Darkness Outside the Night
by Xie Peng
(text by Duncan Jepson)
Xie Peng, it would appear, is not a happy man. His debut graphic novel Darkness Outside the Night is a sparse, hauntingly drawn journey through the tragic life of its protagonist, a tiny, childlike character who doesn't do much, but suffers all manner of mental and physical torment doing it.
With the minimal but judicious addition of words by Duncan Jepson, it is one of the bleakest reads imaginable, an agonised allegorical indictment of the alienation and dislocation caused by China's recent headlong dive into individualism and consumerism.
Yet the work is also curiously uplifting, both because of the hints of redemption among the horror and the engaging emotional vulnerability of Xie's drawing style. Told in 18 chapters of varying lengths with stark one-word titles, the novel's superficially cute, minimally drawn character wanders through surreally warped, associative, impressionistic representations of the world.
Visually Kafkaesque, the book is as dark in colour as it is in emotional tone, with blacks bleeding into angry, dismal reds and washed-out pastels. The landscape appears as a series of massively theatrical, soaring stage sets that dwarf the tiny protagonist.
Malevolent figures menace him, the desolate cityscapes and blasted lands seem to swallow him, and his face expresses every possible shade of anguish and helplessness.
There is no conventional action, just a series of vignettes in which the character contemplates his situation, tries to make human connections and is thwarted at every turn. The book asks the question: when the old social model breaks down, what comes in to replace it?
The answer seems to be: money, and nothing else. Xie and Jepson examine what's missing: the loss of meaning and human connections in the scramble towards individualism - the things money can't buy.
Occasionally Darkness Outside the Night ditches the spare style and explodes into visual life. In the chapter "Sharing", consumerism is presented as a surreally automated, hyperreal play world from which the protagonist is excluded, but in which he can't bring himself to participate anyway. In "Tininess", the totems of consumerism are presented in gaudy maximalist extremity, while the final chapter, "Farewell", with its numerous rectangular images on each page, presents another disorientating blast of visual information.
The book is filled with symbols of the character's loneliness and alienation: a slice of cake that makes him vomit, a scarf he discards, a snow globe he can't have. His footprints following him as he walks through driving snow are as near as he gets to companionship.
Community is only available within the commoditised environment of an amusement park, one with "Forbidden" written on the outside in massive gloomy letters; his attempt to break through the barrier results in him falling on his face, crushing the flower thrown to him from inside the funfair in another symbol of his dislocation.
The strength of the book lies as much in what is absent as what is present. There's no preaching, no grand statements on postmodern China, but also no real plot and few words; in fact this genre-busting work is less a novel than a visual tone poem, a moving artwork that develops through time, forever taking on unsettling new forms.
The naked emotionality of Xie's drawings is what makes Darkness Outside the Night so affecting - it has even been praised by that master chronicler of the effects of modern China's social changes on the individual, recent Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mo Yan, who said it "will inspire us on how to deal with life".
A dark howl from the depths of modern China's soul, you can read it in an hour, but you could easily spend weeks reading about that nation's condition and find out less.