Katchor – an associate professor at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City – is known for works like Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (1991), The Jew of New York (1998), and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (1996).
The Cardboard Valise – a compilation of interconnected comic strips – is set largely in the nation of Outer Canthus, a bizarre and exotic locale where citizens are given a symbolic funeral after turning 47 and “effectively removed from the economy and allowed to shed the burden of personality,” all children are benignly imprisoned from the age of 12 to 18, and residents have a reputation as being passionate haters. (“That shovel nosed little martinet, I trepass on his mother’s vegetable garden.”)
The Cardboard Valise is a surreal travelogue – who could forget the crumbling public restroom ruins of Tensint Island and those two-dimensional nations – but it’s also a fascinatingly deep metaphorical look at modern society: specifically the consequences of globalization and rampant consumerism.
The most popular souvenir item on Tensint Island was the Voracious Maw, a twelve-inch long, battery-operated tube molded out of soft plastic that mechanically reproduces the effects of peristalsis. If that’s not a powerful symbol for humanity’s insatiable need to consume, I don’t know what is!
An unassuming BLT sandwich becomes yet another metaphor: “The crisp bacon symbolizes the stupidity of the pig, the lettuce symbolizes the cost of living, and the sliced tomato, the brevity of life.”
In a particularly memorable sequence, Salamis poses as a door-to-door evangelist in order to gain access to thousands of bathrooms as part of a secret survey he is conducting concerning shower curtain preferences. “The choice of solid or print, ‘plumage’ or ‘fern spray,’ pacific blue or mint green, transcends all national boundaries. In it one senses the embryonic formation of a true world culture!”
In one of my favorite scenes, Salamis – dressed in shorts, a tee-shirt and sandals in the middle of winter in Fluxion City – joyfully walks the city streets ranting about the transcendent qualities of supranationalism: “I dress like this to demonstrate my solidarity with a loosely organized brigade of supranationalists, some of whom live within the equatorial regions of the earth and suffer year round from the heat… only by rejecting the provincial demands of climate and ancestry can man so fully exercise his free will.” And at the very end of a lengthy speech, finally alone on a street corner, he admits: “Of course, I’m freezing, but I try not to show it.”
The lives of all three men are eventually linked together by an oversized cardboard valise – a suitcase with the inexplicable ability to hold the entire contents of a room – which becomes yet another symbol for humanity’s obsession with wanderlust, disposable goods, the accumulation of useless products, etc.
Like the suitcase in the story, The Cardboard Valise contains so much more than it seems – just an unforgettable, unfathomably deep, profoundly moving read. Graphic novel aficionados will probably already have picked up this book but Katchor's intellectual narrative makes this appealing to fans of literary fiction and fantasy alike.
Voracious Maw not included – but then again, don’t we all already have one?
Paul Goat Allen has been a full-time book reviewer specializing in genre fiction for almost the last two decades and has written more than 6,000 reviews for companies like Publishers Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and BarnesandNoble.com. In his free time, he reads.