Love Stinks? Bastien Vives’ “The Butchery”

Crucially, in an extended scene that features a couple playing a game of ping-pong both literally and metaphorically, Bastien Vives fixes his focus solely on the man — not just what he’s doing, but what he’s saying, how he’s reacting, what he’s feeling. The woman, however, is both silent and invisible — and compared to the treatment women receive from the cartoonist in the rest of The Butchery (originally released in its native France in 2017, newly available in an English language edition from Fantagraphics with translation by Jenna Allen), trust me when I say this is a kindness. It’s better not be featured at all than it is to be depicted as, by turns, an unknowable mystery and a frigid, uncommunicative bitch.

Vives drew some heat for the rather “male gaze-y” nature of his recent collaborative graphic novel The Grand Odalisque, but it’s hard to say which among the trifecta of himself, Jerome Mulot, and Florent Ruppert was most responsible for what essentially played out as a 100-some-page version of Catherine Zeta-Jones angling her ass to dodge a laser beam in Entrapment. There is, however, no such question here given this is strictly a solo effort. And while we’ve become depressingly accustomed to stories with the same level of inherent cynicism as this one, it’s actually its one-sidedness that begins to grate quickly and never really lets up.

To give credit where it’s due, Vives’ art is open, minimalist, and entirely apropos given the book’s subject matter — the guy’s a legit colored pencil virtuoso who is absolutely expert at communicating a hell of a lot of information (particularly emotional information) with very little — but when your theadbare story charting the downward trajectory of a romantic relationship relies more on heavy-handed allegory than it does “actual” events, something’s not clicking in your creative process. Right off the bat Vives equates romance with war, which is patently absurd, but the real drag comes in the form of his none-too-subtle delineation of precisely who the “good guy” and the “bad guy” in this conflict are.

I know, I know : Vives is a man, so it’s as natural as it is predictable for him to privilege the male point of view, but holy shit, some of this stuff — while always rendered with the utmost delicacy — is so OTT you’re halfway tempted to wonder if Dave Sim didn’t ghost-write the book. In short : boy meets girl of his dreams, can’t believe how lucky he is, and then spends every day agonizing about how he can possibly both please her and connect with her, all to no avail. Her dissatisfaction with him is never spelled out in concrete terms or given the dignity of having actual reasons behind it, no — it’s just is. The scene at the beginning where he’s on one side of a closed door and she’s on the other, depicted (as all things turn out to be) from his vantage point, says it all : she’s forever right there, but just out of reach.

Okay, fair enough, neither of this couple is ever given a name, but the guy is at least afforded a chance for readers to get to know him. He’s caring, compassionate, probably a bit too eager to please for his own good, but never malicious or cruel or inattentive. When miscommunications arise, it’s because she takes everything too personally, or is too mercurial in terms of expressing her wants until it’s too late, or is simply “flighty” and prone to follow always-unstated whims with no thought to how such things might affect our poor, well-meaning shmuck who only want to, ya know, love her. Her thoughts and feelings and even the general character of her personality are things Vives doesn’t elect to bother with fleshing out, but goddamn if the roles in this relationship aren’t perfectly defined : hers is to play a game, and his is to lose it. Eventually, of course, she dumps him, but even then she’s a sidelined, her wishes being callously communicated while the two of them sit at a table in a restaurant by a male intermediary in the form of their waiter, who offers the man, in plainly-spoken terms, no sympathy, no empathy, and no understanding. The apotheosis of the self-pitying, misogynistic “man as victim” mindset having been achieved, after this Vives simply limps toward his conclusion, which has been telegraphed from page one anyway.

Somewhat more successful (barring the ping-pong thing mentioned at the outset here) are the allegorical scenes scattered throughout the book featuring another couple altogether who are meant, one would assume, to stand in for all couples — hey, at least both of them are irredeemably shitty to each other. Again, though, when you find yourself looking forward to breaks in what is a very short main storyline in and of itself, then there’s something wrong with said main storyline — and that’s doubly true when those breaks feature people violently clobbering the fuck out of each other with various implements.

The sole saving grace this book has to offer, as just alluded to, is that at least it’s a short and immediately disposable read. Five minutes and you’re done, and you can go back to your real relationship with a person who’s just that — a person. No strained metaphors for the two (or more, if that’s your thing) of you to live up or down to, no sweating whether everything you do or say is going to be precisely the wrong thing to do or say, no Greek-tragedy-in-microcosm “arc” for you to follow. Just a life to navigate and someone to navigate it with you. Is there anything so wrong with that?

In one of this book’s few light-hearted moments, our central couple is seen slow-dancing, and while they’re always just slightly out of step with each other, they’re enjoying both the interplay and the moment. As in real life, it’s the attempt that counts, not the end result. Then when the music stops we are treated to a forced and flat “reveal” that shows they were doing this whole thing at home, to a playlist supplied by their PC. Vives would seem to be saying, then, that any fleeting instances of happiness you experience with someone else are not just transitory, but artificial. Love, it would appear, is just a lie that men, specifically, tell themselves and strive to make real, not something to actually be found or experienced — because, as the rest of his story makes plain as day, women will always be impossible to both figure out and to satisfy. It’s a total crock of shit, of course. And so is this comic. It’s only dubious value lies in its inadvertent encapsulation of a certain pathetic subcultural point of view, namely : if you want to know what the so-called “incels” think relationships are like, this book spells it out.

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