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Prosopagnosia & Other Predicaments in “Happenstance,” the Graphic Novel Done in Photographs

Meet Rebecca & Paul and Alex & Chris, two youngish couples who live in Ithaca, New York. Paul and his significant other, Rebecca, are Jews, except that Paul is secretly exploring the idea of converting to Christianity. He and his new acquaintance, Chris, who is struggling with her evangelical Christianity and with religion in general, go for long walks and talk about God, the universe, faith, and other weighty matters. Chris and her girlfriend, Alex, are a lesbian couple, a relationship that is troubled by the fact that Chris won’t come out to her parents. It’s Paul, a would-be novelist who works in a bookstore, who has prosopagnosia, which means he has face blindness and usually cannot recognize faces—even, on embarrassing occasions, Rebecca’s face. He can only recognize people by what they say or something they are wearing or that they carry, like a purse.

Welcome to Happenstance (Ithaca: Snark and Boojum Press, 2019), Stephen Saperstein Frug’s photographic novel. Printed with the help of a Kickstarter project and the result of a decade of work, Happenstance can be read as an internet comic, although I highly recommend and prefer the print version (available at Amazon or through the publisher). Happenstance is that rare thing, a graphic novel made using photographs instead of drawings. Frug used a variety of techniques to create exceptional literary nuance: innovative speech ballooning, embedded Google maps, single-image spreads broken into multiple frames, stripped-down b&w images to suggest interior thoughts or past tense, and multiple ways of toying with his photographic images.

At 450 pages in length, Happenstance takes as long to read as a regular novel. It’s also as rich as a textual novel because the photographs provide such a wealth of information about each character—information that can more easily change from one frame to the next than from one sentence to the next. At the same time, that very specificity can become a limiting factor. I will forever see Rebecca & Paul and Alex & Chris as Frug wanted me to envision them—with specific faces, specific gestures, and specific clothing—which is not how I would have imagined my own Rebecca & Paul and Alex & Chris had I been reading a text-only novel. I’m not saying that one way is better than the other; but these are two very different ways in which I think readers construct characters in their minds. Happenstance is a very visual novel.

There have been only a handful of graphic novels using photography that I am aware of, and I have included them in my ongoing bibliography of novels and poetry with embedded photographs. To make it easier to find them, I have given them their own listing called Photo-Embedded Graphic Novels, which can be found under the pull-down menu Photo-Embedded Literature, at the very top of this blog. Go check them out!

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