I have never really felt comfortable talking about visual art. While I took art classes in high school, I was never particularly adept at being creative in a visual sense. Up until recently, I could not tell you how I felt about a piece beyond “I like it” or “what is happening here.” With that in mind, it’s weird to me to find myself needing to talk about this art book and the way it made me feel. While I still feel ill-equipped to interpret the art and the story, I can not help but think about it, and because I have this platform, you will have to hear about it. In The Electric State, Simon Stalenhag writes and illustrates an alternative 1990s America that feels all too similar to roughly the first decade of my life, highlighting the desolation and isolation of suburban America through the eyes of a child.
The Electric State follows a young girl as she travels across the western United States with her robot pal. Illustrations of the various landscapes she encounters are interlaced with the narrative of her travels to her unknown destination. During her journey, the reader is subjected to an empty America, one where virtual reality has become so ubiquitous and so addictive that people are dying on their sofas attached to their machines. Readers learn that the Sentre Mode 6 was a breakthrough technological marvel, first developed by the military and eventually marketed to the ordinary American, allowing everyone to live out their individual fantasies in virtual reality.
First off, the art is haunting. Everything is desolate, deserted, and devoid of life. Stalenhag captures this alternate America with the eye of a cynical Rockwell. Idyllic homesteads are juxtaposed with empty landscapes filled with derelict military equipment. Human beings are practically non-existent, leaving the roads and neighborhoods to be populated by cars. The few people left are either not interested in the main cast or are wasting away under the seduction of the Mode 6. The story lends an ominous context to everything, not by way of explaining what the reader sees, but setting a mood. Every page turn often took me longer than a normal page because I felt a need to take in every picture to its fullest. Each picture was captivating, the sheer emptiness in each piece acting as a drain and sucking me deeper and deeper into Stalenhag’s America.
While the art is haunting, the story makes it unforgettable. Though it’s not the most intricate of tales, it binds all the pictures together. Without the writing the art would be “cool” or “interesting” and still worthy of hanging on the wall. But the writing feels purposefully sparse, detailing the road trip and the history of the Mode 6, highlighting all the ways in which the Mode 6 has infected everyone’s lives. Stalenhag avoids flowery language, opting to mirror the desolation exhibited in the pictures. Life in his America feels meaningless and empty, even to those not wearing the headset. The only people who seem to have a will and a purpose are a girl and her robot as they travel across California.
There is no flashy way to do this, so I will just dive into my interpretation. I feel that this book is an incredibly honest look at America, through the eyes of a child living in the peak of the nineties. Looking through this art, it reminds me a lot of how I feel looking back at that time growing up. I may have been a child (being born in 1989), but it was a time filled with new technology and an endless assortment of toys for both children and adults. The ads on television constantly detailed a better, brighter, more colorful life that could be yours if only you owned this or that product. Access to new wealth was made possible by advances in military technology, which allowed the projection of power on the global stage, which in turn increased America’s ability to control trade in lopsided agreements. It feels weird to admit it, but I do not remember a lot of the people I encountered at that time. Sure, I remember their names, maybe even what they looked like- but not who they were. As children, probably around the time I turned eight, my younger brother and I were often left to our own devices, often in the form of a video game console or a VCR. My parents were not and are not neglectful, but it is still hard to remember any time where adults felt present in our daily affairs besides at the dinner table, especially when compared with nostalgic family-oriented television. It is just far easier to remember the things I was sold than the experiences I lived, and Stalenhag’s art distilled that feeling from my emotional core. It is a weird revelation, but I will honestly cherish this book for a long time because it is something that speaks to me personally, not just to my ideals.
The whole work exudes an emptiness that never leaves. There is no triumph to be had in this version of America. It is an astonishingly endless wasteland punctuated by stark reminders of where the technology came from, ultimately benefiting no one. Stalenhag paints a picture of a society that is so perfectly atomized, it is easier to die dreaming of your perfect world, than connect with those around you. It is a small hope that we follow two characters who have a goal that they share, and find comfort in each other’s company. But if there is more hope than that in The Electric State, I have yet to find it.
Rating: The Electric State – 9.0/10