An article, "This is a wake-up call': Booker winner Paul Lynch on his novel about a fascist Ireland, prompts me to write briefly about Lynch's deeply immersive novel, Prophet Song. What I have chosen for today's illustration, however, is The Great War, a wordless panorama by Joe Sacco. Why? Because, given the threats that loom over us today, I've been musing lately on how art can best capture the lived human experience of the nightmares we inflict on each other and ourselves.
I love illustrated books and wish that adult novels as well as children's storybooks still routinely came with illustrations. I'm also a sucker for pop-ups, cut-outs, wordless books—books that delight by the way they are made. The Great War covers the first day of the Battle of the Somme by unfolding as one sheet twenty-four feet long. It progresses from morning optimism to death in the afternoon and chaotic destruction by nightfall. Time as space. Horror unfolds on the ground, on the page, and in your mind as you explore its dense segments inch by inch.
Sacco usually works with both words and texts. Right now I'm reading his Palestine (2001), a collection of reports on conditions in the Occupied Territories, written and drawn as a series of cartoon strips. As background to the current war between Hamas and Israel, it couldn't be more informative or more depressing.
And yet, I have to say that Lynch's Prophet Song is even more effective at embodying the nightmare of living through increasingly horrific events over which you have no control. The novel is set in an alternate dystopian version of Dublin. When it was published in 2023, no one could have known that it would be being read by many of us with the bombings in Gaza as background. Yet even a year ago, a sense of foreboding about possible political violence and the worst sort of so-called populism in many places, including the U.S., made the sadly universal.
In 2016, with the threat of Trump on the horizon, I read Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here. Like Prophet Song, it uses a counter-factual version of our world. Bit by bit, readers live through an authoritarian takeover. The pertinence to actual politics outside both novels is clear (and scary). What Prophet Song does even better than Can't Happen, however, is use center-of-consciousness to make the experience deeply personal as well as inescapable. You don't just learn about the deterioration of Eilish's world and its resulting dilemmas for her—how to feed and keep a family together? how to care for a demented father on the other side of road blocks? would it be best (or even feasible) to try to leave when a husband and son are missing?—you feel every minor annoyance with her and are stymied by every crisis.
My conclusion? All forms of art can touch, inform, and stimulate us. We are the richer for engaging with every single one of them. But for me, in the end, it's words that are indispensable.