“When I was all messed up and I had opera in my head your love was a light bulb hanging over my bed”
Conor Stechschulte‘s Ultrasound, which is published by Fantagraphics, is a terrifically weird graphic novel, which is technically a collected edition, but the disparate parts came out with such time between them and Stechschulte apparently re-did some of it for this edition, so I’m counting it as a standalone graphic novel. Come at me, bros!
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot of Ultrasound, because it’s a twisty, weird, thriller, and part of the fun is finding out what’s going on, and even then, you still have surprises in store for you. The set-up is intriguing: Glen meets a friend of his in a bar and begins telling him a story of the most recent time he’s gotten laid, which apparently broke a dry spell for him (as his friend points out, talking about sex is what men do). Glen is on a country road heading home because the highway is too crowded, and two of his tires blow. In the book, we see that it appears he runs over something deliberately left in the road, but Glen doesn’t know this. He finds a house in the middle of nowhere, and the man who answers seems to know just what’s happened, although Glen doesn’t find this strange (the man appears to be guessing, but he’s really good at it). He lets Glen in, but there are complications with getting his car done right away, as they’re in the middle of nowhere and the only garage is miles away and, you know, closed because it’s the middle of the night. The man, Arthur, and his wife, Cyndi, seem to have a decent if slightly chilly relationship, and Arthur takes medication for depression, which he proceeds to tell Glen interferes with his desire and ability to have sex. He encourages Glen to have sex with Cyndi, because she wants sex but Arthur can’t give it to her. Glen eventually acquiesces to Arthur’s prodding to go into the bedroom, where he finds Cyndi, who’s sort of on board? We get a nice conversation about what they’re going to do – it feels very real, because it’s two people in a strange situation who don’t want to be cruel but also don’t want to be too enthusiastic about the situation – and then … well, things happen. What things, I won’t say. In the morning, Glen begins – about time! – to suspect that he’s been set up, and he gets the hell out of Dodge. That is, unfortunately for him, only the beginning of his trouble.
There’s a lot more going on here than just one man’s weird sex night. After Glen leaves, Arthur and Cyndi keep showing up in his life, and he’s not sure what’s true and what’s not. We get some of Cyndi and Arthur’s back story, and it’s kind of messed up, but then we find out there’s even more to the story and it’s even more messed up. And there’s a scientist doing science-y things that seem wildly unethical, but what’s his connection to the story? And what about Cyndi’s high school friend, who shows up as just a friend early on but turns out to be much more important than that? Stechschulte takes this bizarre plot to make interesting points about intimacy, paranoia, sex, and memory (and even politics, sexual and otherwise, because why not?). What does Glen remember, and how accurate is it? What does Cyndi remember, and how accurate is that? Are they living their own lives, or are they being controlled? How much control do we have over our own lives, and how much have we been conditioned? It’s a fascinating book, because it veers so much from one genre to another, but Stechschulte is always able to return to those themes, making the reader twitch a bit because so much of what the characters go through hits so close to home, despite the slightly sci-fi bent to the work. As we get further down the rabbit hole, Stechschulte asks us how much we can even trust our own senses, which makes sense in a book like this, but takes the book to an even more paranoid level. I don’t love the way it ends, as it feels like Stechschulte just wanted to put a small “stinger” at the end to give it a Twilight-Zone ending, but it’s not terrible, just a bit … obvious, maybe? But that’s okay – for 377 of the book’s 380 pages, it’s excellent. That’s not a bad percentage!
Stechschulte’s art is a bit scratchy and raw, which adds to the twitchiness of the narrative. He draws people well – nobody is drop-dead gorgeous, everyone looks like they’re slightly going to seed, and we get a good sense of the foibles to which our bodies are subject. The sex scene he gives us is stupendous, as it’s very much a realistic one, where the participants fumble awkwardly at clothing, aren’t always on the same page as to what they should be doing, move into different positions clumsily, and speak in embarrassed half-sentences. It’s really beautifully done. Stechschulte uses a brush to marvelous effect, adding shadows to faces to hide intentions or signify something darker going on, while it adds a bit of softness to the harsher line work. He does very nice work with colors throughout the book, using some to signify the past or a memory, then using the same colors in the present to show where the past is bumping up against the events of the present. He superimposes some drawings on top of others to show how the people are perceiving things differently, and he scratches out some faces of people in memories to show how volatile memory can actually be. In a few places, he erases the dialogue and writes new dialogue on top, leaving the erased traces, which is a clever technique to show how memory can play tricks on us. The mercurial nature of memory can be difficult to convey in texts, because we can actually consult the text to see “what actually happened.” Stechschulte does a nice job subverting that, which is necessary in a book of this nature.
Ultrasound is disturbing on a lot of levels, but its discomforting tone is a feature, not a bug, as Stechschulte wants us to think about what makes us human and how easily those experiences can be subverted and perverted into something sinister. This is a tense read, a page-turner even, but that doesn’t mean that Stechschulte doesn’t have a lot on his mind, and the book is thoughtful and even profound. It’s very good, in other words. You know you can trust me!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆