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Back in the Stacks: Jeff tackles Shiga’s BOOKHUNTER, and vice-versa…

Jeff Lester

Here’s a question: would you enjoy watching “The Wrong Trousers” if it was animated in the style of “The Family Guy” instead of with Nick Park’s clay animation? Or would you have enjoyed “Hot Fuzz” if the roles had been filled by the cast of “Saved By The Bell?”

I bought Jason Shiga’s BOOKHUNTER back at APE and have been trying to get a handle on it since. A satire of police procedural shows and over the top action films, Shiga’s writing is more than top-notch: the story of a tough-as-nails library cop and his dedicated squad fighting against time to catch a rare book thief, Bookhunter is filled with techno-wonk babble so authentically sounding it puts all other techno-wonk babble to shame (“On the press itself, it looks like each plate was burned through a zincotype process. You can see the slight non-uniform deformities in the serifs here and here.”) Every topic related to the theft, from how a fake book might be made to how someone would get the combination from a safe they’re breaking into, is explained with what’s either a virtuosic base of knowledge or an equally virtuosic ear for mimicry. On top of this, by setting the story in the far-flung world of Oakland, 1973, Shiga also provides a look at a disappearing world of library science, where the cataloguing room is a grand hall of hard-copy records. (“Why it wasn’t but a year ago,” one of the character notes, “that patron records occupied a room almost half this size.”) Interestingly, although setting the story in 1973 causes a vast number of anachronisms to pop to the surface and a fact-thick procedural usually causes that sort of thing to knock a reader out of the narrative, the whole conceit of a top-notch library police force commanding the full fiscal support of the government is so fantastic from the get-go that the anachronisms don’t stick at all. Finally, the action setpieces are absurd and entertaining as hell, with the final twelve page chase scene everything you’d want from a fight in a library. Those Hollywood dudes out there scouring convention aisles trying to score the next big film property aren’t working hard enough if they haven’t already offered Shiga at least some appalling pittance for his book.

So what’s with the rhetorical questions and the cognitive dissonance? Why haven’t I broken out my poms-poms and high skirt and exhorted you to dash out and buy this book?

The problem for me is the cartooning: although Shiga’s storytelling is solid, maybe even dynamic, his cartooning chops are weak. I’d like to think I can appreciate a lot of different styles of art, but my eyes stung through the first half of Bookhunter. As I said, it’s not a problem with the storytelling, and the representation is pretty good–there’s never any confusion of what you’re supposed to be looking at, and all the objects and people are all part of the same aesthetic–but the actual art itself I find unattractive and rudimentary in a way that cuts against the grain of the detail-filled story: a double-page spread of Agent Bay looking from a balcony over the vastness of the Oakland Public Library is little more than hashmarks and blobs. And while there are times this juxtaposition between the art and the writing heightens the comedic aspect, for the most part I found myself thinking, again, of kids learning to draw by watching Family Guy. I think if this causes me–a guy who never much minded Dilbert or Kathy or even Ariel Schrag’s early style–trouble, then I really think there’s a lot of people out there who aren’t going to be able to get into this book. In fact, early Ariel Schrag is a pretty good comparison–that work is rudimentary as hell but in the context of a young girl’s messy emotional life, it’s perfect and prettily easily overcome. But in an over-the-top spoof of Michael Bay movies and CSI shows, the artwork continually works against the intentions of the work and it’s problematic.

Another problem for me? It’s fifteen bucks. As you may recall, I tend to be the guy who balks at overly high prices for books: not because I’m cheap, but because price is a very real consideration on the part of any consumer, and, like it or not, it affects the appreciation of a work. I bought Bookhunter when I was at APE, when I was in the midst of spending money like a drunken sailor on shore leave, and that may have been the only way this would’ve actually ended up in my possession; it doesn’t do too well on a flip-test. It’s a thick book, something like 130 pages of material, and with partial color (lots and lots and lots of brown). Although I might’ve bought in the store at eight bucks, and probably at five, at fifteen bucks I think it’s hard sell unless you’ve got a lot of coin in your pocket or you really, really want a good reading experience and don’t mind itchy-making art.

In fact, at that price range, Bookhunter’s best bet for finding the popularity it deserves may come via the main object of Bookhunter’s affection– the library. In a perfect world, every library in America should own at least a few copies of Bookhunter (librarians will *love* this book) and you could check it out and have a helluva good read, even if you occasionally have to stop and put a damp washcloth on your eyes. In that perfect world–hopefully not as far-flung as the long-lost world of Oakland, 1973–Bookhunter is a great book to check out, read, enjoy and return: a highly GOOD book by a writer with tremendous potential. In this far messier world, however, Bookhunter is conflictingly OKAY–well worth reading, but thornier on issues of appreciation and ownership.

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