Review: The Oven by Sophie Goldstein
The Oven is a book I’ve
written about briefly in the past – starting out as a serialized black and
white comic in the Maple Key anthology, it was published earlier this year by
AdHouse as a 2 tone black, white, and orange perfect bound book with orange
gilding. At 80 pages, The Oven is one of Goldstein’s longest solo
projects to date.
In a future where humanity has destroyed the atmosphere,
people live in overcrowded bubble cities with strict reproduction regulations.
Eric and Syd are a couple that lives in one of these bubbles, but they escape
into the outside world to live off the land and be able to have a family. But
the transition from screen-looking, city-dwelling folk to raise crops off the
land, butcher your own animals for meat folk is not the easiest for the couple,
and as the story progresses, the change takes its toll.
Goldstein has a fairly cynical view on utopia in The Oven
– both the protected bubble and the scorched backwater field could be labeled
as utopia by differing people, but each of the two settings is problematic. To
live in the bubble is to be clamped down on and controlled. The alternative
isn’t much better, with its hard labor and seemingly meaningless toil.
As the two progress in their off-the-grid life, Eric isn’t
able to cope as nearly as well as Syd. In one series of panels, Eric works
furiously on the farm, and he’s advised to pace himself. “I just want to
finish!” he says, angrily. But there is no finish in farming, just moving on to
the next task. This idea of hardship as a natural consequence of
noncompliance is an interesting one to express in comics, and it’s smartly
evoked in The Oven.
The Oven is a comic revolving
around the idea of transformation – the movement from futuristic utopia to
backwater off-the-grid settlement is both transformative in the sense that what
Eric and Syd do with their day-to-day lives changes dramatically, but it also
changes the nature of the relationship the two have. The Oven also
reminds readers that transformation has both a private and public face and cost;
whether that is in the growth of a pregnant belly or crashing from drug
overuse, we see these things play out through the course of the comic.
Some of the story’s darker elements focus on drug use;
Goldstein represents these drugs as a caterpillar in a crystalline cocoon that
users must pry open to ingest. The theme of transformation is again echoed
here, as Eric’s drug use is represented as him breaking into butterflies and
flying away. (We also see these cocoons and butterflies in the endpapers of the
book, a nice, if subtle touch).
Smart, complicated, and dark, The Oven is a fine
addition to Goldstein’s oeuvre, and a book you should be reading. Recommended.