Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel
The Macmillian imprint First Second has a unique approach to promoting the graphic novels it publishes—you can often read them online before they’re published. They did this with Americus (which I should really pick up from the library for a reread and proper review) and they did it with Sailor Twain, a graphic novel written by the imprint’s editorial director. In the former’s case, I read it avidly—in the latter, I avoided it like the plague. I mean, otherwise, it’s right up my alley: I adore period speculative fiction. But knowing I could read it before its publication made me, perversely, want to wait for the book to come out. The marketing strategy either failed or worked spectacularly. Tricksy marketing people!
Sailor Twain (or, The Mermaid in the Hudson) tells the story of three different people. Captain Elijah Twain helms a riverboat owned by the lascivious Lafayette, who never leaves the riverboat when he can be seducing female passengers, or corresponding with the mysterious and popular author C. G. Beaverton, who writes books about American folklore. When Twain pulls a wounded mermaid from the depths of the Hudson, their lives come crashing together, as secrets are revealed and the dark, painful heart of the river itself is revealed.
I read Sailor Twain on one of the first beautiful days of the year—sunny, clear, and warm, which was much appreciated after a cold snap that gave us snow. (Snow in Georgia is blasphemy.) And yet, with all this loveliness around me, I was sucked into the atmosphere of the graphic novel’s world: rainy, dreary, and ghostly. It’s framed as a flashback; Beaverton finds Twain in a tavern and demands he reveal what happened earlier that year. At its best, Sailor Twain is a meditation on love and a meditation on the stories we tell ourselves. The mythology of Siegel’s world (which starts with a very Greek tale of mermaids banished to freshwater by their father for dallying with mortal men) ever leans toward both the expanses inside of ourselves and the ways we shield ourselves from each other. In the middle of the story, Twain’s wife cheerfully tells him that, by the volume of his writing, he must have found his muse—his muse, of course, is the mermaid he keeps locked protectively (or is that jealously?) in his cabin. It’s telling that the climax of the novel begins with two people falling in deep, sudden love; it’s only then that all hell can break loose.
Unfortunately, that’s when it starts to fall apart for me. Sailor Twain has a lot of strengths—the immense research, its stunning premise, and its gorgeous art. But the premise never quite blossoms into the human, painful epic it could be. In my introduction to film class (one of the best classes I took at my college), my professor told us that you can ferret out a text’s politics by its last five minutes. We know Some Like It Hot is radical because it happily lets a queer couple sail off into the sunset with a killer punchline (“Nobody’s perfect!”). Conversely, Sailor Twain ends with all adultery and the seductive outsider punished. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, really, besides a sense of disappointment. Must it end so unhappily? Is this a product of Siegel’s much ballyhooed-in-his-bio upbringing in France? (And does that mean I’m a bad Frenchwoman for not getting it? I mean, worse at being French than usual?) I just wish the story grew to such heights that its denouement felt like heartbreak, not failure.
Much of the atmosphere of the novel is drawn from its smudged, charcoal-based black and white art. Despite the palette and beautifully rendered scenes of rain on the Hudson, a casual reader might be tempted to classify the simple shapes Siegel utilizes as cartoonish—Lafayette (and his deceased brother) sport comical Cyrano de Bergerac-style noses, while Twain himself looks like nothing so much as a muppet. But the characters in this story have clean lines so that they might be blurred, to reveal the weakness within; towards the end, there’s even a story-telling conceit that transforms characters out of shape. Additionally, the introductory page to each part of the novel is covered in newspaper clippings pertinent to the story at hand, which you can find on the novel’s website. (Along with plenty of mixtapes featuring, of course, the Decemberists’ “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” and “Annan Water”.) It’s utterly—well, not gorgeous, but the art has a particular soul to it, and one that serves its moody story well.
Bottom line: Sailor Twain’s immense powers of atmosphere transport you to a dreary, rainy, and ghostly Hudson River a century ago—I just wish the story reached its full potential so its ending felt like a heartbreak, not a disappointment. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.