Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso

The first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

By David Terrien

Sabrina, by Nick Drnaso

As a portrait of contemporary America, it doesn't get much grimmer or more vérité than Sabrina, a 200-page graphic novel about grieving: both the vivid, scalding sort and the kind that accrues around a lifetime of disappointment. Anger and depression are here too. A sense of powerlessness. Suicidal thoughts… 

Sabrina herself is gone - last sighted on a security camera a block from home one evening - but her absence propels a handful of storylines. The quiet hero is a man named Calvin, a 'boundary technician' working nightshifts behind computer screens in a windowless military complex in Colorado. Calvin's wife and child have moved to Florida, and it's unclear whether they are still a family, though Calvin plans to attempt a reunion once he's discharged; in the meantime he lives with a cat in a largely unfurnished rental, does a bit of gaming and has little face-to-face contact with others outside of work and fast-food settings. It is into this unpromising environment that Sabrina's boyfriend Teddy, a childhood friend of Calvin's, now nearly catatonic with loss, arrives in the immediate aftermath of her disappearance. 

And then the news gets much, much worse: a video of Sabrina's slaying at the hands of a young man who lived mostly on message boards arrives in newsrooms around the nation. Inevitably the footage surfaces online too, and like exceedingly horrific stories from recent American history - Sandy Hook comes to mind - enters into a 'post-truth' vortex, where a reasonable-sounding demagogue promotes the whole thing as a 'false flag' event: a tragedy staged by the US government to strip citizens of their rights. Chicago-based Nick Drnaso's drawings compound an overwhelming sense of doom, capturing alienating characteristics of contemporary life - the isolation of the automobile, the tract housing and strip malls, online culture, meaningless work - and spreading it through sombre washes and a gloomy half-light across the panels of his story. 

With anomie as a baseline, and the catastrophe of Sabrina laid over the top, the ability of those most directly affected by the murder to carry on renders them heroic. Drnaso's quiet, insistent focus on this group, and his ability to stir our profound empathy for the lives they are living, against the backdrop of a world gone mad, elevates this story to the level of literature.

Granta, £16.99 (hardcover)

From the Summer 2018 issue of ArtReview