Monday, August 10, 2009

Comics: Take a number.

In Das Unheimliche, Freud's book-length mediation on everyday weirdness that popularized the term "uncanny," the father of psychoanalysis touches on the weirdness of unexpected numeric patterns.

If we take another class of things, it is easy to see that there, too, it is only this factor of involuntary repetition which surrounds what would otherwise by innocent enough with an uncanny atmosphere, and forces upon us the idea of something fateful and inescapable when otherwise we should have spoken only of ‘chance’. For instance, we naturally attach no importance to the event when we hand in an overcoat and get a cloakroom ticket with the number, let us say, 62; or when we find that our cabin on a ship bears that number. But the impression is altered if two such events, each in itself indifferent, happen close together — if we come across the number 62 several times in a single day, or if we begin to notice that everything which has a number — addresses, hotel rooms, compartments in railway trains — invariably has the same one, or at all events one which contains the same figures. We do feel this to be uncanny. And unless a man is utterly hardened and proof against the lure of superstition, he will be tempted to ascribe a secret meaning to this obstinate recurrence of a number; he will take it, perhaps, as an indication of the span of life allotted to him.

For Freud, the uncanny was an in-head toxic spill of grokked, but suppressed knowledge. (His theory works better in German, where the root word of "uncanny" can be taken to mean both "home" and "hidden.") When we encounter seemingly meaningful repetition, we dig for hidden meanings and approach all the nasty things we hide in our mental attics. Because we can't unearth any of those demons and remain sane, we project our feelings of uncanny recognition onto an external source, essentially scapegoating others for our odd sense of familiarity. In folkloric terms, these scapegoats become witches, fairy-folk, goblins, boogymen, or anything one can imagine Hellboy shooting. Less creatively, the conspiracy-minded use the appearance of false patterns to implicate the Jews, the Bush administration, the Gay Agenda, the Bohemian Grove bunch, the Federal Reserve Bank, the forgers who created Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate, those Papists that snuck a supposititious child in the birthing chamber of Mary II, Scientologists, or what have you.

In general, the march of neuroscience has not been kind to the theories of Freud. Like Bohr's model of the atom, the image of a clumpy nucleus and moon-like electrons traveling in neatly circular orbits that persists mainly because it is easy to explain and makes a nice iconic image, Freud's theories persist in the public imagination because they are easy to digest, have a poetic resonance with our personal understanding of the world, and have been embedded in key cultural landmarks by generations of creators who intentional created works off his philosophical template. Outside of English departments and philosophy courses, Freud doesn't get much love. Despite this general downgrading of Freud's ideas, modern research into how the brain works suggest Freud wasn't totally off the mark on the whole uncanny thing. In grotesquely simplified terms, the sense of import one gets around repetition might be an evolved reaction in our very sensitive pattern-seeking apparatuses in our brain. Pattern-recognition is such an important trait, the thinking goes, that false positives due to over-sensitivity would be an acceptable level of increased noise given the overall system's greater receptivity to genuine signals. Studies show that the uncanny sense of the irrational portentous is real, if unconnected to any notions of suppressed emotions or memories.

Ironically, the uncanny – the Fruedian concept that has the strongest scientific support – is the one least respected in the world of arts and letters. Instead of Freud's concept of the unfamiliar familiar, the term "uncanny" has come to mean something along the lines of "the inexplicable" or "that which should not be." The sense of eerie, but perhaps meaningless repetition, is hardly evoked anymore.

This makes Thomas Ott's graphic novel The Number: 73304-23-4153-6-96-8 an oddity: Ott's fashioned a noir-ish tale of fate, dames, murder, and madness that is, in the old Freudian sense, genuinely uncanny.

The plot of the The Number is a tight, elliptical, almost O. Henry-ish story about a schlubby state executioner who finds one of his victims, a murderer sentenced to death by electric chair, left behind a mysterious string of numbers: the titular 73304-23-4153-6-96-8. The executioner pockets the number and things nothing of it. Slowly, the numbers in the sequence begin to appear throughout his daily routine. At first, their appearance seems more benevolent than sinister. The numbers appear to lead him to a new love interest and, later, he makes a killing in a small gambling club by exploiting his knowledge of the number sequence. But the numbers giveth, and the numbers taketh away. Before the executioner knows what hit him, his new bird's flown the coop, she's taken the dough, and the numbers seem hell-bent on getting him into increasingly dangerous jams. The resolution, a phantasmagoric and sanity-questioning scene of revenge, leaves us pondering whether the numbers were, in fact, reoccurring or whether the execution was imposing the pattern on the randomness around him.

While the plot might not be the most original idea, Ott carries it off with a stylish confidence that gives the story real force. The art is rendered in a stark black and white, halfway between the gritty realism of the Ashcan School and the expressionism of Peter Kuper. This mix is especially potent near the end of the story, when the visuals grow more intensely surreal. Ott also mostly restricts himself to a stingy number of panels per page, all of which float in a deep field of surrounding black. These simple layouts – always a simple mix of quarter-, half-, or full-page rectangles that always keep a small amount of negative space between them – contribute to both the down-and-out, hardboiled visual aesthetic and the claustrophobic sense of fated repetition. Finally, Ott's "acting" is strong enough that his characters can carry the story without a single line of dialogue.

The finest moment in the whole book – and an excellent example of Ott's sly storytelling – comes when, searching for a sign, the executioner takes handful of French fries off of his plate and places them in a series on a table top, one after the other, in neatly aligned rows. Staring at that picture, I tried to puzzle out just what section of the sequence we were looking at. Unable to immediately grasp it, I added up the number of fries and then added up the digits in the repeated sequence. No dice; they didn't match. Had I missed something? Or was the executioner free of the numbers? Free or abandoned? But maybe there was something there and I just wasn't seeing the pattern . . .

And in that panel Ott's story went from being a story about the uncanny to being, itself, uncanny.

1 comment:

zoe said...

i am so sold...i have to find this now.