Jordan Crane’s Keeping Two is said to be 20 years in the making. With that fact in mind, you might expect something epic. Instead, with its lime-green duotone palette, simple curvilinear lines, and solid bright white highlights, at first glance it might look like a light, breezy read. A book to be polished off in a single sitting on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
As the narrative progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that the nearly two decades Crane spent wrestling with the book’s central themes has paid off in spades. The relatively simple, unassuming aesthetic belies an incredibly nuanced, multilayered, serpentine plot that contains multitudes.
The central narrative centers on two couples. One is real, the other fictitious, but throughout much of the story those distinctions feel rather superfluous and arbitrary. Threaded through the real world, real-time story of the “real couple”—Will and Connie—is the emotionally fraught, equally engaging tale of an unnamed literary couple that exists only within the pages of a book read aloud by our two protagonists.
Under, around, and on top of these two juxtaposed stories is a series of flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness musings, and increasingly neurotic, over-the-top fantasy sequences. Without much in the way of warning, these somewhat tangential meta-narratives appear, insert themselves in the story, and vanish abruptly. The effect is kaleidoscopic. One moment these disparate small moments create a distinct and beautiful whole. The next, they all break apart, scattering like shards of glass.
Crane eschews the visual grammar that often attends a change in setting. There are no sepia tones or obvious shifts in art style as the book careens from one time and place to the next. Instead, that information comes in the form of subtle changes to panel borders.
The real-time story exists within square boundaries circumscribed by straight black lines. Most everything else is bounded by subtler, undulating white borders somewhat reminiscent of a cinematic crossfade. It all tends to be a bit confusing at first, but once you settle into the rhythm it feels pretty seamless. Crane’s well-crafted, poetic script strings all these moments together like beads on a necklace, creating a whole much more striking than the individual parts.
As Will’s emotions run wild, one of his interior monologues spreads across two pages. We see him drift through his daily routine in a near catatonic state as he says to himself: “Without her…I go on…with everything…I do every day…everything I do…just as I always do…except now…there is no reason…for any of it.” In the moment, the fact that his wife’s death is imagined doesn’t make it any easier to cope with.
On the very next two-page spread, we’re suddenly in the midst of a flashback. It’s a happier, simpler time. Will and Connie talk on the phone, their relationship still in its early stages. “I don’t ever wanna stop smoking,” Connie declares. “What? I always thought I’d quit one day,” Will responds. Led by her meandering thoughts, Connie veers off topic. “This morning, I was paralyzed in my bed. The radio on and sunlight through the trees. My whole day was colored gold because of it.”
In real time, we see them squabble, arguing about who will go get something for them to eat and who will stay at home to do the overflowing sink’s worth of dishes. Intercut within this, we see the love and light that undergirds their relationship. They’re feeling beat up and exhausted after being stuck in traffic, but things weren’t always this way.
The narrative fragments further and the scenes get shorter and shorter until—in Will’s mind, at least—“everything happens at once.” The characters find themselves caught in a spinning vortex of thoughts and feelings. Crane’s cartooning gets even more nonlinear, psychedelic, and dreamlike. As does the script. Tiny moments all rush together, swelling into a swirling flood of palpable emotions that wash over characters and reader alike. It’s a cacophony of all the feelings: grief, loneliness, sorrow, disconnection, longing, regret—and finally—catharsis.
Multiple readings are not required, but they will be rewarded. Going through the book for the second or third time, you’ll notice little details, moments within moments, you may have glossed over before. It’s a stunning work of graphic fiction and a testament to the power of visual storytelling.
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