Excerpt from Cartoon Gravity

by Jennie Kaufman


Chapter 1

Niedelbacher hasn’t been funny in a month.

This is not public knowledge. It is an editor’s responsibility and privilege to protect the public from artistic imbalances, much as the liver regulates the body’s metabolism. A person’s conscious brain can afford to ignore the flickering signals that there is a deficiency, even a toxicity, because the liver is on top of it. A reader’s conscious brain might not panic in the fourth week of cartoons that utterly lack the wry sharpness, the swift and sure perception Niedelbacher should supply. But his editor has no greater duty than to thrust herself into the bowels, root out the ill and repair it.

At La Belle Aurore, in a compact office with a wide drafting table and a shimmering view of the East River, Gabrielle Desroches decides she’ll be sick if she finishes her coffee. She wants to call him, to offer sympathy or advice. But Niedelbacher is Niedelbacher: a white-haired man with a hard, round belly and the piercing glare of the very-well-educated-before-you-were-born. He implies—at least, she infers—that it is effortless for him, that it is all a visitation from Truth, spilling out into drawings that carry a ready familiarity with the cocked eyebrow, dismissive arm, sarcastic mouth.

Niedelbacher’s wit has always been a tonic; constant exposure to him and the reader feels honed, ready to spot her own dangerous pretensions. But the contents of this envelope are the work of a hollowed-out imitator. Not one submission in four weeks meets the standards of the liver.

No need to worry the first week. The next, Gabrielle wondered why he was even bothering to send this kind of crap. She was embarrassed, as if he were incontinent. A delicate matter to address, especially with Niedelbacher—who is, after all, the only cartoonist officially on staff—so she accepted one, hoping to avoid using it. By the third week, his work had reached unprecedented levels of mediocrity. Now he has surpassed even that.

. . .

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