“In Praise of Quiet Things”: Jesi Buell’s Review of Karen Shangguan’s Graphic Novel Quiet Thoughts

*Ed.’s Note: click on images to view larger sizes.

“There is natural poetry in stillness”

The world wants you to be loud. With so many people and so much competition, we’re taught that in order to be heard, we have to speak the loudest and be the most outrageous. Writers in particular are taught to conform to a specific model of storytelling and, often, the most commercially successful works follow that well-worn trajectory and intersperse audacious or controversial or, well, loud elements in order to stand out from the crowd. Anyone who has tried to get an agent has seen the phrase “grab my attention” in the requirements of the first five pages. In many ways, our culture as a whole has lost the meditative element of reading—the experience of combining words in a way that makes us contemplate and reëvaluate their world. So thank g-d for small presses, including Avery Hill Publishing, that make space for works like Karen Shangguan’s beautiful and quiet graphic novel, Quiet Thoughts.

This book is a collection of moments. Mirroring how thoughts bump off of or absorb each other, these vignettes flit from topic to topic and alternately explore materiality, loneliness, appearance, forgetting, and more. At times, we zoom out into the depths of the universe and, in the next moment, the narrative zooms into the mind of a goldfish. It may seem arbitrary but it also allows us to see similarities between these places and subjects. Out in the vastness of space or inside the confines of an animal we see as simple-minded, Shangguan highlights how nebulous everything seems and how answers appear to us as mirage. As a star or a fish or a person or a piece of paper or a bird flying through a cloud, our thoughts float between worlds, always searching for a connection that seems at once enigmatic as well as omnipresent.

My favorite part shows two characters in a body of water talking to each other. The reason this scene is so engaging is that it is impossible to tell if the characters are lovers or if one body is just a reflection of the other and it’s simply a person talking to herself. It highlights Shangguan’s magical and subtle way of creating meaning from ambiguity and reminds us that what we want from another person, a soulmate, is everything we want from ourselves. It is a rare skill in any artist and Shangguan’s ambiguity is particularly heart-rending and powerfully meaningful:

It is important to recognize that Shangguan is both artist and author. The illustrations are beautifully fluid in a way that perfectly captures the feeling of being under water (or maybe floating through space), dampened and quiet but flowing and free. It is the languid line and muted palette of the artist that amplifies text like “the amorphous comfort / of never needing to learn the shape of a word /and the sharpness of meaning.” Much of the text examines what lives outside of language, so the images seem even more necessary in fully rendering these sentiments. They are perfect complements:

Despite its shorter length, these pages require us to slow down and ruminate on the quiet thoughts we find in solitary moments, in sadness, and in the slow climb to understanding. It is a meditation on feelings and “small things” in life that mean so much to us but become invisible in their silent ubiquitousness. I’m reminded again of the phrase “grab my attention.” This may be due to an infamous quote from the previous presidency but the word “grab” seems so violent and forceful. It infers an inescapability, forcing someone’s attention. Shangguan doesn’t “take” anything from the us or demand our attention; instead, the author has created an interior space, gentle and contemplative. Shanggaun invites us into a quiet space, one where we can hear our own thoughts so that we can form our own meanings: “Various vacuous words / that I want to unhear / their banality / and their existence / grows more transparent / as if made of nothing.”

Quiet Thoughts, by Karen Shangguan. London, England, UK: Avery Hill Publishing, September 2021. 84 pages. $16.95, paper.

Jesi Buell is a librarian and the head of KERNPUNKT Press, a home to experimental writing. She lives in Upstate New York with her husband and beautiful daughter.

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