Review by Frank Plowright
Theo Ellsworth’s creative process has always been a relentless cascading journey of one idea leading to another, so does adapting the work of another restless literary fantasist re-channel those energies or produce a dead end?
‘Secret Life’ originally linked other stories in Jeff VanderMeer’s collection bearing the same title, snippets looking in on assorted people employed in a small corporate building over five floors, one of them secret, and a basement. It’s a disturbing, oppressive comment on the corporate atmosphere generating competitiveness, highlighting paranoia and insecurity, and on the enclosure of office life where individuality is remorselessly crushed. In that sense it’s the opposite of Ellsworth’s own infinite world and self-questioning of the unusual. However, the connections are also apparent, most obviously dealing with irrationality, but also his visual representations of beings entwined with nature, so it’s a relatively simple matter for Ellsworth to transfer the demons from his own imagination to the haunted figures populating Secret Life.
Ellsworth remains faithful to VanderMeer’s text, presenting it in snippets as if typeset and pasted across his own dark visual interpretations of it. VanderMeer’s title indicates the story as a form of nature study, exploring the hive mind priorities produced when a group of people are isolated in their own environment with tasks to perform. The rigidity of structure produces ritual patterns of behaviour, and the abhorrent and horrific becomes acceptable within that environment. That’s connected to VanderMeer’s writing always having strong associations with nature, so perhaps it’s a representation of it as Tennyson’s raw of tooth and claw.
The illustrations are densely detailed and crosshatched, making their own contribution to an inner world beyond knowing from the outside. The people never smile, are always uneasy, and Ellsworth often features representations of faces on other objects. His allegories are clever, and he interprets those of VanderMeer well. A brief interlude of hope concerns the clerk from an artistic family who has stifled his creativity and succumbs to the inevitability of nature’s chaos.
A propulsive weirdness prevails, occasionally intersecting with reality as we know it, yet more likely to veer into disturbing dream territory, not quite nightmarish, but heading in that direction. While bleak exaggerations of office life aren’t original territory there’s enough about Secret Life to distance it from mundane comparisons, and it fits VanderMeer’s view of the primacy of nature, which overcomes in the end. Here that’s a stunningly illustrated wordless section over twenty pages.
Because of the prevailing weirdness, Secret Life won’t be for every reader, but those who like it will respond very strongly.