“I froze. I can’t explain what happened. It was like a deja vu trip or something…a premonition. I felt like I was looking into the future…and the future looked really messed up. I was looking at a hole…a black hole and as I looked, the hole opened up…and I could feel myself falling forward, tumbling down into nothingness.”
Physics tells us that black holes are what happens when stars collapse in upon themselves. The result is a highly dense region in which matter is tightly packed. No light can escape a black hole; we cannot even directly see them. The only way for us to observe black holes is through observing their effects on other bodies in space, seeing stars irresistibly drawn to them only to be pulled apart and ripped to shreds.
We can use the above scientific information to argue that Keith’s usage of the term “black hole” was incorrect because it’s impossible to see anything in them at all, let alone pull out fortune-telling scrolls. But the image of a mysterious, unknown thing pulling helpless adolescents into a future from which they have no hope of escape – this image is so terrifyingly perfect that surely the most staunch physics purist would forgive Burns’ inexact scientific terminology.
With that in mind, let us turn to Charles Burns’ Black Hole. It is suburban Seattle in the 1970s, and teenagers are recklessly exchanging drugs and body fluids – and an unearthly STD. Unlike many of the other diseases that we read about during the semester, the disease in Black Hole is not lethal. It does not cause its patients excruciating physical pain, nor force them into sick beds and hospitals. What this disease does, however, is change the physical appearances of its victims, causing them isolation and psychological damage. The teenagers in this book constantly demonstrate an insensitive shared aversion towards victims of the “bug:”
“Eew, look at those guys…it’s so disgusting! Why do they have to come here and ruin everybody’s good time?” – Chris’ friends Marci, in her presence, shortly after they both found out that Chris had contracted the disease.
The fatalities in this book were a result of patients, well, Dave, going insane due to continuous rejection and isolation. While it is true that the uninfected teenagers don’t march up to the sick with pitchforks and force them into “the pit” in the forest, they do actively make them feel they have no place in society anymore. For example, Chris used to be a popular girl in her school, but even she is isolated by her old friends and schoolmates after they realize that she also has the “bug.” She gets stares in the toilets, and is dismissed by her best friend Marci for not understanding David Bowie. It seems to be so easy and so quick for these high-school teenagers to turn their backs on their classmates. The relationship between them is fragile and immature. If the high-school setting in this book serves as a microcosm for the larger society, is Burns criticizing the irrationality and instability of human collectives?
An interesting aspect to the illness is the nature of the mutations. The bug results in a plethora of various physical changes that appear random, but may also have some significance in relation to the character who undergoes them. Why is it that Rob gets a mouth on his neck, Eliza gets a tail, and Chris sheds her skin? Furthermore, why do the others who camp at the pit exhibit grotesque deformations that cannot possibly be hidden? A sense of inequality emerges here. Why do people suffer differently from the same disease? Is Burns trying to question the existence of equality in any place within the human world?
Black Hole is a fantasia about universal teenage themes, seen through the lens of reality and fantasy and dreams, of drug, hormone or disease induced hallucinations. There is a progression of time but there are instances when this progression is not linear, but is abstract, like the juxtaposition of “deja vu” and “premonition”. Deja vu is something that has already happened; premonition is a view of what is yet to come. In the scene when Keith finds a girl’s skin in the forest, we can see the presence of both. Although he does not know that it is Chris who has shed her skin, he still feels an inexplicable “terrible sadness” upon beholding it. This look into a moment that has already occurred is a premonition of the later events determined by Chris’ infection with the bug. Then there are the recurring dreams (the wavy frames) and the mixing of dreams, visions and memories. Both Chris and Keith dream of pulling a picture out of a cut – a black hole – in Chris’ foot. This weird dream has its basis in reality, since Chris does actually cut her foot. However, it is interesting to note that Chris dreams this before she cuts her foot, while Keith dreams this towards the end of the novel – again, premonition vs. deja vu.
The reader follows the characters’ transition between various physical and metaphysical worlds. Dream worlds aside though, the characters navigate various terrains and settings, from the suburban house parties to “Planet Xeno,” a fantastic depiction of a black hole which, in this physical world, is a seemingly impregnable area of the forest.
“It seemed like the woods would be better…they were natural. Natural things would make more sense.”
What is the significance of Planet Xeno and other natural areas? Is it part of an alternate reality that these teenagers can literally or figuratively escape to? Escape is a vital part of the novel after all. The infected teenagers hide away in Planet Xeno; Keith runs out of Jill’s house to the woods; in the end, Chris escapes out of the McCroskys’ house and heads back to the quiet beach she once visited with Rob. For Chris, swimming is transcendental. The end shows her swimming as well:
“The water is unbelievably cold…almost more than I can take. I dive in anyway…swim out beyond the breakers, swim as hard as I can. After a while I feel a little warmer and roll over onto my back. The sky is amazing…a deep, dark blue, the first stars are coming out. I’d stay out here forever if I could.”
Why does the story start with Keith looking into a black hole in a frog and end with Chris staring out into the stars – the stars out of whose collapse black holes are born? Why does Chris becomes the narrator of the story? In a world of teenagers where everyone displays different symptoms and views the physical and temporal worlds differently, what is the significance of Keith and Chris as the narrators?
“[We’d] [talk about this] forever if [we] could…”
Abhi, Rosy, and Yan.