the title implies, is an investigation of Charles Dodgson’s life, and how wrong the popular portrait of him as a dreaming spires recluse is, and of course Alice in Wonderland is a key text of the surreal and absurd fantastic. Being about something, however, is not actually the same as being something; put another way, although Alice in Sunderland is at times about fantasy and mythology, it is not itself either in more than a trivial sense. Moreover, the fantastic elements are not nearly as central to the book as a whole as is the concern with story more generally, and how story becomes history.

So despite the fact that it’s led me to a good book that would otherwise have taken me longer to get around to reading, I feel a bit mis-led by the shortlisting of Alice in Sunderland. It seems to me that while technically supportable, the implicit description of the book that this shortlisting provides is not a Quicksilver case, is not something that makes us think about what we mean by “fantasy novel”, because Alice in Sunderland is not trying to be either fantasy or a novel. Indeed, to think of it in such a way almost seems to miss the point, to miss what’s good and important about Talbot’s fascinating, if at times frustrating book. Looked at one way, of course, in the end it doesn’t matter, because Alice in Sunderland teaches you how to read it, and even I managed to forget my genre-quibbling ways, which means that most people probably won’t think twice about the issue; and though the detail won’t stay with you (the detail overwhelms), the overall impression will, the passion and the exhilaration of its best moments. But this recommendation does it no favours.