The gorgeous watercolor work on the beautiful textured paper of the cover is simultaneously idyllic and eerie — two women wash their clothes in a river, the fabric shimmering yellow, blue and red through the water. Two men, in pure black silhouettes, watch from the foreground shore. It’s an ominous beauty that hints at the unsettling story inside — a sense deepened by back cover blurbs printed on cleavers and hacksaws — but it doesn’t in any way prepare you for this utterly strange, funny, and quietly horrifying reading experience, an intriguing and troubling book-format debut from Conor Stechschulte.
Jim and Winston are figures more familiar from the stage than from the funny pages. Dressed in identical black suits, hats and bolo ties, Winston is tall & thin with a long, pointed nose, Jim fleshy and round, his features barely disrupting the baby-fat pudge of his spherical head. They call to mind Laurel and Hardy. They arrive one morning, both mentioning that they felt sick and feverish the night before. They enter what they recognize as their butcher shop but it’s empty. No meat, no goods, nothing in the pantry. Slowly they begin to realize that they don’t seem to remember anything beyond their names and professions. They can’t remember how to go about doing their job, or where they are exactly, or how they got here. Then two women who seem to know them arrive — apparently these are regular customers — asking for a pork loin and a pound of ground chuck. Jim and Winston have to figure out how to deliver the product.
With their broad physical types, squabbling, and comical incompetence, they are slapstick figures forced into confrontation with an existential vacancy — precisely like WAITING FOR GODOT’s Vladimir and Estragon. In fact the whole premise feels theatrical — the empty shop like an unfurnished set, the identical costumes on the men, who don’t seem to know anything more than what you’d read in the opening to a script: Jim, butcher, tall and thin, dressed in black. Like so much avant-garde theatre, it takes advantage of the blankness of its setting — the bare room with false walls, the flimsiness of poor stage craft — to create a heightened superreality of characters on a stage rather than people existing in the world. But this is a comics page, an immersive space where anything can be drawn. The choice to heighten its artifice is disorienting, and pulls you into the momentary nature of the story, the hovering unknown nervous responsiveness in which these characters seem to exist.
What we’re in for, once we get down to it, is a classic dream trope: the nightmare of unpreparedness. These two are butchers, they’re expected to sell meat to these upstanding women, but they have no idea how. All they know is that failure doesn’t feel like an acceptable option.
The centerpiece of the book is brutal slapstick horrorshow of incompetence and self-harm. Desperately searching the shop, they find a pig and cow out back, and realize their only way out of this is to figure out butchery by the seat of their pants. The lengths that they will go to to accomplish their grim task is funny and frightening; they seem to have a dreamy disregard for their own unsafety.
On one level, the physical reality is convincingly realistic — you imagine yourself into their shoes, the horrible chaos and mess that would ensure if you tried to butcher a pig with your total lack of knowledge and skill. But what’s unreal, and truly chilling, is their total disregard for their own physical bodies, which they easily sacrifice in pursuit of achieving their meaningless task, undistracted by injury, by the loss of limps or fingers. All that matters is getting this right, so the women inside won’t realize how badly everything is amiss. The most haunting — and laugh-out-loud- funny — image in the book is when Jim and Winston, horribly maimed and mangled, proudly present their customers with dripping bloody sacks of unprocessed meat, filled with teeth and bits of bone.
The final moments of the book are beautiful and baffling, and I won’t spoil them here except to say that they harken back to that tense, striking cover. For all of its visceral, in-the-moment storytelling and its unadorned micron art style, THE AMATEURS is a mysterious, unknowable book, one that refuses to make its intentions clear. But there’s something very human and queasily recognizable in their frantic scrambling, their panic in the face of the unknown, their fixation on keeping up appearances first and foremost. Their only impulse on finding themselves in this bizarre predicament is not to solve the problem or try to understand the situation — it’s to hide the evidence, to make sure that no one finds them out. That’s why, in the near-universal dream of being on stage with no script, we never simply walk out of the spotlight. No one can ever know how confused or frightened we are. The masks must stay firmly affixed, in the carefully wrought array we’ve spent a lifetime designing. The show must go on
THE AMATEURS features a framing story that seems to come from another genre entirely, one set apart from the minimalist anxiety of avant-garde theatre — the musty, leatherbound timbre of Victorian horror. The story begins with the words “I fear that all my life I’ve been sheltered from some horrible truth, some terrible knowledge that I’ve only glimpsed the remotest edge of,” narrated as an entry from the journal of a young girl at a nearby boarding school. This jarring, fascinating shift in tone bookends the story, and it reads like something out of Edgar Allen Poe or M.R. James, a chilling, overcooked gothic creepfest. Still, its central spectactle of a decapitated, rotting human head speaking from the banks of a river is nowhere near the most frightening thing in this tale. Blood and foreboding can’t compete with with the terror of unpreparedness, of transparency, of being seen for the desperate amateur that you really are.