Welcome To The Three Rooms In Valerie’s Head: A Darkly Beautiful Meditation On Obsession & Memory

by Richard Bruton

The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head, is a new graphic novel from Top Shelf, written by micro-fiction author David Gaffney and drawn by acclaimed artist Dan Berry. (Check out our preview of the book here.)

The book began life as a performance piece, commissioned by the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, one of the UK’s premier comic festivals. The performance was based on several of Gaffney’s micro-fiction works, with Berry’s art as projected imagery and accompanied by a soundtrack from recording artist Sara Lowes.

The book takes that work and creates something more, expanding, developing, creating something strangely funny, and intensely quirky. Dealing with issues of loneliness and isolation, relationships, and memory, it all builds up to something that synthesizes art and ideas, telling of a life in one woman’s head, seemingly trapped in the mistakes of the past.

It’s a wonderfully offbeat, dark comedic delight.

Valerie’s mind had three rooms;
a front, a back, and a cellar.

If there was something she didn’t want to think about at a particular moment
she would move it into the back.
Then she could concentrate on playing the accordion.
Or explaining her job to her mother.

The problem was the cellar.

Yes, the cellar. We’ll get to that in a moment.

That quote above comes from the first four pages and contains the only two panels in the entire thing that are definitely happening in the real world. Everything else in The Three Rooms In Valerie’s Head is all happening inside those three rooms in Valerie’s head; front, back, and cellar. And that’s so important and so easy to forget, such is the immersive nature of the comic.

Valerie is quiet, introverted, reflective, and, you get the impression, somewhat damaged by life. But in Gaffney and Berry’s hands, exploring her inner world is often darkly hysterical. The turn of Gaffney’s phrase, the skillful use of expression and flow in Berry’s art perfectly captures both the surreal ridiculousness of it all and the sadness that underpins the tale.

Valerie’s been terribly unlucky when it comes to relationships. All of her exes have their idiosyncrasies, or perhaps they were simply completely useless. Luckily, thanks to Valerie’s rooms, she gets the chance to dredge up the past very simply…she just drags their dead bodies up to the front room and has a chat with them. You see what I mean about the way quirky veers into disturbing?

They aren’t really dead, but it suits Valerie to consider them as such, in storage down in the cellar, until she brings them upstairs.

And she would move their jaws and make them speak in scratchy voices.

Valerie was lovely, wasn’t she?
Yes, I wish I’d never left her.
We are all so stupid.

Even though they smelled and had clouded weasel eyes and spongy biceps, it was good to imagine they were dead and position their bodies into these tableaux.

The drawback was having no space in the front room for anything else.

And there it is. That’s the key. No space in the front room for anything else. Nothing.

The front room in her head is her life. The back room is where she puts things she doesn’t want to think about. Like the vase in the first couple of pages. We’ll get to that later as well. All this thinking about those exes is clogging up the front room, clogging up her head, stopping her life from moving forwards. With so little space in the front room of her life/head, there’s just no space to put anything happy and positive in there.

Having them around, always available, means she gets the chance to create the inner monologue of chatting through what they did, what went wrong, and have them give her the advice she often doesn’t want to hear.

Each old boyfriend is paraded before us, and each has their quirks. There’s Jake, an estate agent web designer with the habit of sneaking unicorns into the house pictures. He invented a prescription windscreen just so he doesn’t have to wear specs in the car. Great for him, annoys the life out of Valerie. There’s Gus, who has a secret passion for pinning blurry images of women all over his shed, and suggests to Valerie that sex would be better if he wore his mother’s old jamjar glasses to blur her up. Or Brett, the deep, deep thinker:

We are enjoying a romantic meal. But what is romance? What is a meal?
Think about the candle. Animal blubber with string for a wick. But what makes this romantic? Because it flickers? Because it masks imperfections?
That object contains no love.

A true romantic artifact is a magical talisman imbued with meaning extraneous to itself and its function.
Emotional significance is accrued to it from a couple’s joint experience of a tangible thing.
If a couple fall in love while working at a slaughterhouse the screams of terrified beasts would be romantic for them.

Cut to Valerie… in the restaurant, hers not the only aghast face in there…

Then there’s Daniel, who would only agree to sex if it was in an empty property that neither of them owned…terrified of performance. Which is why he and Valerie went to see a few empty houses for sale.

Afterwards, they lay together imagining the psychic effect on the building’s structure.
People say that an orphanage has sadness in the walls.
Well, they had injected some love into the brickwork.

This was a service they could provide professionally. Like the aroma of coffee, the frisson of recent sexual activity could be a powerful selling technique.

And Valerie made a mental note to suggest it to a property consultant.

And finally… Stanley. Oh yes, Stanley was different. Stanley’s even got his own, special room in Valerie’s head now. With hearts and candles around the door. They celebrated their first wedding anniversary in a room on the top floor of a posh hotel. It didn’t go too well.

I could tell you how it ends, so beautifully, powerfully, with a perfect moment of realization for both reader and Valerie. But that’s for you to read and enjoy for yourselves.

It’s ultimately about obsessional behavior of any form, but specifically the obsessional nature of reflection, of allowing the past to inform the present and the future in a toxic way. When you can’t go forwards without punishing yourself for mistakes of the past. What does it take to free yourself from these impediments, how can you unburden yourself and just move on?

As for Berry’s artwork, it’s always been impressive, with great use of loose lines, exceptional use of color, and a dynamic flow to his pages, all somewhat reminiscent of Quentin Blake. But here he’s experimented further, pushing his imagery more and more, taking his art to the next level. Colouring specifically for mood, even going as far as drawing left-handed in some panels to evoke a “wobbly vulnerability”. Everything combines to enhance the voices, the characters.

I changed the art tools I was using – I used coloured chinagraph pencils for one section and for a few pages I drew with my left hand to get a wobbly vulnerability into the artwork. It was a lot of fun.—-Dan Berry

And his fine detail is, as always, spot on. The facial expressions are perfection. In a tale of so few words, as befits Gaffney’s work as a micro-fiction writer, Berry’s facial expressions and body language do so much.

And then there’s the vase.

It’s the masterpiece moment, and so telling, when forty pages in, we revisit the first couple of pages where Valerie moved the vase she didn’t want to think of into the back room.

In ten perfect pages, Berry performs wonders, slowing time as the vase flies through the air, with Valerie obsessively firing question after question into the ether. Panel to panel happens in microseconds, with Berry’s control exquisite. It encapsulates everything that is so good about The Three Rooms In Valerie’s Head

You can discover everything about your boyfriend by tossing a breakable object at him.

Is he poised? Confident in his judgements??
Does he seem willing to take responsibility for someone else’s actions?
Is he comfortable with spontaneity?

What is his attitude toward risk, debt, transgression, sin, guilt?
How does he experience the passage of time?
Does he appear to believe in an afterlife? An interventionist God? Ghosts, fate, predestination?
Does he demonstrate a belief that character is learned?

Is he concerned with the existential?

You learn the most if the object belongs to someone else.

Heavens, all of that, and I never mentioned the elves. Oh well, you can discover that for yourself.

The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head is a full-color softcover graphic novel with French flaps, 9.5″ x 6.5″ (landscape format), 120 pages. Written by David Gaffney, art by Dan Berry, and published by Top Shelf Productions.