[Radix Media; 2020]
In We Are All Things, Elliot Colla and Ganzeer manage the retelling of a failed relationship through the objects in a rather abject room in Cairo. The graphic novel is slim, befitting its limitations (there are only so many furnishings in a room), and elegant. Ganzeer’s illustrations pair excellently with Colla’s words: the entire effect is Tender Buttons but with interiority, animation of the inanimate that manages to be expansive where it could have been precious, engaging where it could have been stultifying.
In the graphic novel, a man, narrator-but-not-narrator, is lying on his bed, head on his pillow (which “remembers the hungry weevils and shudders”), body sprawled across his bottom sheet (which “does not have to work to imagine the other body that was just there”), remembering his lost love as the objects around him fill the pages of Colla’s book. The room-as-world feels Proustian (the back copy advertises the book as “part Maurice Merleau-Ponty and part Yahyā al-Tāhir ‘Abdallah”) yet the man doesn’t represent the story’s seat of consciousness. Like a Woolf novel, the story’s consciousness bounces: from man to thing to woman to thing again. The effect is refreshing — the book could have easily been a man straining to make some tortured metaphor about himself being a thing to the woman, or the woman being a thing to him, or their love being as impermanent as all things tend to be. Instead, the things speak for themselves, wondering and remembering and shuddering. They are rather unremarkable things, too: water, a lightbulb, an air conditioning unit. The most distinguished among them is a portrait of Minouli Effendi Khawaja, a banker “from the previous century.” Still, it is not Khawaja himself who speaks but the picture of him. “Coat and tie, spectacles, mustachios, shiny black hair, tarbrush in hand. Curiously, it is not the face that captures the eye,” Colla writes.
Despite the graphic novel’s impressive command of its objects’ interiority, Colla does not always manage to escape clunkiness. “You treat me like a doll,” the man remembers the woman saying. “You pretend to think of me as a person who has opinions, then you go ahead and ignore me.” So the woman was a thing after all. The mattress sings its body electric, describing its bedbugs as “an ocean of life” and proclaiming “woe to those who drown me with poisons and powders — woe to those who try to kill my sons and daughters!” The water gives a similarly rhapsodic history of itself, having “[fallen] from clouds brushing over Ethiopic peaks, then drops falling, trickling through dust and mud to join in puddle and rivulet and stream, slowly flowing North to join itself as river . . . ” The thingness of people and the people-ness of things are not surprising themes to explore in a book called We Are All Things, but in these moments Colla’s words feel self-indulgent, preening, trying and ultimately failing to be about more than a man considering a lost relationship in his dirty bedroom. It is in these moments when We Are All Things is attempting to make grand and speedy proclamations about the objectification of women and the personification of objects that it falls short. The book succeeds in its quieter moments, when Colla (and therefore the reader) is given to thinking about the arrangement of the things in the room rather than their personal histories. One particular instance in which a cassette tape plays an Umm Kulthum song comes to mind as particularly poignant: “How often has the machine been asked to resurrect that song! The recorded soul imitates itself again, as it has hundreds of times before.”
Credit is due in large part to Ganzeer’s illustration. In a beautiful, kinetic combination of black and pink, he renders the lonely room as boisterous and noisy in a way that perfectly suits the objects’ narration. The pink is frequently animate — the woman’s lips and fingernails, the man’s form sprawled across his bed, spoken words of Arabic, the bedbugs in the mattress — and the black inanimate. Ganzeer’s realism goes a long way to portray the objects as self-aware and capable of communication: had he approached the task impressionistically, the objects’ monologues might have come across as less introspective and more obtuse. The juxtaposition of pink and blank, human and object, breathing and not, works excellently for Colla’s purposes. The images sing.
Although We Are All Things sometimes loses its focus, it remains a thoughtful, hyper-intelligent meditation on lost love and the way we arrange the things in our lives, both in our rooms and in our minds. The book is ultimately about bearing witness — things see as much as us humans do, perhaps more — and Colla does an effective job of walking us through the history of an unimpressive place in a very impressive city. When Colla says that we are all things, he’s right: the matter that makes up water makes us up, too, as it does lamps and rugs and picture frames (on the subatomic level at least). It’s just a lucky coincidence that we can speak and move and make records of the days of our lives and the other things, occupying space right along with us, cannot.
Rebekah Frumkin‘s fiction, nonfiction, journalism, and criticism have appeared in Granta, Guernica, The Paris Review, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. Her novel, The Comedown, came out from Henry Holt in 2018 and SEM Libri in 2019. She is a professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University.