Page 45 Review by Stephen
"I don't alphabetise. I'd rather customers explore. They come in looking for Byron and leave with an illustrated history of the Prague sewer system."
Five decidedly odd bookshops lie on the immediate itinerary of minor English author Mr. Fretwell's grand tour of Europe. Unfortunately no one is turning up. Eventually, you'll find out why.
What a phenomenal cover! What a Babel of books!
What an eye-drawing sense of shadowed space and low, looming light which creeps up from outside on our baffled and blinking protagonist! There Mr. Fretwell sits in tiny, silent solitude, patient but vulnerable and dwarfed by an infinite cathedral-like height which is worthy of Schuiten himself!
He only wants to sign copies of his new novel.
"I'm afraid I'm not quite feeling myself."
Everyone keeps banging on about this being Kafka-esque - probably because that sounds ever so cool and anyway the last critic did it and although you've never read Kafka it must be right, right...? Well, there's a hint of it here and there; but a more careful reading reveals that this is pure early-to-mid Evelyn Waugh, satirising not bureaucracy but quack psychiatry, wonky police procedure, inflammatory mob gossip and the book retail and publishing industries with all their attendant vagaries, fickleness, professional incompetence and casual disregard for anyone who can't immediately further their own fortunes.
Andi Watson's THE BOOK TOUR is a deft masterclass in visual and linguistic caricature, each bookseller an eccentric delight in their own right. It has so many more Waugh hallmarks from a narrative and thematic structure so tightly fitting that it could only have been created by comics' equivalent of a carpenter or architect like Chris Ware, quick-fire conversations leaving the protagonist no better informed, marital distance followed by disintegration, minor recurring characters whose fortunes oscillate off-camera as a direct consequence of Mr. Fretwell's own, and an entirely innocent and well meaning but weak, naive and hapless protagonist helplessly buffeted both by those more brutal than himself and events entirely outside his own control.
Add in a little Paul Auster (although Waugh did it too in 'A Handful of Dust') and you've a man increasingly lost, both to himself and to the world - or, perhaps, blessedly freed from it.
I could point out with precision each and every parallel between Waugh and Watson, but that's hardly the point. The point is this: THE BOOK TOUR is priceless. It is too, too funny - otherwise it'd be terrifying, and its early home sequence is a masterful foreshadowing of the ever-increasing isolation to come.
Perhaps the Kafka-centric critics confused THE BOOK TOUR'S literary style and thematic content with its visual execution of grainy lines which does indeed nod east...but towards 1920s German Expressionist cinema. Most obviously, the prologue sweeps us slowly through the old quarters of a deserted European city late at night or in the early hours of the morning, until we spy through an arched passage a silhouette moving silently through the angular-shadowed streets. Eventually he pauses, and deposits on the cobbles an old battered suitcase... before disappearing into the black horizon.
More importantly, what the washed-out effect of overexposed early cinema also achieves is a pervading sense that there is nothing of substance to hold onto: that one is in constant danger of coming unanchored and left to drift away at only the tide's discretion.
Let's start in the middle.
"Then you've come to the right place. The food's no good, but there's plenty of it... Not cheap, either."
As our ever-imposed-upon Mr. Fretwell will inevitably find out.
He's being taken out to lunch at a critical juncture in his unaccompanied book tour not by his publisher as promised (from whom a befuddled Mr. Fretwell might finally find answers), but by some ineffectual minion, unqualified for the job, sent in the elusive publisher's stead, both of whom would rather be doing absolutely anything in the world other than attending to their immediate responsibilities.
"Can I be honest with you?"
"This was dropped in my lap at the last minute. Not that it isn't enjoyable. The thing is, you see, I'd already planned to have drinks with a lady friend of mine."
"Precisely. I knew you'd understand."
And off he goes.
Poor Mr. Fretwell has been out to lunch for a while now, and it's a pea soup partly of his own unfocussed making. If he fails to pay attention, he'll be taken to the cleaners next.
Following the publication of his latest novel 'Without K' Mr. Fretwell has been dispatched on tour by train with a printed itinerary but without any back-up, his sole company being a suitcase full of his own freshly printed books. This is immediately stolen from under his nose by a thief whom Mr. Fretwell mistakes for a helpful if unscheduled contact. No matter, you might think, until Mr. Fretwell dutifully reports the theft to the local constabulary and so finds himself - a little further down the line - the prime suspect in the hunt for a missing person.
This is Rebecca (two 'c's, without a 'k' - just like Mr. Fretwell's equally absent wife), who's been left in sole charge of Mr. Fretwell's first signing to which he hurriedly races, through the rain, straight after leaving the police station.
"Sorry I'm late. And damp."
"Perhaps I can find you a towel."
"Don't worry about that. I don't want to keep anyone waiting."
There's no one to keep waiting.
"I don't understand it. We had a signing yesterday and it went really well."
That would be for one F.P. Guise, author of 'Sierra Umbra', as diligently advertised in the book shop's window.
"It's never happened to me before."
"The weather might have had something to do with it. Isn't that typical? The rain's stopped."
Although Rebecca's dining out that night on a mysterious, last-minute assignation, Mr. Fretwell's not offered a meal. But at least he won't get wet again, plus there'll be room service at his appointed hotel, once he's found it.
"I have a habit of getting lost."
It's not a bad hotel, either, with a decent room, phone service and breakfast to which his morning paper is delivered. This means our writer can get some rest, contact his wife, ask about his son, and keep himself vitally abreast of all the latest news. Mr. Fretwell reads the newspapers most assiduously! Well, the review sections, at least.
No one's reviewing his new book, though. Like everyone else, they seem much more interested in F.P. Guise: "a startling new voice".
Gradually, throughout Mr. Fretwell's travels and travails, a pattern will emerge and begin explaining itself... I'm afraid it's not a very fortuitous one.
It's one of incremental degradation ("the condition or process of degrading or being degraded"; geologically speaking, "the wearing down of a rock by disintegration") and it will impact on all aspects of the above, from the worsening condition of his hotel rooms, his scarcer ability to stay in touch (we never see Mr. Fretwell's wife: to begin with he talks to her through a closed door, then down the telephone, and he only hears about his son from her), his increasingly, hilariously thwarted opportunities to eat, and his diminishing access to a decent newspaper - or its review section, at least.
"Don't you read the papers, Mr. Fretwell? There's a predator on the loose. They're calling him the suitcase killer..."
"I only read the arts pages."
And because we've only been following Mr. Fretwell's movements and observations, we've only been reading the arts pages too. While more immediate events have been brought to boiling, we've all of us been out of the loop - clever, that.
THE BOOK TOUR is screamingly clever, as you'd expect from Britain's Andi Watson (please see our Andi Watson Graphic Novels and Andi Watson Mini-Comic Collection sections), including the parallels between the fortunes and fiction of Mr. Fretwell who is hilariously inept at hand-selling his own work.
Still, eventually he'll attract some attention.
"We'd like to ask you some questions."
"Oh, you're from the Literary Review?"
"We're police, sir."
THE BOOK TOUR is Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month for January 2021. Andi Watson's LITTLE STAR was our first. Let's see that back in print, please.