Bookshots: "The Cage" by Martin Vaughn-James
Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review
Who wrote it?
Martin Vaughn-James, celebrated painter/graphic novel pioneer. He produced two other experimental books before releasing his masterpiece, The Cage.
Plot in a Box:
A disembodied meta-voice both explains and pontificates upon a series of surreal, interconnected images centered around the titular cage.
Invent a new title for this book
But In Here, After All…What? (not exactly an "invention"—it's dialogue from the book—but it fits)
Read this if you liked:
Watchmen, the plays of Samuel Beckett, and Last Year at Marienbad, a film the author cited as a major influence on The Cage.
Meet the book’s lead:
As I said, there's a disembodied narrator that describes and analyzes the images. Age and gender are not specified.
Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:
If you made an experimental film based on The Cage, you'd really just need someone with a great voice to read all the text. I kinda heard Orson Welles in my head. Think he's busy?
Setting: Would you want to live there?
The aforementioned cage exists in a barren desert, surrounded by blank sheets of paper on pikes; the novel also features a rapidly decaying pumping station, a cramped room, and a temple with typewriters and cameras on pillars at its entrance. I don't think I'd live in any of these places, but that temple sounds like a nice vacation destination.
What was your favorite sentence?
…but the noise crashes on…all instruments (if that is what they are) screaming out at random (and in unison) their repertoire of shrieks…
In his introduction to this newly reprinted edition of The Cage, fellow Canadian graphic artist and cartoonist Seth (it's just Seth) called Vaughn-James's work:
a masterpiece of comic art. Published in 1975, it is a visionary graphic novel, far ahead of its time—so far ahead of its time that it was ages before that awkward term had even come into popular usage.
Seth is not alone in this assessment, though by and large The Cage has been forgotten. It receives no mention on the "history of the graphic novel" Wikipedia page, and Google searching just the title brings up several hits for an episode of Star Trek. This may have something to do with the surreal, almost hallucinatory nature of the work. Seth points out the difficulty in processing The Cage:
I don’t understand the book and I don’t expect to understand the book at any point in the future…The book isn’t meant to be understood in the conventional way we expect a book to be understood. It is a puzzle, a Möbius loop, a labyrinth. At the centre of that labyrinth is a cage.
Even Vaughn-James can't tell you what his book is about: in his own introduction, he calls himself an "author orphaned by his own creation." Given this, the novel is open to multiple interpretations. What the audience brings to the reading experience is every bit as crucial as the author's "intentions." Vaughn-James calls it a "visual novel," but I see this as a screenplay with accompanying storyboards, in which the author and narrator are one and the same. Vaughn-James could be expressing the frustrations all artists suffer, with the "cage" serving as a trap in the artistic mind.
However, more than a mere meta-statement on the artist's endeavor seems to be at play here. This disembodied voice could be that of a ghost, separated from its body, trying to make sense of a life that no longer exists. Or, the novel as a whole could be a metaphor on modern existence, stripping meaning from the inanimate objects we "place upon pillars before temples." It could mean this, it could mean that, it could mean just about anything you want.
Is this is a good thing? I can't really say. As Seth says of the work, you don't understand it, you experience it. I'm not sorry I experienced The Cage—the drawings are pretty magnificent—but at this point I don't know how to feel about it. That being said, I would recommend going down this rabbit hole, if for no other reason than to witness one of the seminal texts in a now booming medium.
Note: While the digital edition is nice, I would suggest picking up a physical copy.
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