Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay
by Ben Katchor, Penguin Books, 108 pages.
This extraordinary book of cartoons is a meditation on the persistence of the past. Julius Knipl, a real estate photographer who makes his endless rounds through a battered city taking pictures of building facades, is constantly confronted by the piercing melancholy of the ordinary. He suffers moments of bleak wonder about the economics of marginal businesses that sell magnets, loving cups, typewriter erasers, that plaited straw tube that seizes hold of your index finger. His landscape is filled with urban fixtures that exist on the edge of middle-aged memory—like those soft-drink dispensers in which the bottles lie in a tin sarcophagus, jostling musically together in icy black water. Investigating an overhead leak, Knipl pushes aside a tile in his ugly drop ceiling to discover “an untouched part of his office where the heat of bygone summer days rose to be churned by a fan … where a distinctive molding caught the attention of a now long dead eye … and where luminous glass bowls hung in a turn of the century night.” Knipl did hear some talk of restoring the building “but chose to preserve the past, undisturbed, by keeping his drop ceiling in place.”