“In my experience, people live in the reality that’s presented to them. It’s if you look for something else that you’re being strange.”
Those apposite words from The Book of Forks, the final graphic novel in Rob Davis’s SelfMadeHero trilogy, are spoken around the midway mark by outsider Castro Smith, one of the trio of teenage characters we’ve been following through this saga since 2014. Back then, in the first book The Motherless Oven, we were introduced to Scarper Lee, the schoolboy who had just three weeks to live until his predestined deathday arrived. Scarper inhabited a bizarre reality where parents were created by their children, the sky rained knives and entertainment was provided by the Daily Wheel. Davis cunningly made few concessions to his audience in that opener, instead throwing them headfirst into Scarper’s life and encountering the weirdness that surrounded him with a dizzying immediacy.
In the following book, The Can Opener’s Daughter, the focus shifted to second main player Vera Pike’s back story and her fractious relationship with her mother the Weatherclock (also the Prime Minister of Chance in Vera’s home of Grave Acre), and tracing events before her life converged with those of Scarper and Castro.
The Book of Forks brings the story to its absorbingly fatalistic end with a concluding chapter that follows Scarper and Vera’s search for the now missing Castro and parallels it with Castro’s time as a resident of the mysterious Power Station. Interspersed within these two narrative threads are pages from The Book of Forks, the encyclopedic tome Castro has been compiling that will perhaps finally explain the mysteries of the strange world of The Motherless Oven…
If you’re unfamiliar with this series those preceding paragraphs will no doubt discombobulate and perhaps even baffle you. But trust me when I say that this is not a bad thing. Davis’s trilogy represents a genuinely unique creative vision and yet one that, for all its overt strangeness and ostentatious incongruities, is steeped in the eerily familiar too. In The Book of Forks he both subverts and embraces the traditional coming-of-age narrative, reflecting the confusion, uncertainty and insecurities of those formative teenage years in the visual trappings and routines of Scarper, Vera and Castro’s environment.
The interaction of the contradictory, as seen in the juxtaposition of urban mundanity with the brutally idiosyncratic and the disarmingly allegorical, is a central conceit of this reality. The Book of Forks is a difficult book to precis without discussing revelations that are the readers to discover for themselves in this complex finale. But what we can perhaps describe as the internal illogic of Davis’s creation is slowly disseminated in this concluding volume through the interweaving of Castro’s own conjectures. Davis’s visual style underlines this duality; normality and domesticity sitting side by side with the fantastic and the grotesque.
What had felt like the trilogy’s ultimate destination in the first two books feels oddly secondary when we reach the concluding chapter. The answers are less important than the experience of being immersed in the worldviews of our three central characters and recognising their perceptions of their environment as young adults. It’s a reminder of that period of our lives when boundless possibility was nevertheless wrapped up in the restrictive and the stifling. Their world is so disquieting and bemusing not because the oblique and the weird is the intentional focal point here but because that’s how all our individual worlds feel when we’re 15 years old.
There are echoes and fragments of our own lives here then: their rituals and complexities brought to surreal symbolic life and ironically becoming all the more familiar for their exaggerated detachment. Scarper is initially comfortable in the routines and boundaries of his life, Vera challenges and rebels against them, while Castro methodically interrogates and objectively observes them. Through them (and like them) we are drawn in from the outset into an existence we don’t fully understand but must react to and contend with on its own terms.
Motifs of the existential and the epistemological merge in The Book of Forks as the inner workings and history of Bear Park, Grave Acre and the various Death States it comprises are detailed, and the arbitrariness of the social structures that define and guide us deconstructed. But for all its extravagant outlandishness this is a very human and surprisingly relatable story, and that’s the true triumph of The Motherless Oven trilogy.
Rob Davis (W/A) • SelfMadeHero, £12.99/$19.99
Review by Andy Oliver