Best Of British: Marble Cake Takes Everyday People And Meanders Beautifully Through Their Lives

by Richard Bruton

Imagine your own life – are you the central character? Or merely playing a minor supporting role in someone else’s life? Most likely, you’ll discover that all of us play so many different roles, so many different parts, all of them depending on perspective. And that’s every bit the essence of Scott Jason Smith‘s rather excellent first graphic novel, Marble Cake.

With the opening of Marble Cake, 20-year-old Tracy dreams of a life beyond the confines of South London, dreams of a life out of her mom’s place. She’s tired, oh so tired of her job on the tills at Smartmart, where the highlight of her working day is heading off to the disabled toilet to get some peace and quiet.
The beeps, all the beeps, again and again.
And then there’s the customers. Oh those customers.

Tracy, just as everyone else in this life, is living out the play of her own existence, a melodrama with her as the central role. She spends those mind-numbing hours entertaining herself on the tills imagining the lives of those customers.
But more than that, she also finds herself idly wonders about the roles those customers are playing in their own lives, whether they’re the main actors in their own particular theatres or whether they’re merely bit parts, the supporting cast of someone else’s lives.

That’s the essence of Marble Cake, taking the disparate lives of these various customers and people and following along with them, fleshing out that initial introspection of Tracy’s. And here the title’s meaning comes clear, mixing everything together, a blending of people, their lives, the light and the dark, the lead and the supporting roles.
It’s a graphic novel with no real centre, no central character, as the focus switches from one person to another, one person’s interaction with another sending us off in a different direction, a different storyline. And Smith shifts from one to another effortlessly, playing his viewpoint around to track from one to the next, with the art subtly moving viewpoints, overlapping cleverly as the focus shifts, such as this…

And that final panel on the page shifts with the page turn to the conversation in the foreground…

It’s a clever little artistic touch in a book that’s full of clever little artistic touches, all designed to bring out the very personal, close-up view of the characters in here. The simple figure work, minimal lines, minimal backgrounds, solid colors, even the gentle rounding of the panels – something usually reserved in common comics grammar for dream-like moments – it all adds to the wistful, inquisitive nature of the piece.
It’s a graphic novel that plays with circularity, with connections, with synchronicity, with everyday life and the messiness we all experience. Life isn’t a linear, simple thing and, just like life, Marble Cake is no simple story of obvious main characters and supporting roles. That’s the clever, intriguing thing about the book, doing something that no other medium can do this well, crafting something that plays on the reader’s mind, makes you question what is happening, what everything means, how it all connects, how it all doesn’t connect.
If there’s one thing that doesn’t quite work here, it’s with the darker aspects in the book that are there every so often, mostly as tangential things, mentions on the TV or radio, snatches of conversations overheard by the reader. You read of attacks on the underground, people disappearing with alarming regularity, the possibility of at least some of the lost being absorbed into their TVs. That final one is expressly seen in the book, something that might be a dream before a woman disappears, might equally be Smith being literal, adding a mystery touch to the work. It does add mystery, but it’s never explored sufficiently to truly work. In truth though, it’s such a small part that this slight slip up doesn’t really do more than add more questions and a little frustration. At its best, in most of what is here, it’s a book that works so well looking at the mundane and fascinating moments of everyday life.

Marble Cake is a book that demands the reader asks questions and a book that very firmly refuses to answer many of the questions it raises. Whether it works for you is a question of how willing you are to accept a tale that doesn’t lay everything out before you. And I, for one, love the way it does that.

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