A Visual Treat or a Play on Words?
By Pallavi Narayan
Eve and the Lost Ghost Family: A Graphic Novel
Eve and the Lost Ghost Family written by Felix Cheong and illustrated by Arif Rafhan is the story of an infinitely repeating universe peopled with the same characters who get to make different choices in each lifetime. The protagonist Eve is caught in a home which does not provide her a safe space, either psychologically or physically. With her parents giving in to addictions like alcohol and exhibiting a loss of control in their constant griping and raging against each other, Eve finds herself ruing her very existence. It comes then as no surprise that her boyfriend Pip suggests they die together on the rail tracks; however, at the last moment she fails to join him and then is sunk in a deep depression where she loses her words. This is where, perhaps, Cheong's quaint and half-dark verses come to life, ensconced within the fluorescent shades of Rafhan's wacky and wonderful visuals, both of which made this reader feel she was inside a video game.
Revisiting T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets, the epigraph sets the tone for the melancholia pervading the graphic novel, locating even death as a site for the exploration of one's identity. Building on Eliot's celebrated lines "We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time", Cheong and Rafhan begin the wild ride of what sounds like prose but is, in fact, a clever interplay of Cheong's rhyme and verse with Rafhan's imaginative illustration. The result is a graphic novel of intensity – both in plot as well as in expression. What is portrayed as a graphic novel turns out, as has been mentioned, to be a novel in verse, which appears to create its own literary world, borrowing liberally from the theories of postmodernism and poststructuralism. The vibrant interplay of colours to suggest seemingly hallucinatory experiences indicates a Freudian usage of the id, ego and superego in an oftentimes rather literal fashion – encapsulating embodied states of mind, in the way that characters' heads, disconnected from their bodies, appear and vanish from and into furniture, walls and suchlike, how the soul/ghost takes on a solidly human-monster form, queuing in the gateway to Death – a shifting transcendence that cannot be contained safely even, or especially, within the bounds of a novel, which exceeds itself with no particular logic for the superfluity that the writer and illustrator introduce into the work.
And this indeed appears to be the triumph of Eve and the Lost Ghost Family, which most enjoyably creates scenes akin to a film, thus absorbing any excess in terms of sparkling hues and dramatic dialogue. A very typical storybook first page and first line: "It was a dark and stormy night" but a surprise second line: "the sort to whip and lash your living daylights." That the novel is poetry is evident from the very first page now, even if it is not mentioned on the cover or in the blurb. This, of course, is intentional on the part of the author and artist. In fact, what about this graphic novel is not? While intentionality could be construed as too tightly held, concentrated on inducing a specificity of semantic atmosphere – and indeed the work is a careful construction – the book is by no means bereft of imaginative joy. In fact, reading it is replete with delight, even amid the theme of death. On the second page is a prose poem reminding one of lines from Red Riding Hood – "In this big, bad house" – but of course, following with its own ironic surprise: "There is a big, bad grouse."
The wordplay on the name "Eve" is also interesting. It is a beginning, an end, a becoming, an unbecoming, whose interpretations are in some of the section headings or rather, chapter titles, if one would read this as a novel, which the title claims it is. It is interesting too that Eve's death is in the evening, and she is on the eve of, unbeknownst to herself, her transformation into a ghost. What a coincidence it is then that the car accident she is in with her parents happens as they crash into a movie theatre screening A Ghost Story. The movie title is reflective of the action of the novel in a very in-your-face fashion, typical of a comic book, but also represents a readerly fascination with dark mysteries, the occult and the afterlife. Nighttime colours are different, with a combination of cool blues and yellows to indicate either a thought process that has been simplified and focused on a particular outcome, or else suggests an amplification of certain fears and worries that coagulate in the night.
The protagonist Eve is disembodied throughout the novel and dissociated from her body, symbolising a psychological dissociation from the trauma of the abusive household that she is surviving through, not only in human form but also, more disturbingly, as a ghost. The question of mental health and depression then is something that Eve appears to struggle with throughout the novel. Indeed, it is when she comes face to face with a girl living in her old room in her old house towards the end of the graphic novel does she come to the realisation that the girl is but a version of herself, that countless Eves exist in the mirror, "ghosts of her self, as she was, is and might be/the infinite lives of choices and possibilities."
It is important to point out that Eve and the Lost Ghost Family purports to be a graphic novel but in fact is in the netherworld between being not-quite-novel and not-quite-verse. This is brought home by the fact that no page numbers are mentioned throughout the work. If this is a conscious choice on the part of Cheong and Rafhan, it would suggest that the work is a visual literary treat, perhaps even to be read as a poster spread over many pages. Certainly, the highly coloured, rich images are marked neatly with a black box around each. And while at some points, where the action is high, they seem to bleed into each other, in actuality the very competent illustrator has provided a brilliant assemblage of pastiche with his own original style which marks the work with a sense of storybook as well as reportage (perhaps on suicide and mental health, but also on the melancholia of the modern world and the disjunction that urban life engenders).
This book deserves to be examined closely to bring forth not only the story or the visuals, both of which are splendid, of course, but more importantly, the manner in which Cheong and Rafhan have played with the form of the novel and graphics, splicing together literary and artistic elements to provide a feast for the senses even while grappling with a dark narrative.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 4 Oct 2023