“Sabrina” has been receiving quite a bit of attention since its publication. The New York Times has called it “a profoundly American nightmare.” British novelist Zadie Smith wrote that it is “the best book — in any medium — I have read about our current moment.” It has already been long-listed for both the Man Booker Prize and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize.
Why all this fuss? In part, perhaps, because “Sabrina” happens to be a graphic novel.
“Sabrina” is articulated through both word and picture. The book’s world is storytelling that a traditional reader of traditional fiction might approach with some trepidation. Yet any reader open to experiencing this graphic novel will surely be moved by the contemporary truths Drnaso illuminates.
For truth and understanding are at the heart of every moment of this devastating and disturbing novel.
The first frame of the novel is a half-page close-up of a nondescript young woman. She is Sabrina Gallo. Sabrina and her sister Sandra are having a night together while Sabrina house-sits for their parents. They play with the overweight family cat and half-heartedly work on a crossword puzzle, the clues for which are ironically telling. Sandra invites her sister on a bike ride around the Great Lakes this coming spring. “That sounds great. Get out of the city. Get away from the Internet,” responds Sabrina, despite the silences that punctuate their evening.
Teddy King, who turns out to be Sabrina’s boyfriend, arrives in Colorado to visit his friend Calvin Wrobel, who works in IT at a local Air Force base. Teddy needs a break from Chicago because it seems Sabrina has gone missing. Calvin, too, has become destabilized; he is recently divorced and missing his wife, Jackie, and daughter, Cici.
Calvin talks rather a lot. Teddy, when he talks, replies in very short responses, rarely more than a couple of words. Silences begin to punctuate their evenings.
Sandra remains in Chicago, trying to deal with her sister’s disappearance. By this time, all indications are that the novel will deal with the puzzle of Sabrina’s vanishing. But that is not the author’s intended focus. Rather quickly, Drnaso reveals Sabrina’s fate at the hands of a contentious young man who has been “active on various message boards ranging from bodybuilding to men’s rights to theoretical physics and organic farming.”
From this point the novel transmutes into a poignant, shattering examination of emotional terror and survival, of technology, and of the desperate need for truth, even “truth” derived from “answers” as radical as conspiracy theorizing.
Calvin stockpiles food and firearms “to protect my family” and constantly fills in sick-leave forms that ask him to “rate” his mood and stress level. Teddy spends too much time listening to the same talk-show conspiracy theorist who was embraced by the young man responsible for Sabrina’s disappearance; Teddy says of that young man, “There’s plenty more where he came from.” Sandra reads aloud to a support group the threats she has received for supposedly covering up the truth of what happened to Sabrina.
Nick Drnaso’s drawings augment the absolute austerity of the lives each of his characters is living. Colors are muted, tending towards grays (even blacks) and somber pastels. Single pages are often divided into as many as 24 frames, suggesting alienation rather than connection.
There are also many harrowing frames in which there are no words:
There is only silence. In the brief coda that contains the final images of the novel: not one word. Is the silence of that coda one of hope or one of unutterable melancholy?
Without a doubt, this new work certainly deserves all the praise it has recently received. In “Sabrina,” Nick Drnaso could, in fact, have crafted a contemporary masterwork.
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.