Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Good Inn Review (Black Francis, Josh Frank, Steven Appleby)

Any book co-authored by a rock star immediately becomes suspect as the reader is inclined to believe their book got published over all others because they’re already famous with a built-in audience, and, after reading The Good Inn, I do wonder if it wasn’t co-written by Charles Thompson aka Black Francis, the frontman of The Pixies, whether this would’ve seen publication or not.

The Good Inn is a mish-mash of things - from the blurb copy: "A book based on a soundtrack score that has not yet been composed for a feature film that does not yet exist."

You can already tell it’s going to be a bit messy, can’t you? In fact, the impression that the blurb gives is a good summary of the book itself – it’s all over the place but it’s ambitious and creative.

Publisher SelfMadeHero departs from their usual comics output to give us The Good Inn which is an illustrated partial screenplay/novel. Based loosely on real events and people, the book is centred around the first narrative porn film in history, La Bonne Auberge (The Good Inn), of which only a few frames still exist today. Our protagonist is Soldier Boy, a young man in turn-of-the-century France whose meandering journey begins when his battleship, the Iena, explodes in 1907. From there he eventually arrives at the inn where he will star in The Good Inn as the soldier in the scene with the innkeeper’s daughter.

The rest of the book is hard to describe. In his introduction, the co-author, Josh Frank, mentions David Lynch and Terry Gilliam as the dream directors for this story which gives you an idea of the kind of book it becomes: heavily surreal. 

Doppelgangers appear, characters slip in and out of parallel dimensions, the fourth wall is broken, dream sequences become reality and vice versa, the story literally becomes a play at one point before reverting back to the alternating screenplay/novel format, time skips ahead; yet for all that, this isn’t a hard book to read and it’s actually quite accessible. However it is a hard-to-follow story, not least because it’s unclear just what the story, or the point of it, is.

Certain metaphors make sense like the highly combustible nitrocellulose-based film stock that The Good Inn was filmed on, literally exploding as if the content itself was too steamy for film, and the connections between this film stock being used to film sex and later being used for munitions – the juxtaposition between two sides of human nature, the loving and the violent - is a clever one.

But Thompson/Frank’s ideas about the background to the first “narrative” porno are quite limited. After Soldier Boy and the innkeeper’s daughter shoot their scene for the film, neither author seems to know what to do next and so anything goes. Ironically, for a book focusing on introducing narrative, it possesses very little of its own.

Which begs the question, why did they feel that porn required a narrative? Does anyone sit down to a porno when they want to watch a good story or do they choose something from Scorsese or his equivalents back in the early 20th century? 

It’s likely that narrative was striven for to legitimise porn in an attempt to make it acceptable as art, a futile move in the early 20th century, but a brave one to remove the mystique that surrounded sex and advance society’s conservative views.

Surprisingly for a book where sex plays a large role, The Good Inn is anything but seedy or even remotely arousing. Thompson/Frank’s few descriptions of sex are matter of fact (Frank’s writing is frank?), while Steven Appleby’s artwork feels like Quentin Blake’s, that is to say quite innocent and gives it the appearance of a children’s book. I do wonder if the authors’ choice of setting part of the story in France was to give Appleby the chance to draw Eiffel Towers – Appleby was the artist on The Pixies’ record, Trompe le Monde, which featured the song Alec Eiffel. 

Thompson is an accomplished songwriter and The Pixies are one of the most influential rock bands in history for a reason, but his surreal lyrics don’t have the same impact without the music. As if to compensate, the form switches wildly from prose to screenplay to poetry/lyrics completely randomly and for no artistic reason that’s clear, except that it matches the zigzagging story, which is to say that it’s being weird for the sake of it. The story doesn’t really have a meaning and neither do the narrative choices.

On the one hand The Good Inn is a well-presented and highly creative book which sets itself apart from other books with its anarchic imagination; but by that same measure it fails, as the lack of any memorable story, strong narrative voice, direction or plot, character development or characterisation of any kind, or sense of coherence completely disconnects the reader from the text and they are very aware they are reading a knowingly “artistic” book.

The Good Inn attempts to tell the story behind the world’s first narrative porno but preoccupies itself with flashy literary tricks, deploying multiple literary forms, and indulging in non-stop surrealism, in the process forgetting to tell any kind of story long before the end. It’s all style over substance and pretty slapdash style at that. What works for The Pixies on a record doesn’t work in the literary form and rather than captivate, The Good Inn is a dull and unmemorable book that makes you wonder exactly what the creators were aiming for.

The Good Inn

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