Isabel Greenberg’s graphic novel The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, reviewed.

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 3 2013 10:49 AM

A Species of Scheherazades

An inventive comic about the human need for storytelling.

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Greenberg has a lot of metafictional fun with the theme of storytelling. About halfway through, she introduces a cartographer named Mancini Panini who is famous for his beautiful maps, thought to have been the first to chart Early Earth. (Panini looks pretty much identical to the medicine man from Nord, and to a shaman from the South Pole. This is a running joke throughout the book—“a plot device that will never be explained, so deal with it!”—as is the fact that these supposedly wise old men tend to prove incompetent.) Panini’s methodology turns out to be radically unsound; a severe agoraphobic, he gathers intelligence for his maps by sitting in his tower and peering through his telescope, and then sending out three trained monkeys in pedal boats, armed with paper and pen, to survey the terrain. His map of the world, we are told, is “generally agreed by explorers to be completely useless since it is almost entirely wrong on every level,” but he is “possessed of an excellent imagination and a steady and meticulous drawing hand, and so the maps can be valued as things of beauty.”

Greenberg portrays this scientific failure as integral to a kind of artistic success. Empirically, he’s feeling around in the dark, afraid to even venture out into the territory he’s supposed to be surveying. She doesn’t overstrain the metaphor, but our man Panini is elegantly suggestive of storytelling (of art itself, really): the work of making beautiful maps of unknown territories. This is what Greenberg is about here, in her light-fingered way: inventing the world from scratch and coming up with origin myths that are—and this is sort of the point of such myths—almost entirely wrong on every level but valuable as things of beauty. (And being entirely wrong, of course, doesn’t necessarily preclude the capturing of certain kinds of truth.)

Isabel Greenberg.
Author Isabel Greenberg

Courtesy of Lydia Garnett

Her Early Earth, we learn, is the result of a competition between a god named Birdman, his son Kid, and his daughter Kiddo. The three bird-persons of this trinity, literal inventors of worlds, are, in terms of characterization, Greenberg’s most well-drawn figures. As gods, they’re more Hellenic than Abrahamic, which is to say mischievously and playfully human. Birdman emerges, at some unspecified point in Early Earth’s prehistory, from an egg that just appears out of nowhere. (“Don’t ask how it got there, OK,” we are instructed. “Every story has to have a beginning and this one begins with an egg, floating in an infinite, empty cosmos.” Your standard chicken-or-egg cosmogony problem, handily dealt with.) He then lays two eggs of his own, from which emerge the son and daughter who eventually decide, out of cosmic childish boredom, to have a world-making contest. Early Earth turns out to be Kiddo’s creation, a vast, complex world that she carries in her hair; in a fit of jealous petulance at her creative success, her brother cuts off her hair, causing it to tumble into infinity, growing in size and complexity as it falls. With this story, Greenberg is slyly rewriting the rigidly patriarchal source code of the culturally enshrined narratives she’s drawing from. (See also her inversion of old-crone fairy-tale tropes to produce a heroic giant-slaying great-grandmother.) She is, in this sense, a bit like a cartoon Angela Carter.


All this stuff might be strenuously whimsical in a work of prose fiction, but the loveliness and composure of Greenberg’s illustration and her playful narrative tone make for an endearing combination—and the whimsy is pretty much inseparable, anyway, from the myth-riffing project as a whole. Her stories, like those she alludes to and borrows from, are creative misreadings of the world, beautiful maps drawn from incomprehension and imagination. In all its trapdoored complexity, its stories within stories about stories, The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is a funny and touching celebration of the narrative species that we are.


The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg. Little, Brown.