By James Sturm
Hardcover, 96 pages, $21.95
Greek and Roman mythology envisioned the fates — the Moirae or the Parcae — as spinners of thread. Clotho (Nona) wove life’s threads; Lachesis (Decima) measured; and Atropos (Morta) cut. To the Greeks and Romans, the cosmos was artfully woven by deities, but was also unstable and liable to fray or to unwind piece by piece. Given the Greco-Roman gods’ tendencies to act like children, the pattern of life was particularly chaotic.
In Judaism we understand that God weaves the various strands of life together. Many readers will recall the famous story of the heretic who approached Rabbi Akiva asking for proof that God created the world. Rabbi Akiva counters with his own question: “Who made your cloak?” The heretic is forced to admit there was an artist involved in the manufacture. By way of theological induction, Rabbi Akiva argues the same could be said of the world, which implies God the Weaver.
In its examination of the increasingly difficult life of an Eastern European Jewish weaver in an early 1900s shtetl, James Sturm’s new graphic novel Market Day (April, 2010) is part of a larger religious and literary tradition of examining the intersection of faith and the loom. But Sturm’s bleak narrative is unique in its introduction of a sort of “reader response theory” into the mix.
In Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (Harvard UP, 1967), Stanley Fish, Davidson-Kahn distinguished university professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, argues that John Milton intended readers of Paradise Lost (1667) to undergo an experience of reading that paralleled Adam’s experience. Readers, according to Fish, discover themselves unconsciously sympathizing with Satan’s character, and upon realizing their “sin,” they (like Adam) seek to repent. Readers don’t passively read about Adam’s story so much as they “experience” it — thus the theory of the reader’s response.
Sturm offers readers the same sort of close identification with his character Mendleman. Mendleman is a master rug-maker, who leaves his eight-month pregnant wife Rachel at home while he travels to the market to hawk his woven wares. Echoing what is doubtless a common sentiment among artists who spend most of their time in the studio, Mendleman observes, “For one who spends the majority of his time working in solitude, the market is intoxicating.”
Although he enjoys the anonymity that the market offers — a drastic change from the prying neighbors’ eyes and ears in a small village — Mendleman also likes meeting up with acquaintances like Rabbi Soyer. Sporting a new pair of eyeglasses, the rabbi observes, “My son and I should both study the Talmud with the same devotion and thoughtfulness that you apply to your rugs.”
It turns out that Mendleman’s rugs have helped the rabbi and his son in their religious observance. One particular rug he made of black and deep purple helps the rabbi determine when the Sabbath starts; when he cannot distinguish between the two colors it is dark enough for the Sabbath to begin. (This seems to be an adaptation of Berachot 9B, where one can tell when to say a morning prayer based on one’s ability to differentiate between blue and white wool.)
“Something as common as a rug,” Mendleman continues, “can indeed embody the gifts and miracles of God — the first steps of one’s child, the moment Sabbath begins, or the glorious bustle of the market day.” One is reminded of the women who spun the goat hairs for the Tabernacle in Exodus 35:26 with “wise hearts.”
Unfortunately for Mendleman, if God resides also in rugs, the divine does not sell. The specialty shop that has sold Mendleman’s rugs in the past — the sort of shop every artist hopes for, where the man behind the counter has such a discerning eye that the artist confuses him with a critic — is under new ownership. The new management is a businessman who is more interested in lucrative kitsch than art that will stick to the shelves, so Mendleman needs to choose between settling for a cheaper price for his rugs and returning home without any sales.
But seen through Fish’s reader response theory, even as Mendleman loses his clientele and his patron-critic, he gains a new set of viewers for his work: Sturm’s readers. Sturm draws Mendleman’s experiences in the marketplace and his frustrations not only from a removed, objective perspective, but also through Mendleman’s perspective. On several occasions, Sturm shows the rugs Mendleman is imagining as he looks at the rising sun or the busyness of the marketplace. Even if Mendleman’s rugs fail to sell, the graphic novel is perhaps his greatest work. (Unfortunately, the advanced reader’s copy of the book I received is black-and-white, but it cautions, “Please note that final book will be full color.”)
Sturm is also a master of suggestion. On the first page, as Mendleman is leaving his house before dawn to head to the market, Sturm shows the mezuzah filling one cartoon frame. Although Mendleman does not appear in the frame, Sturm suggests Mendleman reaching out his hand to touch the mezuzah and then to kiss his finger in reverence. I find it interesting that this implication is probably lost on readers who are not familiar with what a mezuzah is, so perhaps Sturm has an intended, initiated Jewish audience. Needless to say, this is a rare and risky sort of move from a publisher like Drawn & Quarterly.
Although I do look forward to seeing the final color version, I suspect I may end up preferring the black and white version in the end. A quick glance on the publisher’s website reveals a PDF version of some of the colored pages, which are effective mostly because they rely on very little color. Mendleman’s world is too dreary to admit too much color. And in the black-and-white version, his masterful rugs become more ironic or Absurdist, almost like the emperor’s new clothes. Could there be a better metaphor for the struggles of the shtetl than a rug maker, so proud of the gorgeous detail of his black, white and gray rugs?
All images are courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.