Overlooked: The Banana Story of Agony

A children’s book we should all read by fourth year

Overlooked: <em>The Banana Story of Agony</em>

I found The Banana Story of Agony in the children’s section of BMV Books. Something about it called to me. It was probably the words “banana” and “agony”: the former being my favourite fruit and the latter being my perpetual state of being. So naturally, I bought it without so much as a glance at the blurb. After initially abandoning it in the corner of my room next to an empty Pepcid bottle, I stumbled upon it again days later, and to my surprise found that I had purchased a masterpiece.

The Banana Story of Agony is a picture book, written and illustrated by Lesley Johnson and published by Conundrum Press, an independent publisher known for its graphic novels. However, it would be folly to assume that The Banana Story of Agony can be classified as anything other than high art.

On a superficial level, this book looks like any other children’s book. Illustrations are accompanied by large, simple text running along the bottom, and the stories all feature children, personified objects, or mythic persons such as Santa Claus. Upon looking closer, however, one discovers that it not only appears to be written for a child, but also written by a child. The illustrations are simple and unpolished, and you can see the white space where the watercolour paper shows through. In fact, the pictures are oddly reminiscent of locker murals painted by middle school art clubs.

Even the text, which Johnson created using both her left and right hand simultaneously, mimics a childlike scrawl. But this isn’t a criticism. This precisely shows how the work blurs the line between child and adult literature, art and kitsch, satire and seriousness.

One of the work’s most obvious blurred dualities is that of innocence and disturbance. The childlike simplicity of the illustrations are juxtaposed with the absurdity and undeniable creepiness of the four stories: “Love”, “There’s No One Home: A Story of Indifference”, “Susan had a Chicken on her Butt”, and the titular “Banana Story of Agony.” The plots of these tales resemble that of an uncomfortably vivid and particularly bizarre dream, one that you wake up remembering and later recount to an annoyed group of strangers while on acid at a house party.

Like Daniel Johnston’s cassette covers, Mark Perry’s Sniffin’ Glue, and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Lesley Johnson’s The Banana Story of Agony is undeniably punk rock in its defiance of conventional norms of art and literature. It is art from the ground up, born from the grassroots, from a place where there are no rules and where we are all a little “bananas.”

Book Club: Shyness and Dignity

Dag Solstad explores what inevitably shapes our fate: what we can control and what we can’t control

Book Club: <i>Shyness and Dignity</i>

The existentialist novel — however it may be defined — is a modern invention. Following the devastation of World War II, its intellectual vanguards developed a philosophy to more deeply express the human experience.

These novelists relay existential concepts while paying special attention to detail and voice in style andtransience and nuance in psychology. Ultimately, their philosophical inquiries articulate the tangible and invisible forces driving our alienation from the modern world.

Yet the existential novel can be seen as dated, bordered by conventions and overshadowed by succeeding literary movements that consider the ambivalence of our ontological condition from a greater variety of narrative and philosophical angles. Existentialism is anachronistic  a uniquely twentieth century literary enterprise. How else to revive the genre if not through emulation, parody, or kitsch?

Enter Dag Solstad, Norway’s most celebrated contemporary writer, whose 1994 novel Shyness and Dignity breathes new life into an otherwise exhausted literature. His work is fully absorbed in its specific literary tradition while grounding its concerns in our unique and present-day anxieties.

Its axis revolves around Elias Rukla, a “rather sottish senior master in his fifties” teaching Norwegian literature at a secondary school in Oslo. Mid-lecture, Elias discovers hidden meaning in an ostensibly insignificant line direction in Henrich Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck. The finding inspires Elias to think innovatively about the play’s dramatics and its discussion of fate.

In spite of his passionate delivery, his students remain listless and unmotivated. Frightened by their mass boredom, Elias ultimately resigns himself to defeat. He leaves the school frustrated. Struggling to open his “collapsible” umbrella outside, he enters into a fit of rage, beats it savagely in front of spectating students, and cusses at one of them ruthlessly.

All at once, Elias realizes his downfall. Certain that his teaching post will be terminated, he despairs over the bleak economical and social future awaiting him and his wife. His crisis triggers a sequence of recollections and speculations, interwoven with daydreams and regrets, that follows throughout the rest of the novel until the very end, when he must return to his current life and face his presently doomed future.

Shyness and Dignity takes on the form of a streamofconsciousness narrative, full of winding run-on sentences and multi-page digressions, moving from one fixed idea to the next with the swiftness of pen strokes. The narration exhausts itself in bridging each detail and implication to create an intricately connected web of thoughts and ideas. However, its variations and detours never stray beyond what is truly at stake. Even the most seemingly banal details inevitably fall under the two categories suggested in the title: shyness, the natural yet inhibiting force; and dignity, the great motivator and stimulant.

Apart from its style, the novel’s preoccupation with agency, chance, and fate is a recognizable quality in existentialist literature. Echoes of Albert Camus and Knut Hamsun can be heard all throughout, and any reader of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being will find themselves in familiar territory.

What makes Solstad’s novel especially interesting, however, is its relative lightheartedness and penchant for comedy. One can easily imagine the umbrella scene as a slapstick gag in silent comedy. Yet its pervasive and subtle humor never compromises its sincerity. Miraculously, the novel strikes a brilliant balance between the comic potential of existential dilemmas and the gravity they implicate in our lives. It views our world through a sharp lens, capturing the quiet dramas we harbor daily with equal amounts of grace, sympathy, and amusement.

Shyness and Dignity is the perfect introduction to an author whose work is only recently gaining a wider readership among English-speaking readers. It is a novel that reintroduces familiar existential ideas and unpacks their newfound significance while maintaining a sophisticated style, so as to represent subtle workings of the conscience. Its ethos can be summed thusly in one of the most important lines in The Wild Duck, a proto-existentialist remark that still resonates due to its universality and urgency: “If you take the life-lie away from an average person, you take away his happiness as well.”