Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Forgotten Man - Guest Post

Source: goodreads.com
The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes and Chuck Dixon
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publication date: May 27, 2014
Category: Graphic Novel
Source: I received this ARC from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. However, I felt most incapable of reviewing this book. I did not realize how political it was when I requested it. My grasp on (and caring about) politics is at times tenuous and my historical knowledge of the Great Depression does not include the full politics behind it. I wasn't sure if it was this medium or myself to blame, so please welcome my co-worker, friend, and fellow lover of books, Sam as he gives his insight on the graphic novel. Sam teaches Senior English, including AP Composition, and has his Master's degree in English Education. He has a brilliant memory, later recalling minute details from books he's read or whole sections from movies without effort...it makes me jealous.

In the interests of disclosure, I’d like to note that I have not read the original book, The Forgotten Man, by Amity Shlaes.  However, after reading the graphic novelization of that book by Amity Shlaes and Chuck Dixon, I found myself wishing I had read Shlaes’ original book instead.
For the sake of expounding on the plot, the graphic novel frames the Great Depression through the memories and experiences of Wendell Wilkie, a real-life lawyer who felt government should tread lightly regarding its interference in the private sector.  Mostly, he believed the government had an unfair advantage because of its seemingly limitless resources, although he did feel that some aspects of society could benefit from government intervention.  Granted, that’s an abbreviated biography of Wilkie, but it provides a little context.
The graphic novel traces the events leading up to the depression and the Depression itself.  It also traces the major and minor people who had a hand the proceedings, whether as a helpers, hindrances, or helpless observers.  I’ll grant that the approach is nothing if not intriguing.  Morphing a non-fiction book about the Great Depression into a graphic novel is an idea with a sense of novelty.  However, the black and white 1930s illustrations cannot disguisethe sheer amount of information sacrificed to adapt the work into a graphic medium.  Ultimately, this book is like hearing about an amazing Broadway performance rather than actually attending one.
After some rumination, I failed to ascertain exactly what audience this graphic novel is targeting.  It certainly can’t be aimed at those who read Shlaes’ book; the redundancy factor would seem to outweigh any potential interest in the illustrations.  In my case, I felt this graphic novel served little purpose beyond perhaps appealing to the rather obscure, esoteric niche of people who enjoy reading books on the Great Depression twice.  One effect of the work, as I mentioned earlier, is that it made me want to read the original work--an effect Dixon most likely wasn’t shooting for.
Putting that objection aside, the graphic novel’s lack of an index created significant agitation.  With any historical text involving a vast array of characters, the reader may find it increasingly difficult to remember certain people, especially if said individuals are only mentioned in passing dozens of pages before the author mentions them again.  The dearth of an index causes increasing frustration the further one gets in the work.  
I know I don’t speak for all non-fiction readers, but I often refer to the index to keep my memory fresh on characters and events, a practice which not only refreshes any memory lapses, but also gives the information more value.  After all, authors who provide indexes do not do so because they enjoy sifting through their drafts to do what is fairly tedious cataloguing.  Rather, they understand that readers often need a road map to assist their endeavors to understand and appreciate the material more fully.  Although the graphic novel does have a timeline and a character list at the end with short biographies of the characters (ranging from three to five or so sentences), those reference points are woefully insufficient for a subject of this magnitude.  
 As if the previous complaints aren’t enough, the very nature of graphic novels guarantees that a vast quantity of information and analysis will not make it from the novel to the graphic novel.  Essentially, this graphic novel is nothing more than an abbreviated version of what I can only presume is a much more thorough non-fiction piece (the original book is over 500 pages whereas this one clocks in at just under 300).  Since we all know that even thoroughly researched works often lack all facets of the subject matter because of either bias or the vastness of the subject, abridging the subject matter even more does little to help anyone’s attempts at understanding the Depression.
For the average reader, the graphic novel approach coupled with the lack of indexed reference points are clear indicators of disaster.  Most people are not familiar with the major players and events surrounding the Depression, and though the graphic novel does provide those major players and events, it does not do so in an optimal manner.  Not having read Shlaes’ book, I can’t give any detailed comparison between the text of her book relative to the dialogue and narration in this graphic novel.  I don’t doubt that Dixon (and Paul Riuoche, the illustrator) put a generous amount of effort into this graphic novel, but I feel that effort could have been better served elsewhere.  Like movies based on real events, too often the makers modify the material to suit the medium.  Call it personal prejudice, but I doubt I’ll ever come to believe that putting non-fiction into the graphic novel medium will enhance the subject matter.

What do you think about graphic novels? Agree with Sam or not? Does topic make a difference?

1 comment:

  1. While I love graphic novels and have seen them work before (Maus I and II), this one did not work for me either. I felt lost most of the time and I think it's because there was so much information to understand, but very little you can get across at a time in this format. Reading the original book by Amity Shlaes would probably be a better idea to fully understand the concepts within.