Make the road by walking

Dogs and Water This morning I came the closest I’ve been to dreaming in months. Since I watched Inception, probably. Dreaming for me is only ever the illegitimate child of stress and careless imbibing, as a result dreams are closer to nightmares in which I must fix ALL of the things and save the mermaid village from the meteor. But this morning I found myself somewhere between waking life and an R.E.M. cycle as I read Anders Nilsen’s Dogs & Water. I was originally drawn to this book because I really like the name Anders. I suppose I was also snared by the cover, which depicts a guy kneeling on barren ground, wearing a backpack with a teddy bear strapped to it, being presented with a rifle by a member of the dog pack he runs with.

The book’s inner landscape is stark and panel-less. It is, in fact, just as magical as I would expect anything by an Anders to be. Containing only the sparest amounts of text, much of it is illegible scribble. The illustrations flow into one another with no dividing border, creating a fluidity that only heightens the dreamlike state of reading.

boat The book follows a young man wandering through a nearly barren, war-torn land. His only companions are the stuffed bear strapped to his bag, whose wisdom he defers to in all matters, and later, a pack of wild dogs. The nameless man’s journey is a severe mix of loneliness and traumatic encounters. A chance encounter with a buck, who attempts to steal his bear, dissolves into a fist fight. A feral dog pack keeps him from freezing to death before they come across and devour a human corpse. I once read somewhere that the common house cat will begin eating its owner before the body grows cold. I came across this fact years ago, and it is still one of the most haunting things I believe to be true.

The journey is interspersed with further dream-like digressions comprised of scenes of a boat journey gone awry. Eventually ending in a shipwreck, which leaves the bear dismembered and the man likely drowned, they encounter a man swimming to Asia. Every event in Dogs & Water happens out of time and space, and while everything that happens is possible (except maybe the deer fight), nothing is likely.

swimming At its heart the book is a meditation on wandering without destination. And on the way that wandering with no plan can be just as constrictive and monotonous as following the roadmap.

Nilsen is the author of several books including Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow and Monologues for the Coming Plague. His work has appeared in The Best American Comics and The Best American Non-Required Reading anthologies, as well as The Believer, The Chicago Reader and elsewhere. For a brief period, Nilsen attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before withdrawing to do comics full time. His blog showcases occasional new material. His website showcases some of his other work including several cover illustrations, like this excellent piece done for the edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales published by Penguin in 2006.

In a rather melancholy piece, the Chicago reader describes Nilsen’s work as “hallucinatory style of fable in which animals and young men ruminate about their existential crises.” I couldn’t agree more.

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