Birchfield Close by Jon McNaught
Birchfield Close by Jon McNaught is another wonderful offering from Nobrow Press. It is a quiet work filled with noises, a Mona Lisa on a postage stamp, an epic in sonnet form, and a study in time captured in minutes and seconds. All these contradictions should make it clear how difficult it is to write about a book that’s only about twenty-five pages long, covers a brief period of time at the end of a day, and has no dialogue between characters.
Physically, the book is about the size of a typical paperback, and many of these fairly small pages have such tiny panels that a single page can have as many as twenty-six panels, though the number of panels varies throughout the comic book from one to three to twelve to fifteen. The colors are not bright; they are muted and aim to capture shadows and contrasts.
There is no plot; instead, McNaught takes us into the backyard where two people, perhaps kids, are portrayed kneeling as dark shapes. No specific features of these two figures can be made out. One of them plays a handheld Nintendo-like video game. They both stand up and walk over to a building. One of them points to the roof, and if they talk, we don’t hear it. They eventually climb to the top of the roof, sit down, and observe the sleepy town around them. At the end of the book, when the sun goes down, they climb down to the ground and the story ends.
This pedestrian story is fantastic because it moves at a snail’s pace and gets us to think about the minutiae of our everyday world. The entire book is about what the two young (?) people observe from the roof, and I mention “snail’s pace” because at one point, we get seven panels devoted to the movement of a snail! I’m not sure I’m convincing you to buy and read this book, but I want to. Let me ask a question: Have you ever observed with inner stillness the progress a hot-air balloon across the sky, flocks of birds in flight gathering new members as it passes neighborhood yards, or the slow movement of shadow across the grass as the sun went down? All of these seemingly mundane events are made sublime in their depiction in Birchfield Close.
The book is quiet but filled with sounds: We sit silently and flip the pages, taking up a position of observation from the roof along with the two darkened figures. While we are quiet and still, the world around us is not: We hear the sounds of a television, a radio, birds, cars going by, coughing from a nearby house, as well as the flushing of a toilet and other sounds we usually tune out around us. Birchfield Close is about paying attention to the world around us by looking and listening. It’s a compelling book.
I’ve never read a book like Birchfield Close. I’m not sure many books exists like it. How do I rate such an unusual work of art? I meant to write only a few paragraphs, but this review continued to grow in length as I found myself wanting to write all about it. And I’ve left plenty out, still. Part of me thinks I should give it four stars because if somebody buys it, he might think, “This is it; this is all?” and be disappointed. But if that’s the case, the entire point of the book has been missed. “This is all?” Yes, This is All; This is Everything. Or, at least, that’s how it feels to me after reading this book, after experiencing this unique work of art. In the end, can I give this book anything but 5 stars for doing perfectly exactly what it set out to do? It’s a terrible superhero book; it’s an awful noir comic; and it doesn’t come close to expressing the nuances of human relationships. But it doesn’t try to do any of these things. However, based on fulfilling the goals I’ve described above, it’s perfect in itself.