The Night Bookmobile
Author and book artist Audrey Niffenegger’s beguiling graphic novel about bibliomania By Rebecca Rego Barry Rebecca Rego Barry is the editor of this magazine.
In reading Audrey Niffenegger’s new graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile, I could not help but think of Borges’ famous quote, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” In this combination of pen-and-ink drawings and prose, Niffenegger tells the story of a conflicted young woman named Lexi who discovers a camper full of books during a late-night walk through the streets of Chicago. The creepy driver, Mr. Openshaw, invites her aboard.
The bookmobile, as Lexi discovers, contains every book she has ever read, from her childhood diary to college textbooks to Gravity’s Rainbow, complete with bookmarks. She has no idea how this has happened, but she feels more contented than frightened by this realization. When she waits for the Winnebago the next night, it’s nowhere to be found. Was it heaven? A figment of her imagination? Something more sinister?
Lexi experiences two more ‘visits’ over the course of her life, during which time she becomes a reference librarian, before deciding that she’d prefer to be in her private library-on-wheels more than anywhere else. Or, as Niffenegger put it in her “After Words” to The Night Bookmobile: “What would you sacrifice to sit in that comfy chair with perfect light for an afternoon in eternity, reading the perfect book, forever?”
The story is dark, original, touching, haunting, not at all a children’s book (as the picture book format might suggest) or even a young adult book (as the term graphic novel often seems to imply). It’s certainly more akin to Niffenegger’s illustrated novel, The Three Incestuous Sisters (2005), and her “novel in pictures,” The Adventuress (2006). Aside from being a bestselling novelist, Niffenegger is a visual artist whose artists’ books, prints, paintings, drawings, and comics have been produced and exhibited at Printworks Gallery in Chicago since 1987.
It must be said – this is my first graphic novel, and if it wasn’t Niffenegger, I would not have sought it out. I adore her novels, The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003) and Her Fearful Symmetry (2009), both of which promote libraries and books in elemental ways. What surprised me about The Night Bookmobile was how much I enjoyed the layout of the pages—how exciting and interesting it is to read a story in text boxes layered over a drawing of books on a shelf, for example—or the vibrancy of the colors. With a pictorial cover, decorated endpapers, and thick, glossy paper, it is also an attractive book.
The Night Bookmobile was serialized in the Guardian newspaper and, according to the “After Words,” is the first installment of a larger work titled The Library. Plumbing the depths of bibliomania—asking, “What is it we desire from the hours, weeks, lifetimes we devote to books?”—Niffenegger gets us. I suggest you get her.