The 120 Days of Simon (Top Shelf)

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Swedish artist Simon Gärdenfors spends four months couch-surfing his way across Sweden in this miscreant's travelogue.

 

416 pages, black and white; $14.95
(W / A: Simon Gärdenfors)
 
Real life isn't very interesting. Hats off to the cartoonists who dedicate themselves to nonfiction, to those artists who can take the jumble and grind of everyday life and turn it into something visually interesting that's also worth reading.
 
There are a few ways that the genre's best do this. They do it by filtering life through a unique perspective (Harvey Pekar). They do it through sheer repetition, presenting themselves honestly and accurately in hundreds of small pieces (James Kochalka, etc). And sometimes, they make stories of their lives more interesting by making their lives more interesting (Joe Sacco, etc.)
 
Simon Gärdenfors chose the third approach. He pulled a stunt. He set out to freeload across Sweden. Through the graces of friends and fans, Simon visited 53 towns in 120 days and stayed with 70 people, many of them strangers. The concept is intriguing—a miscreant's travelogue. The execution, however, is disappointing.
 
The trip was intended to be chronicled, and at times the whole thing seems forced. The prospect that the book will be published hangs over the story. Things seem to happen because things need to happen for the book. And in between the actual occurrences, the story jumps. There's not much time given to resolving conflicts, and the frantic pacing comes off as disjointed.
 
Perhaps the biggest flaw, though, is Simon himself. Gärdenfors isn't an interesting enough character to carry the book. He slides between personalities, switching from active participant to passive observer/chronicler. As the former, the nearly 30-year-old Simon is driven by his desire for sex, drugs and quasi-novelty rap* (which he performs). He's too inattentive (or not sober enough) to learn anything. As the latter, Simon is uneven. He chooses stories to tell that are mostly either self-aggrandizing, macho braggadocio or intended to be funny by their occurrence, and not by any creativity in presentation or actual wit. The book is essentially a collection of stories that are no more special than the "crazy shit" an annoying college roommate claims you missed over the weekend.
 
Simon, as he seems to acknowledge in the story, is an asshole. But he's not a lovable asshole or an interesting asshole...he's just an asshole.
 
Now, let me say, I don't think art should be judged by the artist or the artist's private dealings (though if you don't want to support those dealings and don't buy movie tickets, books or albums, that makes sense). But a review of Simon as a character/creator is necessary here, because he is part of the story.
 
I think the above disclaimer is necessary because criticism of books like this are often dismissed as prudery. Drugged-out memoirs certainly have a wide, welcome home on my bookshelf, but there's a certain grace and self-awareness necessary to a good story. With this book, though, there's not much evidence (apart from nationality) to distinguish Simon from uber-douche Tucker Max. He gets to second base with a 16-year-old. He makes a vaguely racist joke while drunkenly deciding against using a prophylactic. He gets yelled at, threatened, and gains weight, but he fails to gain anything from the experience.
 
The only way this can be demonstrated is through describing two parts of the book. This won't spoil the story (or whatever story there is), but if you want to be surprised, skip the next paragraph.
 
About three-fourths of the way into the book, Simon and a friend are beaten up and robbed by a group of supposedly drugged-out kids in Stockholm. Simon is hospitalized. His notes on the trip are gone. He wasn't wasted or in pursuit of sex when he was attacked, he was trying to help a friend on the way to a gig. The event was pure happenstance. Simon was well-behaved and he was harmed. This seems like a pivotal piece of the story. But afterward, nothing happens. Simon had to draw, edit and review this book before putting it out, and he seems wholly unaware of any significance (either to himself or to the story) of his beating. It's given about the same number of panels as Simon's exploits with the teenager. Simon heals and goes on. The story ends with Simon returning to his apartment as it's being fumigated for fleas. Simon says it's his punishment for living like a parasite on society, and the story ends with him in bed, crushing a flea between his fingers. The scene would be poignant if it weren't preceded by 415 pages of senseless debauchery.
 
While the book isn't much to read, it's pleasant to look at. The art looks like a modernist interpretation of old Mickey Mouse shorts. It's cute and well done. The rounded figures are simple, but I never found myself wanting more detailed drawings.
 
It's hard to fault the structure of books like this, because sometimes life doesn't have a rising action and denouement. But it's hard not to think that a more capable storyteller would omit and include differently to craft a better story. The idea of a three-month couch-surfing trip is good. The idea of doing it drugged out is interesting. The idea of doing it solely to write about it, however, doesn't work. It's debauchery for fun and profit, and at least in that regard, it's successful. | Gabe Bullard
 
*I say quasi-novelty because I'm not sure what his group, Las Palmas, always raps about. I'm going by lyrics to songs posted online and lyrics quoted in the book. As far as I can tell, they're about on par with the most forgettable tracks on Eminem's first album.
 
Click here for a preview of 120 Days of Simon, courtesy of Top Shelf.
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