The title suggests that Daniel Clowes’s latest is a work of biographical fiction – and, to a degree, it is. A woman called Monica features in most of the nine chapters of this kaleidoscopic graphic novel. Abandoned by her hippy mother, she grows up with her grandparents, builds a career, then abandons it to uncover the truth about her mother’s departure – and the secrets of the mysterious cult she may have joined.
Yet Monica changes its colours like a skittish octopus. The chapters don’t simply carry the story forward. Instead, they chart the protagonist’s life in a wide range of styles – a free-wheeling drama, a ghost story, a rags-to-riches tale, an occult thriller and a retiree romance – broken up by tales of wartime friendship, hitmen, blue-skinned interlopers and cynical artists in which Monica appears only obliquely, if at all. There’s no back-cover blurb or introduction to tell us what to make of it all. The reader, like Monica herself, must play detective.
Clowes broke through with the bracingly weird Eightball in the late 1980s, and has become one of the most lauded figures in comics, best known for Ghost World and David Boring; fans will need little excuse to fling themselves into this genre-hopping work. But casual readers shouldn’t fret. Monica’s story, despite being told in themed fragments, with gaps that sometimes stretch for decades, is full of drama. Ritual sacrifices rub up against domestic arguments, cars fly headlong off roads, a whale is torn by lampreys and a cult roots out a traitor in its midst as Monica probes deeper into her past.
This isn’t a book you finish with a happy sense of closure – rather, it nags at you to flick through the pages once more
Clowes is a skilled evoker of time and place, and his enthusiasm for the styles he adopts helps the episodes – which move broadly from the 1960s to the present – to flow. Visual details (a psychedelic typeface, a carefully furnished room) and sparky writing (“I’d been there three weeks, posing as a mute woodchopper”) set each scene with colourful concision, while Clowes uses genre conventions to shine shifting light on the action. In the chapter Pretty Penny, Monica’s mother’s destructive tangle of relationships is illustrated with the bright colours and flower motifs of teen romance. The looming folk horror of The Glow Infernal renders deserted streets and dark forests with stately menace: at one point an axe rests in a neck like a book on a shelf. Elsewhere, panels evoke William Hogarth and zombie mobs. Monica explores one woman’s journey, but you could argue that this pulpy, episodic book is really about comics themselves. Connections and echoes abound. People seen in squats or head shops reappear decades later in another episode. Monica’s dead grandfather calls out from a portable radio, while hummingbirds and tree spirits flit between chapters.
Monica’s search for her mother apparently leads to a cult mastermind and a powerful ancient curse. The book begins with a two-page visual gallery that takes us past dinosaurs, the crucifixion and the American civil war to the present day, suggesting her quest may be an equally pivotal moment in our history. Yet Monica’s discoveries are built from her own hazy memories and the recollections of ageing men and women. “Nobody from the old days,” she acknowledges, “can remember exactly what happened.” One of Penny’s exes mutters that he does not wish to be another “colourful character” in her daughter’s “precious little drama”. Is Monica writing history, or spinning a yarn?
If Monica is seeking to step outside reality, she is not the only one. In these pages hippies, feminists, cultists and artists all scrabble to escape or transform the hard, baffling world they inhabit. Even Penny’s upstanding first boyfriend ends up in a house coated with “thick sediment … like a grime of madness”, conspiracy tracts piled up around him. Both Monica and Penny, like many of Clowes’s characters, are compulsively drawn to choices that pull them from mundane contentment into stranger waters.
The dark tale that results is a thrilling read. Clowes’s refusal to commit to a single narrative style or version of the truth means that this is not a book you finish with a happy sense of closure. Rather, it nags at you to flick through the pages one more time, heading down rabbit holes of your own as you find a new clue or spot another immersive pastiche, and realise that this rich, clever work has shifted its shape once again.
• Monica is published by Jonathan Cape (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply