Review: Sabrina

Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel humanises personal tragedy in an alienating world of fast-paced global communication and conspiratorial fake-news. It has recently been long listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

** Spoiler Alert **

Sabrina (2018) does what all great literature does: it acts as a lens through which we might examine, magnify, and, ultimately, change the society that birthed it (and the society in which the reader finds herself). Furthermore, perhaps the Man Booker should be about literature that speaks to the moment of its conception. Drnaso’s emphasis on Fake News, internet-based conspiracy, Twitter-Storm vigilantism, and distrust of expertise (‘any reporting that can be traced back to a handful of parent corporations can be immediately dismissed as fiction’ [108]), speaks frankly to our socio-political moment.

Calvin Wrobel, an Air Force boundary engineer, elects to care for his distant friend, Teddy, whose girlfriend, Sabrina, has been murdered. The events that follow echo the conspiracy-driven narratives that festered and coalesced on the internet following the Sandy Hook School Massacre of 2012 (and, indeed, almost any catastrophic event).

Following this, Sabrina investigates the real ways in which well-meaning people might cause real personal distress by adopting these conspiratorial narratives. Jason Richmond, ‘A Warrior for Truth’, stands out as an unsettling archetype for the cyber age. He threatens Calvin, believing him to be either a crisis-actor (echoing the accusations levelled at the families of Sandy Hook victims) or a victim of deep state extortion; alarmingly, Richmond also implicates a threat to Calvin’s infant daughter. This dramatisation of action-at-a-distance – the human impact of online speculation – might encourage us to consider the invisible ends of our actions.

But Sabrina also gets to the root of something we might term non-specific dread: a fear of unpredictable catastrophe and an aversion to accepting injustice. The random nature of Sabrina's murder seems to be the driving force behind the conspiracy theories. In the words of the conspiratorial broadcaster Albert Douglas, Sabrina’s murder and the subsequent media storm

taps into the deepest fears that man can conjure, but also our morbid desire to see these things. It makes perfect sense, actually. An innocent person walks down a street in America, now their execution is being downloaded about five million times per hour. [108]

Such inexplicable and unjustifiable horror demands explanation: even if the truth escapes us. Albert Douglas is a distortion, it seems, of Alex Jones: the real-life advocator of the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory and founder of an international conspiracy-empire. (In fact, in my reading, the speech often comes close enough to Alex’s that his gravelly voice rumbles through.) Importantly, the need to make ‘perfect sense’ out of disaster is central to Albert’s (and Alex’s) Weltanschauung (who can blame them?); perhaps a world in which a shadowy cabal orchestrates false-flag terror with impunity is – although scary – more comfortable than ‘the official story’, as Albert phrases it, ‘that an archetypal loner with no resources abducted and slaughtered a total stranger in his small apartment for no reason’. At least, perhaps, Albert’s narrative presents us with a clear way to move forward following a seemingly inexplicable catastrophe; perhaps, as Athenian citizens might have attributed destructive storms to the fury of Zeus, Albert appeals to a secular deity possessing ostensibly unlimited power.

Fakeness is central to the novel; even the apples in Sabrina’s home are fake. Palmyra Atoll Secret Prison, either a medication-induced dream or a US government ‘black-site’ depending on your reading and – most likely – your political biases, perfectly occupies the uncertain space between the real and the fictional. This is not to say that the existence of such a government black-site is impossible: in fact, it is no secret that the US acts unethically in legally murky territory. Perhaps the message in Sabrina is that certainty, without admissible evidence, is something we should be actively sceptical of. A take home message might be that ‘the problem with these [conspiracy] theories is that they can’t be reasoned with’ [120]; that there is a certain type of certainty that becomes an impenetrable ideology: that maybe we should be more comfortable in not knowing.

In conceptual resonance with this, Sabrina resists simple narratives. Moments that seem to instigate a recognisable trope – the shadowy character that seems to be trailing Calvin, for example [137] – are later frustrated. This initiates, in the reader, something like the narrative paranoia that the book takes as its subject. While teasing us with a thrilleresque narrative, Drnaso’s novel is actually brimming over with the everyday, the routine, and even the slightly awkward reality of human interaction (which it handles perfectly through the Mozartian execution of silent frames).

On the back of this, Sabrina frustrates any conclusion, and resists abridgement. Calvin’s arc concludes with the only blank page in the book. Following this, twelve frames show Sandra cycling across country and down coastal roads. We are left with the image of her riding, in the style of an old western, towards the horizon. The town, however, has not been cleaned up; the villain has not been brought to justice; the simple world of good-vs-evil is frustrated; the world in which our hero might meet the dark rider in a noonday square eludes us. In a world of uncertainty, risk, and seemingly random horror, Sabrina invites us to embrace unknowing and interrogate the danger of certainty, conspiratorial vigilantism, and simplistic narratives; to embrace a world in which, like Calvin, the best we can do is to love the people around us.

Sabrina is the first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker. I hope it is the first to win. This isn’t about legitimising a medium through the authority of a literary award. This is about amplifying an important voice and an accomplished work. I don’t have enough space to explore all the reasons that Sabrina is idiocannonicaly secure; I certainly haven’t done it justice. I’ll be recommending it aggressively at every opportunity.

Tell your mates.

Nick Drnaso, Sabrina (London: Granta, 2018) 978-1-78378490-5


©2020 paul cockburn