It's cold and rejecting, with rigid compositions like some sort of third-world safety manual. It's giddy and uncontrolled, with blobby figures engaging wantonly in random acts of pleasure. It's schematic, with a mass-produced feel. It bubbles with images of sexuality, procreation and growth.
You could say all these things about Parallel Lives, Olivier Schrauwen's mischievous and mystifying new graphic novel, and you'd still only be telling part of the story. You could even say this book is expected, in a way. Schrauwen is one of the most provocative creators in the world of comics today, so it's not surprising that he would produce such a multidimensional work. As in 2014's Arsène Schrauwen, in Parallel Lines he experiments with all sorts of oppositions: realism and surrealism, rigor and fluidity, narrative and randomness. Parallel Lines is loosely a work of sci-fi. Most of its characters live at some time in the future, and all make use of rarified technologies. One woman communicates with a hologrammatic friend and lives in a coffin-sized pod. A team of explorers wend their way through outer space in a shimmering cubical ship. Schrauwen's father Armand turns up in the book: He uses something called a Bomann Kühlbox T5000 to beam his face and voice to the future. (He finds it a frustrating experience, as the futurians ignore him in favor of seeking out exotic new ways of "leisuring.") Schrauwen himself makes an appearance, too, in a first-person story of alien abduction that toys unsettlingly with the tropes of that genre.
These stories toy unsettlingly with a lot of things, actually, particularly sex. The characters regard skin-to-skin genital contact as hilariously anachronistic, something to be tried when the Sexotron isn't working. Even so, they have a lot of sex, and it's depicted explicitly. These encounters are rather shocking amid Schrauwen's minimalist geometries. For the characters, though, bodily pleasures are just another way to keep boredom at bay. Gender is practically a thing of the past. In the longest story, two more-or-less-genderless explorers find themselves developing secondary sexual characteristics once they're marooned on a strange planet. Their placidity during this adventure is of a piece with the other characters' desultory hedonia. Schrauwen's vision isn't of a bleak future, but of a bland one — which turns out to be much creepier.
The smooth, touchless quality of Schrauwen's drawings is disquieting, too. But as with Chris Ware, another artist who embraces a mechanistic style, there are powerful emotions looming behind the panels' orderly bars. In Ware's case they amount to a prolonged scream of agony. Schrauwen's angst is milder, tempered by a troublemaker's joy.
His wit is particularly apparent in the different ways he draws people. Most of the time, his figures aren't exactly cartoony and aren't exactly realistic, either. Their sketchy lines give them a pathetic quality even when they're happily "leisuring." It's amazing how anxiety-producing it is to be confronted, page after page, with unrelatable people. Once in a while Schrauwen will imbue a character with tangible, fleshy movement or an expressive face, and it's always a shock. That's his purpose, of course: He teases and torments the reader, that poor schlub who wants an old-fashioned sense of connection to the people on the page.
Schrauwen makes his intentions clear in a story about an app, called Cartoonify, that people can plug directly into their brains. It allows the main character to "experience life as a cartoon character in an animated world." The joke is that the "cartoon" version of the main character doesn't look much different from anybody else in the book — until the end of the story. Then he turns off the app and appears in a full-page portrait gazing out at the reader. He looks vulnerable and deeply sad.
The messages behind this single page are manifold, as complex as the rest of the book. Throughout Parallel Lives Schrauwen encapsulates oppositions, experiments with new ways of seeing and confounds as much as he intrigues. As he plays with ideas about the future, it's the reader who's his real toy. Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL. Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.