Written by Martin Unsworth 19/07/2020
Author Garth Stein is known for projects from an intriguing point of view. His 2008 novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, is told from the perspective of a dog, and hung out on the New York Times bestseller list for three years. It remains to be seen if the writer’s newest project, The Cloven – a graphic novel with artist Matthew Southworth, a fellow Seattle resident – will reach such lofty heights, but the conceit behind the story is certainly fascinating.
Conceived as the first book of a trilogy, The Cloven: Book One, takes many familiar trappings and repackages them in a new and exciting way. Anyone who has seen the likes of such fare as Escape from Witch Mountain, Project X, or Flight of the Navigator knows how this all goes, in terms of general story arc: there’s the story of a young child created in a lab, raised by a scientist who loves him, the eventual bad turn, then the escape, and finally, the finding of fellow lost ones and hopefully building a new life and relationships.
However, what makes The Cloven so exciting is the way in which Stein and Southworth tell their story. Cutting back and forth between the past and the present allows the pair to tell two stories simultaneously, while never losing any of the pacing and action, which makes The Cloven such a page-turner. It helps that much of the story is set in the Pacific Northwest in which both of the story’s creators live, allowing them to craft a tale which feels like they intimately know every detail. The areas of wilderness and the nooks and crannies of the city of Seattle aren’t something drawn from Google image searches or Flickr galleries, but are places both the artist and writer have been to. The sense of place is palpable.
And what would a story such as this be without its unique protagonist? Here, we have James ‘Tuck’ Tucker, a genetically-modified ‘human organism’ who is a cross between a human and a goat – a ‘Cloven’. Conceived in ‘a privately financed, top-secret laboratory on Washington state’s Vashon Island’, Tuck’s story is one of love and affection until, suddenly, he is captured and returned to the lab, from which he makes a daring escape, thanks to his unique abilities. The tale from there turns to his attempts to evade and hide from those who wish to dissect him, and the eventual discovery of a clan of other Cloven.
It’s when Tuck discovers others like himself that the story really takes hold. Although it’s filled with action and intrigue and Southworth’s cinematically-inspired artwork, up to that point, Stein’s story is by-the-numbers action sci-fi. Once Tuck joins up with the Cloven, however, the story begins to take a turn, and one can feel the joy and excitement fairly leaping off the page. The Cloven becomes something akin to an examination of place and culture, and the sense of movement from Southworth’s depictions of the Cloven’s nightly runs through the city’s parks and streets lets the reader feel as if they’re right there beside them.
What really makes the story work is the little details, however. Whether it’s Tuck asking someone, “Is that a mint chimichurri sauce on the lamb?” or Dr Langner yelling, “You have to hold the goddamn baby!” at other, clueless scientists when a Cloven is born, these are what make the story hit home. They’re the real reactions of real people in otherwise oddball situations, and they take a story about genetically-modified human organisms and keep it from going into technobabble or action cliches.
Props to Southworth for rendering some dialogue as artwork, as well, rather than relying solely on lettering. The way in which the words sometime crowd into the edges of panels or explode beyond their confines elevate certain scenes – such as Langner’s yelling – into images the reader can almost hear.
Sadly, The Cloven ends just as it’s getting good, but there are two more books yet to come. The audience is definitely left wanting more, in this case, and here’s to hoping that the next couple installments slake that thirst.