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Ben Katchor
Hand Drying in America
Pantheon / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-307-90690-8
Publication Date: 03-05-2013
160 Pages; $29.95
Date Reviewed: 03-28-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013

Index:  Science Fiction  General Fiction  Fantasy  

The fantastic imagination can find an outlet in what at first glance appears to be a very ordinary world. The stuff of our lives is settled into a comfortable, familiar configuration, but the introduction of a simple invention or innovation can turn our world upside-down.

In his comic strips for Metropolis Maagazine, Ben Katchor crafts low-key but wildly imaginative twists on the here-and-now to create fantastic visions that have the veneer of everyday reality. His newest book, 'Hand Drying In America,' is at once a mind-boggling work of alternate history and a powerful indictment of contemporary American society, but the stories seem only slightly surreal and entirely plausible. They're quick parables with the mind-altering power of smart philosophy wrapped up in goofy stories that glance down dead-end alleys with a combination of mordant humor and wistful nostalgia.

'Hand Drying In America' is a gorgeously produced, large format hardcover with full-color, slick pages; in 160 pages you get 160 stories, including the endpapers. The story that unfolds across the endpapers is indicative of the acerbic, ascetic visions in the book. In it, Katchor follows a reporter who finds out just how economically and ecologically destructive it is to produce books like 'Hand Drying In America.' Pantheon is well known for producing great books, and this is no exception, other than the fact that it tells you just how bad this all is. Consider yourself warned. This is just the first subversion and you've not even arrived on the title page.

What follows are 159 stories that generally speaking, tweak one aspect of reality and, in a single page, follow the implications of that tweak to the point where the absurdity of the world created only points back to the absurdity of our world. Whether he is exploring the sound of a light switch or "The Providential Twine Center," Katchor creates his world with an enjoyable rigor and a shaggy drawing style that easily captures the chaos of the cities he portrays. He utterly immerses you in his world for exactly one page. Then you're out, and what you see around seems transformed.

Katchor's ability to creating elements of the fantastic that seem almost logical and yet are utterly mind-boggling is consistently amazing. To the degree that he does so time and time again, this book is probably best read in small doses, but even if your binge and read through the whole thing in one or two sittings, you will find that he creates world you can easily revisit.

The strips are tricky on every level, in the best of all possible senses. Each story is easily read; the visuals and the carefully lettered text flow well. But the ideas are quite sophisticated and the prose is very smart. It sustains being read aloud on its own; if you try this, the stories feel like surreal prose poems. The sketched, causal feel of the art combined with a very precise use of colors combine to establish an everyday urban gestalt. The places you visit feel real. It's as if Katchor has been to all the parts of whatever city you live in that your have not managed to visit yet.

'Hand Drying in America' is ultimately a very odd duck, a subversive work of alternate history and a gnarly interrogation of what we have come to accept. Katchor's stories, powerful and resonant, all ask questions that tempt the readers of those stories to ask questions, and not just of the author or the stories themselves, but also of the world that surrounds them. It is, not surprisingly, like an artifact from one of the worlds it creates, a troubling wedge that slides into the bricks of our beliefs and upsets a balance that we did not know to exist. Read it at your own risk; watch the walls of your world come tumbling down.

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