Review by Varun Nayar
Repeat a word enough times and it collapses in your mouth. The precise neurological term for this is semantic satiation, when brain signals sprint from meaning to utterance in such quick succession that the link between the two momentarily fractures into gibberish. Though the feeling holds for only a few seconds, its effect is noticeable and dislocating. To talk about the experience of media and the Internet is to talk about semantic satiation – a collective synaptic dulling to online cycles of sex, violence, politics, and advertising. Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina (Drawn and Quarterly, 2018), a graphic novel about crime, personal tragedy, and media panic, floats in this dulled space. Its characters perseverate the way we do in life, wordlessly walking across panels and pages, pouring themselves coffee, staring out windows, and driving without the music on. Something, however, is always off. Dranso’s is a world of quotidian paranoia, where a single violent event transforms the act of living into a hectic search to give shape to a shapeless thing: grief.
Sabrina Gallo has been abducted from her quiet suburban Chicago home, leaving behind only questions. We only see her a day before this happens, in the book’s first few pages, where she makes plans with her sister, Sandra, to get away from the Internet for a while and bike around the Great Lakes. The scene cuts immediately to an airport in Colorado, days later. Abandoning Sandra and Chicago, Teddy King, Sabrina’s numbed and aimless boyfriend, decamps to Colorado after hearing the news of her disappearance. While the story alternates between Chicago and Colorado, it’s Teddy’s gradual unraveling that becomes its through-line. He stays with an old friend he hasn’t seen in a while: Calvin, an administrative employee in the U.S. Air Force, who himself is dealing with the end of his marriage after his wife moves to Florida with their daughter. Teddy mostly has the house to himself, spending most of his days lying down, taking walks, and only occasionally speaking to his friend when he returns from long night shifts.
Much of the story takes place in Colorado, occasionally flickering back to Chicago, where Sandra, equally listless and confused with the grief of Sabrina’s disappearance, spends most of her days indoors. Drnaso’s storytelling style excavates his characters context; his illustrations, reminiscent of airport security pamphlets from the early 2000s, scrub faces of expressiveness. The physical spaces, too, are equally nondescript: most rooms are under-furnished; beds lack frames; not a picture-frame in sight; and the only words that appear on the page are pieces of dialogue in speech balloons.
We don’t know much about Calvin’s relationship with Teddy either – or Teddy’s relationship with Sabrina, for that matter. The truth is we don’t know if Sabrina, Teddy, Sandra, and Calvin are objectively good people, or bad ones. In the case of Sabrina’s central tragedy, these distinctions are useless. Drnaso is uninterested in drawing lines between righteous and unrighteous, or deserving and undeserving. Instead, he takes a familiar trope – bad things happen to good people – and strips it of any sense-making framework, giving us only what is left: bad things happen. There is no inherent logic to the way the world apportions pain, and bad things, almost relentlessly, continue to happen in Sabrina.
Halfway through the book, multiple local newspapers across the country receive copies of a VHS tape to answer a question that has hung over the plot since Sabrina’s abduction. Immediately, Teddy and Sandra’s private grief turns public, and Sabrina begins trending online, nationwide. ‘Chicago Execution Video Surfaces on the Net’, one headline reads; ‘Chicago Execution—A Family Reacts’, reads another. Bad things continue to happen. The online discussion forums begin doubting the authenticity of the video, analyzing it frame by frame and claiming it to be fear-mongering propaganda. Within pages, Sandra and Teddy lose the narrative of Sabrina’s death to conspiracy theories, hashtags, and 24-hour coverage. Mainstream news headlines get lost amid an onslaught of fake and misleading information from discussion boards: ‘Sabrina Gallo never existed. ‘Sister’ hired as actress’, ‘Sabrina Gallo Alive! You Won’t Believe It’. Sandra receives death threats and offers from photographers hoping to parlay her grief into their work; Calvin is stalked by someone who calls himself ‘Truth Warrior’, demanding he reveal where he is hiding Sabrina.
While both face public scrutiny, Teddy remains disconnected, sleeping mostly all day and spending the rest of it listening to an anti-establishment, conspiracy-peddling radio show hosted by an Alex Jones-type figure. Ultimately, the show turns its attention to Sabrina’s murder, which it too claims to be a state-sanctioned hoax, orchestrated to induce paranoia. In a story not unfamiliar to many in our current political climate, the show advocates for civilian warfare and a need to protect individual freedom and specific moral values by violent means, if necessary. It is only later that we find out that Timothy Yancey, Sabrina’s murderer, was also a longtime listener of the show and shared its ideology.
For all its direct implications of crime, anxiety, and mistrust, Sabrina’s relationship with violence remains circumferential, parceled out in the reactions of those who witness it. There is something disconcertingly true about this indirectness. Online, through comment sections and retweets, our daily exposure to any violent event is inextricably social, devoid of any other clear form beyond that of a mosaic amid other violent events. Toward the end of the novel, headlines of Sabrina’s kidnapping and murder are replaced by a shooting at a daycare center in Denver. The engine of online conspiracy cranes its neck away from Chicago, toward Colorado, and restarts.
Late at night, in a Colorado Springs diner, Calvin tries to console Teddy: ‘a lot of people are able to turn their grief into something positive.’ He suggests Teddy take up a career in law enforcement or charity work. The central anxiety that Sabrina relays is that this is often not the case. Often, grief is blunt and unstructured, with no great resolution or communicable lesson, no poetry or music. Death is such a basic denial of possibility that we must imagine ways to make sense of it – to enlarge its moral possibility. The desire for these structures isn’t just personal but political and institutional as well. In 2015, Facebook introduced a feature called the ‘legacy contact’, someone who can log into your profile after your death and memorialize it as a kind of digital tombstone. In a press release, the company, which houses over a seventh of the world’s living population, wrote: ‘we hope this work will help people experience loss with a greater sense of possibility, comfort and support.’ We are all online shopping for our own coffins.
A month after its publish date, Sabrina became the first ever graphic novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. If its characters are bruised, they are bruised by a world we inhabit with them. Even as the book closes, Teddy and Sandra remain unable to produce a clear conclusion from what has happened to them, resorting instead to familiar expressions: ‘I don’t know’, ‘I just don’t understand.’ By allowing his characters to remain incomplete and dysfunctional in the face of personal loss, Drnaso manages to draw a story that behaves like life itself. In an English translation of The Society of Spectacle, Guy Debord writes about contemporary life, online and offline, as one where ‘everything that was directly lived is now merely represented in the distance.’ Drnaso writes against this distance. In the final, wordless page of the novel, we find out that, months later, Sandra does finally go on that bike trip around the Great Lakes, alone.
Repeat a word enough times and it loses meaning, but no modern mantra can conjure the dead, and we are often left both sated and emptied from what we’ve lost. What makes Sabrina extraordinary is its direct and unsentimental commitment to this fact. Its ability to reject representational distance in favor of something far less common in narratives of grief: the open and empty shock of living through it.
Varun Nayar is a writer from Delhi. He is currently pursuing an MLitt in Postcolonial and World Literatures at the University of St Andrews. Before moving to Scotland, he worked in magazine journalism in Southern California.