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The Three Paradoxes
posted May 18, 2007
Fantagraphics, hardcover, 120 pages, April 2007, $14.95
1560976535 (ISBN10), 9781560976530 (ISBN13)
There's a love scene about a third of the way through Paul Hornschemeier's The Three Paradoxes
where the author goes with his father to turn off the lights in his small-town office. It's a shot of Hornschemeier's father disappearing up the stairs, just a panel of two of his presence, then absence, that provides the best moment. It perfectly captures those too-steep, crowded stairwells that would allow you to brace yourself on the walls with your elbows were you to desire. The reader feels not only that second but all of the times the author as a child must have faced that same stairway, the expectations of seeing his father in the office at top in both good times and bad. There are a few moments like that in the story, grace notes of observed behavior that are lovely and unexpected. The scope of the book, a simple visit home before a potentially life-changing event and the flood of memories that crowd in and around one's art, flatters these exchanges. For a cartoonist who sometimes seems to reach for literary significance and then fills in narrative blanks as a secondary concern, this reduction in dramatic scale yields a number of delights.
More ambitious but ultimately less successful is some of the subject matter where childhood memory and post-adolescent writers' block run into one another or slip to the side on an ebb and flow basis. Here the events take the loftier grandeur of tragic story points, recognizable in a dozen such treatments of the same emotional terrain. Hornschemeier's ease at shifting between modes makes for the most interesting work in those sections; the best one comes in an extended sequence about an injured child that lasts far long than you'd expect it to, challenging the casual disinterest with which slip from engagement with the greater dramas of other people's lives. Hornschemeier also has the standard alt-cartoonist's skill with humor of cruelty, and the way the events conspire against the younger version of the author so that he receives an egregious ass-kicking of the first order is funny because everyone but the victim sees it coming. Because of the title -- a reference to the three strongest of Zeno's paradoxes, which discredit the notion of progress by pointing out in various ways that between one point and another lie an infinite number of halfways -- we have to assume that Hornschemeier means for the book to question the idea of personal and artistic growth. His own work here, where the casual storytelling far outstrips the grasps at significance, suggests the problem may not be in an element of the journey but in the push to get from A to B.
* current cover
* image from previous cover