By Philippe Dupuy & Charles Berberian, Claude Legris, Isabelle Busschaert, translated by Helge Dascher
Monsieur Jean: From Bachelor to Father is likely to stuff the coffers of thousands of chiropractors, as the incessant knowing nods of recognition it induces will exhaust its readers ability to hold their heads straight long after they’ve finished its 264 pages. Jean is you. Well, okay, Jean is a white middle class thirty-something writer who lives in France, so he’s likely not exactly you. But his anxieties, frustrations, joys, successes and failures are comfortably relatable and reminiscent. The preeminently talented Dupuy and Berberian’s opus is a charming, meandering look at one man’s early-life-crisis amidst a sea of nostalgia, cigarettes, self-reflection, literature, resistance and cat sitting. It isn’t just a slice-of-life tale; it’s the whole damn loaf.
Jean is never given a last name, but it can be surmised that it should be Everyman (or the French equivalent of it at least…Monsieur Tout le Monde?) His thirtieth birthday is hastily approaching and after finding a modicum of success with his prior novel, The Ebony Table, is struggling to complete his next work. Between running into former lovers, being constantly interrupted every time he hops in the bath and battling with his buildings’ landlady to turn over his mail on time, Jean has his hands full bearing the brunt of his recklessly ambitious, yet hopelessly selfish, friend Felix’s cockamamie schemes. He’s starting to have difficulty sleeping and feels as though he’s under attack by women flinging babies at his castle of a life, a perfect representation of the childish ideal of adulthood’s solitude. But he’s growing up and things, obviously and inevitably, are changing both around him and inside him. Friends, work, women, children and even the building management are in constant flux, some morphing faster than others, but all are moving whether Jean feels like he can hold onto them or not. There’s a multitude of women in Jean’s life and the reader is never quite sure who, if any of them, will waltz back into his life or simply stay a painful memory. His relationships feel real, filled with equal parts vulnerable fear and stubborn pride.
The great pleasure of reading Monsieur Jean is experiencing this growth in real-time, or a convincing facsimile thereof considering the five volumes collected here were released years apart, and having the wave of nostalgia wash over you. Surely you’ve felt the same bitter sting of a break-up or the urge to murder a difficult cashier at the supermarket. Locking yourself out of your apartment, the awkward thrill of flirting, chatting it up with the sushi chef, the bombardment of questions from parents at dinner, helping a friend move…it’s all there. Significant or trifling, all the moments that make up life are splayed in front of the reader with such a careful sincerity that you would be forgiven for being unsure if you’re empathizing with the character of Jean or simply reliving your own experiences. What happens over the course of these five volumes? Life happens. To Jean and to you again.
Dupuy and Berberian let the story breathe at a contented rhythm, balancing the mundane vignettes of a trip down the staircase with the frantic scenes of desperately searching for a lost child. They amble from one moment to the next, introducing elements and characters along the way that may or may not return into Jean’s life. That’s the fun part, like life you’re never quite sure what the “important” things are until hindsight can put them into contextual focus. In the end, of course it’s all important, as every anecdote found within this collection make up the multifaceted caricature that is Monsieur Jean.
Like an Ally McBeal episode as written by Dave Barry, Dupuy and Berberian bring the inner fantasies of Monsieur Jean to life. A stomach ache, brought on by distress and Italian food, is presented as a gruesome battle of the trenches featuring an army of Jeans under siege by a barrage of pizza. A particularly maddening trip to the grocery store sees a cashier be sawed in half, an inconvenient boyfriend brought to his knees and a store manager infected with AIDS. A bad day getting worse sees Jean’s dark self projected onto the page following him and prodding him to spread his discontent to everyone he passes. These pseudo-fantasies are the source for most of the books humor largely because of the secret truths they display. Throughout the book, the minutiae of everyday tasks are drawn as honestly as these indelible depictions of fear, anger and sadness. This can be contributed to the fact that the two authors write and draw as one.
Like the Portuguese writer Pessoa, lovingly incorporated into this book, any distinction between Dupuy and Berberian, and in turn between them and the work, becomes indecipherable. The two alternate writing and drawing duties so seamlessly, transcending mere collaboration so thoroughly, it as though they are a chimera of creation. Visually, Monsieur Jean is delightfully misleading in its simplicity. Inspired by and in the spirit of Tintin creator Hergé’s ligne claire style, the languid characters are defined by bold lines leaving nothing obscured. It’s disarming and approachable cartooning at its finest, depicting the all-too-real abrasive truths of life. Towards the end of the book, in the fifth chapter titled “When It Rains, It Pours”, there’s a tremendous scene of Matisse-inspired experimentation of layout and design that will take your breath away. As extraordinarily confident as the line-work is, perhaps what is most visually striking are the colors. Deep and richly saturated, every space of the color-wheel is represented. It’s bold and while there’s little blending, the colors are never truly flat. In all, it’s deceivingly straightforward art that, again like everyday life, is loaded with detailed complexities.
Who is this book for? Well, theoretically it’s for anyone who’s ever been unsure about what comes next, but the question should really be, “When is this book for?” It would be inadvisable to be plowing through a pile of, say, Iron Man orTeen Titans comics and then pick up Monsieur Jean and expect your brain be in the right state to recognize the honesty at work. It would be equally misguided to hand this book to a fourteen year old not yet at the point in their lives when they’ve done enough to regret or lived enough to feel trapped by their future. This book is being released at just the right time of year too, late fall/early winter, a time of transition when being able to curl up inside under a blanket and escape the harsh changing temperatures outside is most desirable and creates a sense of ease and acceptance. That’s the lesson at work in Monsieur Jean: From Bachelor to Father, really. Things change, as they’ve changed a thousand times before, especially when you’re not ready for them to do so. It can’t be fought, but you’ll try nonetheless. This is a book that asks that you take your time with it. Pick it up and put it down at a leisurely pace because there’s no rushing life. There are comforts to be found in the commonplace routines and thrills to be had when the unexpected interrupts. Unless it’s the phone, and you’re just trying to take a bath.