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The Man Who Grew Young. Written by Daniel Quinn. Illustrated by Tim Eldred. New York: Context Books, 2001. 98p. $19.95. ISBN 1-893956-17-2.

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Fantasy; philosophy

Adults, teens

The Man Who Grew Young postulates about what life would be like if the universe were contracting into the Big Crunch rather than expanding in the Big Bang. Time as we know it flows backward, as do progress and natural functions. The story begins as Adam Taylor and his son wait for wife Claire's "awakening" from her resting place in a graveyard. Adam is a strange man; while everyone else knows they have parents with whom they will ultimately be reunited, he is unaware of his own. As a result, he is constantly in search of his mother. He has two physical distinctions: he does not "youth" in the conventional sense, and his left hand is blackened for some unknown reason.

Adam watches as people slowly dismantle American society, sucking smoke in via factories, removing scenes from photographs, trading computers for typewriters and paper, returning coal to the earth, taking down houses. His son is returned to his mother, and his marriage ends not long afterwards; Claire is introduced to him, and he never sees her again. Thus, he sets out on a search for his mother. In the American southwest, he moves in with Maria and her son Cecil, Native Americans who are confidently expecting America to be returned to them someday. Indeed, Maria is something of a seer, and she gives Adam a fossil fish that she claims came from his mother. As time rewinds, Adam discovers that he is Cecil's father; witnesses the end of the Atomic Age; accompanies the Europeans as they abandon America; and generally wanders into the simplifying future, the only person who recalls anything of the complicated past.

In ancient Stonehenge, Adam meets several wizards and prophets, including Merlin, who knows a few things about the past, and Alta, who is taken from the water in a ritual that fetches a person from the river every year. Alta explains to her skeptical audience that time used to run in the opposite direction, and she tells Adam a story of a wandering young man; the story merges with Adam's life as he continues his wanderings through space and time.

Ultimately Adam reaches the last town, where resides the last queen and her two sons. She invites Adam to becomes her husband, and he gratefully accepts. As he slowly dismantles the city, he tells the two boys stories of the past, and the queen tells him a creation (or, in this case, an un-creation) myth. Soon, however, he continues on his quest. At one point he is trapped in a glacier, but when he thaws after an indeterminate period, he meets a remnant of humanity, including the man who is destined to take the Lascaux cave paintings back into himself. At last Adam understands the black stain on his hand, and he figures out who his mother is.

Stories about the backwards flow of time are not terribly common, but I've seen several, including one by Alan Moore in his Twisted Times. They're usually written as jokey pieces; look, isn't it weird that he came from a grave and went back into his mother's womb! Isn't it funny/odd/sad/distressing that society is unraveling, that all our achievements are being rendered nonexistent! There didn't seem to be too much that one could do with the concept beyond this sort of thing, actually. But that was before I read The Man Who Grew Young. This is the first backwards-time story I've ever seen where the author provided solid, believable reasons for why people put coal back into the ground, remove paintings, switch from bronze to copper, etc. Indeed, the story is a fascinating philosophical examination of the concept. It could be seen as a call for simplification of living, but that would be a superficial reading of the story. The ultimate message is that it doesn't matter which direction we're moving in, because we are all fire, we are all one.

One thing I really liked about the book was that when things "devolve," there is no sense of loss among people; rather, they are gaining in some way. For example, Maria returns a piece of turquoise to the earth, she is happy because she's giving the earth a treasure. And when an artist removes a picture from a cave wall, he's not emptying a cave but filling himself. "Paintings belong in people.... Every painting and every sculpture must absolutely end in the hand of some man or woman and be seen no more." I also like the use of myths and stories to illustrate key points. It would have been all too easy to provide the reader with dense lumps of philosophy, but Quinn keeps them clear, simple, and pointed, so that the book never drags.

(BTW, I've classified the book as fantasy rather than science fiction or alternate history, which, strictly speaking it would normally be, because Quinn doesn't go into the "technical details" of backwards living--nothing about eating and excreting, for example [or would that be increating and barfing up?], or whether people wonder who created the coffins from which their loved ones emerge.)

Because the purpose of the book is to get a point across, the characters aren't very vivid or three-dimensional. Adam is pleasant but bland, more of a passive observer than an active participant in the things that go on around him. The women who guide him tend to be preachy; they do a lot of the explaining in the book and are not meant to be realistic individuals.

I like Eldred's art here a whole lot better than the pseudo-Japanese stuff he did for Project A-ko. It's simple but cinematic and vividly colored, and it complements the story nicely without either overpowering it or vanishing under the words. And some of the panels are very nice indeed, like the reverse nuclear explosion, or the ones with the sneaky reverse-creation touches (e.g., an In box is filled with typed sheets, while the Out box is filled with blank paper).

I normally dislike philosophical stories, so it's a measure of The Man Who Grew Young's quality that I enjoyed it thoroughly and finished it with great admiration for Quinn's vision. Highly recommended for adult readers and collections, and for teens who have a taste for literary graphic novels or intelligent fantasy/SF. (Are there such animals? I surely hope so.) Though there's nothing objectionable in the book, kids would likely find it dull. This is another book you can trot out to disprove the claim that comics are solely a kids' medium, or that sequential art can't accommodate a deep story.


Copyright 2001, D. Aviva Rothschild


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