Beneath the lightest of sci-fi trappings, Sophie Goldstein’s The Oven (AdHouse Books) is a thought-provoking and relevant look at freedom, commitment, community and responsibility.
With just 72 pages of story and published in a format that would slip easily into a lot of back pockets, Sophie Goldstein’s The Oven doesn’t necessarily look like a work that would win the Ignatz Prize for Outstanding Graphic Novel.
However, like the Doctor’s TARDIS, The Oven is considerably bigger on the inside. Using an economy of narrative and graphic style, Goldstein creates a powerful story that forces readers to question their responses without offering any easy answers.
The book’s sci-fi trappings are largely evoked and dismissed within the first few pages. A young hetero couple, Syd and Eric, leave their bubble-wrapped futuristic city for a more free-living community in a baking desert – ‘The Oven’ of the title.
It turns out that their objective is to start a family. Eric’s history of acne is apparently enough for the city’s repressive authorities to disbar him from having children, so instead they’ve come to the altogether more libertarian “Babyville”.
Taken under the wing of enthusiastic serial breeder Maggie, they soon find themselves settling into the roles specified for them in their new community – roles that seem to have been defined along more traditional gender lines. While Syd helps Maggie with childcare and cooking, Eric joins her partner Bear in harsh manual toil, trying to coax food out of the land beneath the unrelenting and damaging twin suns.
Before long, as they grapple with the daily truth of their new back-to-the-land lifestyle (“This protein is from actual animals?”) and the different kind of conformity that seems to be expected of them, the enormity of their decision starts to take its toll.
As mentioned above, Goldstein’s quiet economy of style is key to how the book works. There isn’t much in the way of detailed, explicit world-building, either narratively or visually. The living spaces might seem to be largely repurposed space vehicles and the recreational drug of choice might be an edible caterpillar, but the characterisation and dynamics of the community are instantly familiar.
The Oven was originally serialised in black and white, in the anthology Maple Key Comics, but this collection is enhanced considerably by the addition of a strong orange tone that evokes the breathless heat and ubiquitous sand of the desert. The simplicity of that palette and the clean fluidity of Goldstein’s stripped-down linework do little to distract from the issues that start to confront Syd and Eric.
While it might seem a little counter-intuitive to call something you can read in less than 30 minutes a ‘novel’, The Oven is a rewarding and provocative piece of work that – like a microwaved meal – continues to cook inside the reader long after they’ve consumed it.
Asking overlapping questions about freedom, commitment, parenting, community, gender roles, drug use and responsibility, it’s a little book with a big engine.
Sophie Goldstein (W/A) • AdHouse Books, $12.95