Here, a graphic novel by Richard McGuire, tells the story of what happens in one corner of a suburban living room. It is not an obviously thrilling subject. Nor do the opening spreads hint that anything more exciting will follow: the room is sparsely furnished with items of everyday domesticity — a sofa bed, a baby’s cot, a stepladder. So far, so dull.
Very slowly, over the following pages, the action unspools. We learn about the history of the living room and the land on which the house is built. Then, in the living room, we move forward and back in time to look at characters watching TV, snoozing on the sofa, catching a cold, stubbing a toe — the everyday stuff unlikely to quicken one’s pulse.
Until, that is, you begin to appreciate McGuire’s extraordinary command of history and pacing. Panel by panel, the main protagonist is revealed to be not any of the characters, the room or even the land the house is constructed on but, rather, something more abstract: time.
McGuire’s method may already be familiar to some readers. In 1989, when he was an aspiring New York artist and musician, he published a six-page, black-and-white version of Here in the avant-garde comics magazine Raw. Twenty-five years later, the concept is repeated but over an enlarged space.
Each spread is dated but they are not ordered chronologically. There are panels within panels showing different points in time and giving glimpses of what was visible in exactly that spot at that particular time, transforming each spread into a kind of palimpsest of layered scenes. At the beginning and end, dinosaurs and futuristic animals roam in place of the house (which, it turns out, is in New Jersey, where McGuire grew up). Later spreads depict impending disaster — in one dated 2113, the house has been submerged by the sea.
To pick up on the streams of association that unite moments across the centuries demands close attention from the reader. In a panel dated 1624, members of a Native American tribe come into contact with European settlers. Much later in the book, a panel dated 1986 shows researchers who are looking for artefacts visiting the house to inform the elderly lady living there that: “We have reason to believe that your property may potentially be an important site.”
McGuire occasionally references real-world events, great and small: characters play Twister in 1966 (the year the game was invented); in a panel dated 1775, Benjamin Franklin visits the grand colonial pile across the street from the living room on the eve of the revolution to argue with his estranged loyalist son, living there at the time.
McGuire is able to wring a surprising array of emotions from simple lines and blocks of muted colour interspersed with deliberately hackneyed jokes and the uncanny wisdom of the everyday. And the non-chronological arrangement seems faithful to how consciousness really works, the way we shape and reshape the story of ourselves by editing and re-editing highlights from our lives.
I found it compelling to shuttle around in time to discover how earlier events informed later ones. Midway through the book one character says to another: “Life has a flair for rhyming events.” Clearly, McGuire does too.
Here, by Richard McGuire, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£25 / Pantheon, RRP$35, 320 pages