Drawings courtesy of the graphic novel: Alice In New York
1989. The Big Apple. For a lot of people, those four words would mean little or nothing. But for me personally, it means a lot, because I was living there in 1989. The Twin Towers were still intact. Our country hadn’t turned that strange corner yet and started accelerating down a slippery slope into the 24-7 fear-mongering which has left us in the mess we’re in today.
When you’re in a mess, there’s no room for magic. But in 1989, in New York City, the old gods, the old ways, were still intact, and this is the year and the setting where Henry Chamberlain captured that feeling tenderly and bravely with his graphic novel “Alice in New York.”
If magic was a color, if magic was, say, yellow, this charming tale of new adult angst and self-discovery would be coated in great swaths of gold as the reader follows Henry on his first-time visit to New York, or through the looking glass, as it were.
Being in New York is like stepping through the looking glass—or it used to be, at least. Equally mind-blowing and exasperating at the same time, it vibrates with visible and invisible energy, punctuated by violence and madness. I mean, except for traveling out of the United States to countries that are densely populated, where can you run into a scene like this in everyday life?
Yet this is what I encountered, every single day, when I journeyed from Brooklyn to Manhattan, where I worked, and Mr. Chamberlain captured the frantic, crushing crowds perfectly. The reader is pulled into the tale by the artist’s sometimes simple and straightforward, sometimes subtly evocative drawings, as revealed in this lyrical likeness of a hand during a conversation, for example:
As Henry goes deeper and deeper into the looking glass, he mentally dismantles the Natural Museum of History, savors and inhales the Met, and deconstructs a statue of Teddy Roosevelt down to its outdated symbolism, although his guide manages to pare his derision down into a harmless little ball utilizing the wisdom of time and hindsight:
With little “Easter eggs” of thought and philosophy like “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,” and “Innocence is something you peel away…as you replace it with wisdom” slipping smoothly in and out of the dialogue, the reader is invited on a carpet ride along with Henry into a simultaneously physical and mental adventure.
At one point, a character intones that someone else has been murdered in a young woman’s apartment building, to which her succinct reply is, “What, again, so soon?”
I smiled wryly at that because, yeah, that’s how it is there. My first week in NYC, I saw someone getting brained with a wooden plank right outside my hotel window, and I witnessed a suicide victim drowning in the Hudson River (right before my boyfriend jumped in and tried to save them.) It’s definitely a city that would provoke thought and demand answers, such as it does with Henry.
It’s not just me, though, who can relate to “Alice in New York”, due to my having known the City so well. The underlying message and offering is universal, a silver platter of delicious hors d’oeuvres free for the taking: Who are we? Why are we alive? What are we supposed to be doing? Henry’s visit to NYC only accelerated and underlined the questions that we all have, or have had, in our minds at one time or another, since we all shoulder that immense joy and burden that we call sentience.
What better way to recognize those thoughts and address the state of being alive than by diving head-first into the frenetic mosh pit that is New York? Back in time, not even too far back, we still retained a little bit of innocence, enough to perhaps keep us open-minded to the concept of the little gods and angels that watch over us, the Alices that operate behind the curtain, move within us, inspire us, help us get through.
And I’m not saying it’s completely gone now, the innocence, but I think it’s much harder to reach, much harder to access these days, and “Alice in New York” is a sweetly pleasant, kinetic reminder of how to ponder, how to care, how to seek, and how to possibly journey through this world: with hope, love, and ultimately understanding.
And a few large white rabbits thrown into the mix!
The full graphic novel is available for your enjoyment here: Alice in New York Henry Chamberlain.