Of Finches and Philosophy – A Review of Big Questions by Anders Nilsen

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I love shopping with my friends. There’s something to be said about the enabling nature of being in the company of people who like buying the same things as oneself, and weighing pros and cons before spending one’s money (or not weighing them at all) is more enjoyable when you have a friend to consult with.

A few days ago my friend Hope and I decided to browse a local bookstore, not really expecting to find anything – except when we got to the graphic novels section, we found ourselves reaching for our wallets to make a purchase. Since we couldn’t decide between the three graphic novels, we agreed that she’d buy the two cheaper ones, the prices of which, when added up, were comparable to the price of the one I bought, which we agreed was fair enough. We would just trade the three around when one of us was finished so we would both get to read all three.

The graphic novel I bought was titled Big Questions by Anders Nilsen. In a classic case of judging a book by its cover, Hope and I both thought it would be a worthwhile purchase because the cover is, to be honest, quite pretty: mostly white with a colored picture of a baby bird hatching out of a fighter jet pilot’s helmet in a frame of intricately laced gray lines. And, okay, the blurbs on the back were quite interesting too, describing Nilsen’s work as “unforgettable” and “subtle,” with one blurb describing Nilsen himself as “a genius.” High praise, and though normally I’m not swayed by blurbs that are placed there precisely because they praise a book to high heavens, I decided to just go with the flow and take a gamble.

In a way, that gamble has proven worthwhile. Big Questions is an interesting read, and though it looks simple on the surface, that simplicity masks something deeper, something that will likely take more than one reading of the book in order to truly understand and appreciate.

The closest comparison I can come up with for Big Questions is Craig Thompson’s Habibi, which I have already reviewed. Both are long, involved reads, which, due to the nature of graphic novels, can conceivably be read in one sitting, but which the reader might not want to because the content is so rich that to read it in one sitting would be to do it an injustice. Visually, the art of both Big Questions and Habibi is done solely in black and white, though Nilsen’s art is much simpler and more cartoony than Thompson’s. The quality of the storytelling, however, is almost comparable, as long as the reader realizes that the story Nilsen is trying to tell in Big Questions is very different from the story Thompson tells in Habibi.

Actually, using the word “story” in the sense of it having a coherent beginning, middle, and end to describe what Nilsen does is to use the word a bit loosely. Big Questions is actually better described as a set of vignettes of varying sizes, initially distinct from each other until they gradually come together at the climax. The story – again used loosely – deals with a group of finches living in some unidentifiable stretch of meadow, which also has a few trees scattered here and there, an adjacent forest and a stream running through the forest. In the middle of the meadow lives an old woman and her mentally-challenged son, who supplies the finches with doughnut crumbs every so often. One day, though, a mysterious black egg drops from the sky, and pretty much changes everything.

The general feel of this book is that it’s very surreal and dreamlike. Nilsen’s art contributes to that: the bird characters (because there are others besides the finches, though the finches might be considered the protagonists) are practically indistinguishable from one another – the only way the reader can tell them apart is through dialogue and the titles of the individual vignettes. The human characters don’t have names, and the only one that does might be viewed as being more than a little loopy so it’s hard to say if that’s even said character’s name at all. The apparent lack of connection between the vignettes also contributes to the surreality of the entire thing. The art is also very simple, as I have already mentioned, but that simplicity makes everything rather stark and sharp in a way that a very vivid dream can be stark and sharp.

Another interesting point is the choice of title. It’s hard to imagine what finches and humans have to do with big questions, after all. And what are those big questions, anyway? In truth, the title is as straightforward as it gets (and is probably the only really straightforward thing about the whole book): Big Questions is about the “big questions” we all face throughout our lives. Why is faith so important? Why do we constantly seek to give our lives meaning? Is that even possible? Why does death happen? How should we confront it? What is sanity?

Initially the asking of these questions is a bit heavy-handed, because one of the finches, Leroy, pretty much asks them all the time. Eventually Leroy is dealt with(in what I think is a funny, if brutal, illustration of how basic instinct can trump even the most cerebral of pursuits), and the asking of the big questions gets a bit more subtle from that point. It’s a good thing Leroy is dealt with in the early parts of the book, so that his incessant questioning doesn’t get in the way of the reader’s own attempt to understand and give meaning to what’s going on in the rest of the book.

The book also describes how one addresses the big questions is always different depending on what has just happened in one’s life. Initially, most of the finches except for Leroy couldn’t really care less about them – until the black egg drops out from the sky. Then the reader begins to see a crucial shift in some of the finches – the not-so-subtly-named Charlotte Evangelista, for instance. It pretty much goes downhill (in a rather good way) from there, because the black egg – and what it does later – is a catalyst for a whole lot of other, more interesting and thought-provoking things.

And now that I speak of the thought-provoking, there are two vignettes which appear in sequence that I enjoyed the most: the one titled “The Snake and the Owl” and “The Deep Hole.” The first one deals with death, and whether one should “rage against the dying of the light” or just “go gentle into that good night,” to quote Dylan Thomas. I find it intriguing that this discussion should be between two predators, whom one would think would most definitely not want to just roll over and give up while they still could, but it is interesting that one of them, at least, might prefer that particular option after a life of doing nothing but surviving.

“The Deep Hole” is also related to “The Snake and the Owl,” and not just because it comes after that vignette. “The Deep Hole” continues the theme of death begun in the other vignette, except this time it’s a riff on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, with some minor differences. It takes having read the other vignettes to understand why, but even the story of Orpheus and Eurydice had some bit of hope in it. It’s possible to cross one’s fingers and hope that Orpheus gets Eurydice out. “The Deep Hole” does not have that sense of hope. Even before the Orpheus figure finds his Eurydice, the reader already knows that she’s not coming back with him, that he’s going to climb out of that hole without her. On the other hand, though, there is a sense of relief, that now that the Orpheus figure knows he can’t get his Eurydice out, he can only move forward in his life – even if he has to do it without her.

There are many, many other vignettes, of course, that ask a variety of interesting questions. For instance, the one titled “Betty’s Soliloquy” is about questioning one’s purpose in life: if it’s the right one, if it’s one imposed on oneself by others, or if it’s something one has chosen. The character Curtis is in himself a walking (or flying) passel of questions, because he is pretty much The Skeptic of the entire book.

Big Questions is not the kind of book that one breezes through, as I said earlier. There is so much going on in it, so much that one can potentially dig through and discover, that it might take two, three, maybe four or more readings to truly appreciate what is going on in the story. The art might seem simple, but that simplicity only serves to highlight a very complex, very rich story. Does it answer the “big questions”? No, but it isn’t supposed to. All it’s meant to do is make the reader ask them, and attempt to suggest possible answers. And really, that’s far more than a lot of other books attempt to do.

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