A Children’s Waltz

Reviewed By

A collaboration between novelist Jessica Anthony and designer Rodrigo Corral yields a novel that makes our hearts move faster than our brains.

Opposing trajectories are at the heart of the graphic novel Chopsticks. The central character, Glory, is a teenage piano prodigy obsessed with the titular children’s waltz—a song built on divergent motion. The twin strands of the waltz begin side by side, at F and G. As the piece progresses, the notes grow farther and farther apart until they span a full octave. In musical geography, the two lines now are halfway around the world from each other: as distant as they can be before growing closer again. Glory (our “G”) is increasingly fixated on the piece as she is distanced from her love, a charming but troubled Argentine named Frank (our “F”). She starts out next door to him and ends up a continent away.

This parallel may sound a bit heavy-handed in plain prose, but the vocabulary of Chopsticks is rooted more in pictures than in words. It is a collaboration between novelist Jessica Anthony and designer Rodrigo Corral; it is a love story told in photographs, IMs, playlists, and bits of dialogue that, together, form a kind of mixed-media memory chest. Chopsticks is marketed to teens, but the skill of the two authors yields a startling, provocative book for anyone intrigued by the prospect of visiting an old subject in a new way.

Photographs carry most of the narrative. The images are beautifully rendered, their narrative powers deftly exploited. The opening hook—Glory’s sudden disappearance—is depicted in newspaper clippings and bagged police evidence. We’re then plunged into flashback: 1980s-style photographs of Glory’s young and carefree parents. Her father is an aspiring pianist, and her mother is a wine expert. We coo over Glory’s baby pictures. Then a motorcycle accident kills her mother, and we wince as the family Christmas card dwindle from three people to two (“Thank you for your support during this difficult year”). When we turn the page again, we see Glory at age sixteen, and it is affecting. She has become a poised young woman with a display of performance bills that would be impressive for a musician twice her age. But knowing what we know, seeing what we’ve seen, we worry about her.

When Frank and his parents move next door to Glory’s compact and storied family, she discovers in him a fellow artist: he’s a painter. Their courtship unfolds in sketches and mix CDs. Famous texts of all sorts, from Neruda poems to Shins songs, make their appearance. But Glory’s father—protective, grieving, and determined to see his daughter succeed where he failed—keeps her on a tight schedule, then books a European tour that takes her an ocean away. Frank, meanwhile, is messying his reputation as he acts out at his all-boys prep school, a staid institution that enrolls him in ESL courses and won’t let him play soccer. F and G try their best to maintain contact, but the external obstacles pale before the one that emerges from inside Glory.

Slowly, she is losing her mind. After being separated from Frank, her fixation rages on Chopsticks. “I can’t stop,” she confides to him over IM. She plays it for hours in practice, then ruins concert performances with gaudy improvisations of the piece. Even as her father tries to pull her back into sanity, she clings to her obsession with a tenacity that comes to look like misplaced love—of her mother, perhaps, or of Frank, or of a freedom that she’s never known. Her realities are called into question, her assumptions implied to be hallucinations. In such a context, Glory’s eventual disappearance seems like a body merely following its mind into the abyss.

Much of the book’s multimedia is devoted to documentation. We are shown Glory’s performance programs and newspaper reviews—even her birth certificate. Similarly, we are given Frank’s school roster, plane ticket stubs, and diary entries. We are presented with the characters’ favorite art: screenshots of shows and YouTube links to favorite songs (including several renditions of Chopsticks). While it’s easy to make connections between the novel’s form and its themes, it’s difficult to say precisely why the story is being told in this way. Perhaps the scattered images are intended to portray the searching patterns of Glory’s obsessive mind. Perhaps the visual memorabilia work to pull us into the mindset of young love. Perhaps the mixed media act as evidence, meant to direct and misdirect the reader through the plot.

The book’s electronic app version sows suspicion that the authors may have also been mixing media for the sake of pure experiment. Here, the screenshots and song links come to life: Jo Ann Castle performs ragtime. Chopsticks is played by figures from all corners of the culture. Wordless film clips show the characters in brief poses—Frank flexing in a boxer’s robe, Glory practicing Bach. These added layers do deepen the characters—crucial in a text where the words are so sparse. But they also, after a time, begin to distract. The flow of the app requires the reader to click on visual cues to engage the interactive content. This sometimes yields a poignant video or song, other times no more than the ability to shift objects around the screen. Some of the details are at odds with each other. Even as Anthony and Corral celebrate their multimedia approach, the Internet is at times strangely absent from the novel. Frank and Glory play solitaire with real cards; Glory searches for gigs in the newspaper classifieds.

Such tensions are present in bigger ways. In Chopsticks, the story itself is writ large, built around grand notions of genius, madness, and doomed love. Yet when we look closer, these broad strokes are made up more of accumulated motifs than well-defined meanings. We see evidence of Glory’s Chopsticks obsession in a dozen places, but the significance of the song is never revealed. Frank’s sign of his love for Glory, a dandelion, appears repeatedly but never transcends its symbolism. The reader picks up on these symbolic cues abstractly—the deep, immediate resonances aren’t fully there.

Still, Anthony and Corral hit their emotional marks with precision. It is fitting to portray heady young love in a format that can be devoured at about a page per second. As we follow Frank and Glory’s journey, our hearts move faster than our brains, and each little bump along the way—every sketch, every song, every romantic note—jolts us into a breathless state of being that we’d thought long forgotten.

Catherine Tung is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. More from this author →