Park Bench by Christophe Chaboute (Gallery 13, 2017)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
In April, I visited Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Los Angeles with my mother. It was an impulse decision – it was hot, Madame Tussaud’s was air-conditioned, and deep down my mother and I are both too vain to resist a good photo shoot. We wandered past eerily life-like figures of Snoop Dogg and Betty White into a gallery of movie sets, where I found the thing I didn’t know I was looking for – a young Tom Hanks in a khaki suit, back straight and feet slightly pigeon-toed, seated on a half-empty park bench.
This bench, of course, is part of the iconic set from the movie Forrest Gump. It comes from the series of scenes that frame the narrative – Hanks tells the story of his life to everyone who happens to sit down next to him. Some ask questions, others check their watches or read the newspaper. This is only a fragment of the film, but it has its own weight. We realize, as we laugh at an old man napping through Forrest’s story of becoming a ping-pong world champion, that we only occasionally become aware of the lives that go on and have gone on around us. We are inherently, and in many ways necessarily, self-centered – we don’t and can’t always know the stories of the people who drive our taxis or hand us our lattes. I grabbed a book from my purse, cracked it open, and posed disinterestedly next to the young, waxy Hanks. My mother snapped a picture. We moved on and left him behind.
Christophe Chabouté‘s latest graphic novel, Park Bench, due out from Gallery 13 this September, deals with these same things – how we interact with a given space, and the way that space can both isolate and unite us. Chabouté‘s book also takes place on a park bench, in an unnamed city; in fact, the only text present in Park Bench is on the cover. The novel proceeds like a silent film, where each panel shows the same park bench, identified early on by a gouged “I ❤ U” on the backrest, as people come and go and seasons pass. Because there are no words, it’s as if we’re watching the bench from a comfortable distance – close enough to see the people coming and going, but not close enough to hear their conversations. In some scenes, where gestures and expressions take the place of spoken language, the silence of the book is forgotten. In others, when a man returns again and again with a bouquet of flowers to wait for a woman who never comes, the silence weighs heavy on the page.
The wonder of this book is the way it allows the reader to focus on moments of small beauty. In one series of panels, a little girl leaves a balloon on a park bench, and the park’s begrudging custodian seems to ignore it completely, only to return a few panels later to carry it away. In another scene, a homeless man who often spends the night on the bench finds a bouquet of flowers on the seat and hands them out to passersby, leaving one in an empty wine bottle by his head while he sleeps. There are also moments of small comedy; one lady wipes down the entire bench with a handkerchief before sitting and promptly picking her nose. Another older gentleman glares at a group of scruffy young men smoking a joint beside him, and then plucks the remnants off the ground after they leave and takes a quick but conspicuous puff.
In the end, Chabouté brings a quiet, commonplace poetry to imbue an inconsequential setting with life, and with meaning. There is loss on this bench, and joy; endings and new beginnings. The beauty of this book lies in the steadfast way it allows us to observe and admire a place we’ve passed a hundred times, and will pass a hundred times more. Nobody else in the book is aware of the moments that pass, but we are. In Park Bench, we watch as the world goes by, and each life takes its steady course.