BOOK REVIEW: ‘Salome’s Last Dance’ By Daria Tessler | Fantagraphics, May 2023 | Fiction, graphic novel | Available at the Seattle Public Library
Graphic novelist writer and illustrator Daria Tessler takes readers on a journey into the mind of a shape-shifting, tap-dancing dog in her new book, “Salome’s Last Dance.” Tessler is a Portland-based artist, and “Salome’s Last Dance” is her second novel published by Seattle’s Fantagraphics Press.
On one level, the novel is about a pair of con artists spying on a nightclub magician. On another, this book explores the unconscious mind in absurd and thought-provoking ways. Before the story begins, endpapers feature cartoon brains with mouths that smile, grimace and stick out their tongues. While beginning an unusual journey, a character announces, “Each human mind is a vast cosmos, and like the universe it is always expanding.”
Tessler’s illustrations, dense with imagery, invite the reader to slow down and look for visual jokes. Buildings have faces. A “HANG IN THERE!” kitten poster is displayed next to medical diplomas. A 16th-century erotic French painting hangs behind the bar of a seedy nightclub.
Animals are prominent characters, including a cat wearing a bra full of goldfish. Salome herself is a dog performing a striptease, later seen acting like a diva in a dressing room full of vaudeville-style wigs and costumes. Other dogs play an unfamiliar version of strip poker and speak like movie gangsters: “You got no poker face.” “Read ‘em and weep.”
Cultural references range from the Bible to Carl Jung to Cole Porter. As in Tessler’s previous book, “Cult of the Ibis,” pages are dedicated to elaborate dance numbers inspired by Busby Berkeley movie musicals.
Posters help narrate the story. The first image the reader sees is a poster entreating viewers to, among other invitations, “ALLOW DR. SILKINI TO MASSAGE YOUR ID INTO A HIGHER DIMENSION.” Eek.
We see a figure — later identified as Magnus the Magician — in a top hat, cape and platform shoes enter the doorway next to this poster. Seated in his office, Silkini promises good results: “I will frisk your noodle. Turn it inside-out and shake all of your problems away.” The figure in the top hat is silent, morose and passive.
Next, the characters find their way to the Feedbag Cocktail Lounge. Silkini is seated at a table with his sidekick, Smudge. Another poster — featuring a dog partially hidden behind a swirl of fabric — announces that the astounding Magnus will present “Salome in the Serpentine Dance of the Seven Veils.” Silkini has come to the nightclub to steal this magic trick and tells Smudge: “We nab the secret to this dancing dog act and we’ll be on big rock candy mountain.”
Onstage, Magnus the Magician appears, a cape swirls and Magnus morphs into Salome the poodle, covered by a winding white veil. Salome then launches into a 1930s style dance routine.
The number turns sinister as tap dancers appear holding knives and blood starts to spurt. Just as John the Baptist’s head was presented on a platter, heads that look a lot like Silkini and Smudge end up on a tray. Silkini is startled but undeterred by this warning and proceeds with his plan to learn Salome’s secret.
Soon, after sedating Magnus, Silkini takes the most literal possible approach to exploring the other character’s brain. As if he is going on a spelunking expedition, he opens Magnus’ head and proceeds down with a pick ax and a rope. Once inside, Silkini encounters shifting visions of the unconscious that includes stacks of dolls, a banana with legs and a comfort animal in the form of a fish purse.
In the end, Silkini and Smudge are too ham-fisted to understand their subject. Drugging someone and exploring their brain takes the characters on a journey but does not make them any wiser. The trick in the magic act ultimately remains hidden. Magnus is unknowable and always at least two steps ahead of them. Silkini and Smudge are duped into thinking they are in control after their journey and that shows how truly clueless they are. Magnus simply unzips and unbuttons layers of self to get into Silkini’s brain.
“Salome’s Last Dance” asks this important question: Can we ever know another person even when we are walking in their squishy brain?
I would not want to read this story right before I went to sleep. Some of the images are truly nightmarish.
Ideally, I would recommend pairing this book with a cup of coffee or another favorite beverage. Take your time exploring the drawings on each page.
However, if (like me) you need to know how this story ends, read it once quickly and then go back to savor the intricate details, the jokes and the glorious weirdness of Tessler’s vision.
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