This collection of three quirky illustrated stories partially feels like a collection of web comics: the simple drawings, the sparse text on each page, the dry humor that so many share. The whole book can be read in about ten minutes, but there is plenty of material packed into these little gems to warrant re-reading. The comedy and insight are wily, creative, and on a deeper level, profound.
For those unfamiliar with the web comic medium, Fables from the Mud may seem bizarre at first. Each page shows a hand-drawn, black-and-white illustration and below it a few lines of text. These “panels” make up the continuous storylines, which are divided into parts.
What is most astounding about this volume is how so much has been crammed into this slight form. It takes something of comedic brilliance to condense something greatly telling into a hysterically funny phrase. In “The Angry Clam,” a clam rides a carousel of existential perspectives resulting from a buildup of philosophical frustration. Upon being pulled towards the surface of the ocean, Quisling writes: “Gazing skyward through the sun’s crepuscular rays, the clam envisions his deliverance from the proverbial rectum of darkness. Other particularly funny lines include comparing a kitchen with a pot of boiling clams to a “din of steamy Miltonian hell.”
There is something comically ridiculous about the whole book: a clam experiencing existential frustration, an ant finding a sense of higher being, a warrior worm struggling against the meaninglessness all around him. And each tale contains enough plot twists to make it even more absurd. There is precisely where the humor lies. By reducing such themes to these wry tales, Quisling has punctured a bag of hot air, exposing their truths with nakedness and great humor. This puncturing also provides the reader with a greater intimacy with these themes; Quisling has pounced on these ideas, ripping them from their lofty nests and into our human grasp. In doing so, he has made them important again.
One first enjoys Fables for its humor, but one may come back repeatedly to give a close look at a previously-skimmed line that holds much more than is immediately apparent. The same slicing to essentials that produces such humor also suggests a similarly quirky insight. General Julius Gunther Weems’s revelation about how to feel happy in his “bogus, smoke-screen, sham of a life” is a real one that does produce real emotion. The last panel is a stark portrait of his tragic death and his ability to overcome it; it is surprisingly moving.
Quisling uses this puncturing, reduce-to-essentials tactic in the content of the stories as well as their form. Broadly speaking, each character experiences in the following order: (1) a sense of dejection or despair, (2) a rapid ascension to great lofty heights that produce a new sense of purpose, (3) a sudden downfall, (4) and a realistic sense of being that comes from the appreciation of life in the presence of tragedy as well as tragedy in the presence of life. The experiences that produce these realizations—self-sacrifice to save one’s brethren, being stamped by a boot, being used for bait by a fisherman—hardly need analogy to make them immediately relevant to our lives. Quisling’s charming tales have much to offer in their unexpected complexity.
I hardly want to go further and more so inflate the bag of hot air around this novel book. So here lies the simple, punctured truth: these funny tales merit reading and re-reading; they are prime specimens of an independent author working with a highly unconventional literary form, which possesses great wryness and a great sense of life.