By Will Wellington
Opening Safari Honeymoon, Jesse Jacobs’ new volume with Koyama Press, we fall into a different world, whole and astonishing. An array of strange plants, set in a grid of panels like garden plots, enclose us. Then, lights rise on a scene that could be from a Beckett play: A clearing. A hole. Midday. Finally, the action begins. Enter, from the trap, Monster 1, many-legged with one wide eye and, on the abdomen, a toothy maw. Monster skitters back and forth, displays chompers, wriggles limbs, prances off. Curtain.
Before a single page is turned, a drama of the most extraordinary subtlety unfolds. This nameless critter says nothing clever and achieves nothing of moment. Yet we watch, entranced. Its humble meandering speaks to us, its simple movements gain monumental importance. It horrifies us, yes. That goes without saying. It disgusts us, scares us, repulses us. Yet it charms us too, beguiles us, endears itself. We lean close, breath bated, drawn, nay, bound to it, deeply involved and hopelessly implicated in its mysterious occupation. It is not, we suspect, a truly monstrous monster. It is innocent. It is even cute. And it receives, in Jacobs’ treatment, our undivided attention, and with it an absurd dignity, an almost-humanity, if only for a page. As this, our first encounter on safari, closes, we long to know more: Who or what is this thing? Where is she or he or it going and why? What does it or he or she mean to communicate by raising its tentacles and writhing so? What does this creature signify?
As we read on, answers present themselves, answers unpleasant, even tragic. Mere pages later, our new companion lies slain, legs curled, hunted by a group of humans on vacation. As one of them, a safari guide, explains, the creature was a mother, the hole a nest crawling with babies that must now be slaughtered to forestall their suffering. The guide’s blunderbuss issues several resounding reports and the deed is done.
On that note, Safari Honeymoon’s plot-proper begins. But even as the humans’ exploits gather us up and propel us onward, the mother monster’s memory remains with us. We wish, perhaps, to return to those early moments when the shadow of death—so chillingly evoked on the cover—did not sprawl hatefully across the page.
The plot: two newlyweds—a youngish woman, evidently highly desirable, and her much-older husband—spend their honeymoon on safari. A hazy love triangle materializes between them and their tenacious safari guide as they navigate a toxic jungle populated almost exclusively by snarling monstrosities and insidious parasites. Eventually, an abominable hissing worm burrows into the stalwart guide’s brain during an ill-considered nap and transforms him into a murderous madman with an insatiable appetite and a pair of prehensile eyeballs, forcing the honeymooners to flee and find sustenance on their own in a place bent on destroying them.
To focus too single-mindedly on this procession of events, however, would be to miss the point. Engaging and amusing as the honeymooners’ adventures may be, Safari Honeymoon belongs to the jungle and its inhabitants. In its most captivating passages, seemingly jumbled elements of nature converge to form patterns sensible and profound. Stands of trees merge to form sentient beings that spout gnomic non-sequiturs. Three beasts, two with an eye apiece and one outfitted with a snarling mouth, march in formation to make a face. A thousand tiny bipeds walk in perfect alignment so that they appear, for an instant, to be one creature with a thousand limbs. Jacobs’ breaks such minor actions into exhaustively documented increments. Trading the conventions of naturalism for a geometrical, even mechanical technique, he presides over his panels like a monk over his mandala. The painstaking accumulation of microscopically precise visual elements creates the pulsating symbolic anatomy of the safari and its denizens, the sense that, at any moment, a stunning totality will emerge from the infinite minutia. If only one could retreat to a sufficient distance—if only one were not so small—one could apprehend a grand image, a sign carved in negative space, a vast organizing intelligence, even a deity, as in an exquisite early passage when the point of perspective withdraws to reveal that the tangled foliage through which the honeymooners roam sprouts from the cheeks, nose, and forehead of an enormous, grinning entity. The chaos proves to be controlled. The wild is willed. The newlyweds think they have left the order of civilization for the disordered wilderness, but they instead stumble into an even more complex design.
Compared to the safari’s terse wisdom, in fact, the humans’ dialogue reads like a load of rank gobbledegook, packed with bathos, pompous and vulgar. They sound like the intruders, the marauders, that they are. Jacobs’ style, which catalogues the multi-talented guide’s gourmet delicacies in the same grotesque visual register as the safari’s flora and fauna, ensures that we cannot ignore the monstrous aspect of humanity. The smooth-skinned, leggy, and discerning foodies of Safari Honeymoon appear, from a distance, far more sophisticated and civilized than the squat, doughy, and prodigiously hirsute neanderthals of Jacobs’ previous volume, By This Shall You Know Him. But—especially in a number of hideously unflattering close-ups—Jacobs shows us their true colours.
Happily, Safari Honeymoon’s project is reconciliation, and in the book’s final, rapturous moments—as the honeymooners, stripped of their clothes, are absorbed by the garden they never knew they abandoned—we may finally discard the categories of man and beast. In the end, all is one. As we close the book and look up, the glamour of the jungle still glazing our eyes, only one thing remains to be said: “We are home.”
Will Wellington is the Sequential Summer Intern.
By Will Wellington