Review: The Waste Land

The Waste Land is a wondrous and entirely unexpected thing which I acquired for the princely sum of 20p at my local library: a graphic novel retelling of T.S. Eliot’s seminal Modernist poem by Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. It seems there are two editions of this gem: issues with Eliot’s estate meant a second edition had to be published – it’s this edition I’m reviewing here – which couldn’t quote any of the original poem; not that this seems to have affected the general parodic quality of the piece.

Anyway. The story, such as it is, follows a hard-boiled noir detective, Chris Marlowe (an escapee from a Raymond Chandler novel, or a seventeenth-century playwright, or both), as he searches for his missing business partner, Mike the Minoan, in Eliot’s Unreal City: London, though a disconnected and fragmented version of it. (“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.”)

A Goodreads reviewer, Liam Guilar, suggests that Marlowe’s search for his partner in Waste Land London is a performance of the search for meaning with which befuddled first-time readers approach Eliot’s poem – “the irony being the only coherence the poem has to offer is the reader’s search for it.” This is a brilliant and elegant reading which, frankly, I wish I’d come up with myself. (There are also interesting resonances here with the theme of the Grail quest Eliot threads half-heartedly through the poem.)

So Rowson renders Eliot’s text as place – specifically, as a nightmarish version of London, identified mainly (as it is in the poem) by the River Thames, curling its symbolic, stinking way through the text’s heart. Marlowe is literally a stranger in this city; in the first chapter of the book he’s knocked out and shipped across the Atlantic to London, and we see it through his stranger’s eyes – the caricature grotesquerie of Rowson’s art style rendering it larger than life and half-unrecognisable. As another Goodreads reviewer pointed out, rather less insightfully, “the story seems to jump all over the place.” Well, yes. That disconnection is pretty much the whole point of both texts: Eliot renders it linguistically, as a breakdown of cultural touchstones, a scattergun range of quotations and intertexts that don’t relate to anything, “a heap of broken images” with no shaping connective tissue; Rowson renders it narratively, in a search that doesn’t make sense with a solution that “is no solution” (Guilar again), and spatially, in a London that doesn’t look quite like our London, teetering on the edge of the familiar, and populated by anachronistic historical figures: Queen Elizabeth I in a modern-looking crowd on the banks of the Thames, Joseph Conrad in a London pub.

That spatial rendering is rather Gothic, in the sense that Rowson’s London looks and works a lot like the huge, impossibly rambly castles and country homes in Gothic literature – like Gormenghast and Manderley and the Navidson house. These Gothic spaces are uncanny: they take the familiar, ordered space of the home and render it unknowable, unmappable, architecturally impossible. The Gothic as a mode is often associated with the bourgeoisie, but here Rowson’s making a connection with Modernism too; a connection that’s always been latent, because if the Gothic disturbs the rational space of the home then it also, simultaneously, disrupts the rationalism of the Word – the Western Christian construct of the written word as holy, always true, a perfect window into the thoughts of men. The Gothic, characterised by linguistic excess (there’s a reason all those eighteenth-century moralists were appalled by the idea of young ladies reading The Mysteries of Udolpho), by sentence structures that you can get lost in just as you get lost in the corridors of the castles they describe, conceals and reveals the void at the heart of all things, especially at the heart of Western rationalism. And that’s something Eliot’s Waste Land, not to mention Modernism at large, is also urgently concerned with: “the centre cannot hold”, as Yeats wrote just three years before Eliot published The Waste Land; Western morality and thought has become a haunted house, the shared cultural and religious touchstones we used to have in common dissolved and vanished. “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.”

Why is this important? What does it add to our understanding of The Waste Land?

Something which I do find suggestive about Rowson’s treatment of the poem – which links back to Guilar’s point above about the search for coherency in Eliot’s poem constituting the only coherency the poem possesses or can offer – is that, for readers familiar with the original, it becomes a way to navigate Rowson’s text; we decode Marlowe’s search for Mike the Minoan by spotting the references to the poem, a self-reflexive circle which points out the essential meaninglessness of critical approaches to The Waste Land. The poem by its very form denies meaning, even obfuscates it deliberately; that’s ultimately what Rowson’s parodic treatment brings us to realise.

I still love Eliot’s poem, and you get the sense that despite his mockery Rowson does too. His graphic novel treats it as the cultural touchstone it (ironically) is nowadays, and yet it also uncovers and deflates the nihilism that lies behind its artistic vision (and, by extension, the artistic vision of much of today’s literary establishment). It seems sort of pointless to write anything else about The Waste Land – Rowson’s said everything there is to say. Which is good value, for 20p.

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