Acting Class by Nick Drnaso review – ah, look at all the lonely people

In 2018, Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina was longlisted for the Booker prize, the first graphic novel in its history to be so. And no wonder. Drnaso’s story, about a missing woman and the effect her disappearance has on those close to her, deals with subjects many traditional novelists continue to be wary of tackling, gun control and conspiracy theories among them. Unlike many seemingly of-the-moment books, however, its power has only grown in the years since. Four years on and, following the US Capitol riots, it reads, at moments, like a prediction (Drnaso lives and works in Chicago). Go back to it, as I did the other day, and you will, I guarantee, find it at least twice as terrifying as you did the first time around.

Thanks to this, my stomach lurched a bit when I picked up Acting Class, Drnaso’s first full-length outing since Sabrina. Is it as wildly successful as its predecessor? In truth, I’m not sure that it is. But my queasiness was hardly misplaced. In this book, Drnaso again distills quite brilliantly aspects of 21st-century anomie and alienation, on this occasion through the prism of a group of lonely and awkward strangers who sign up for an acting class run by a highly controlling but seemingly unqualified teacher called John Smith. Who is this mysterious guy? And why is this crowd – among its members are an anxious single mother and a bored married couple – so willing not only to trust him but to believe he is going to change their lives for the better? Drnaso’s narrative operates in the bewildering space between the reader’s instinctive scepticism – John stinks to high heaven of charlatanism – and the naivety and desperation of his crowd of misfits.

Acting Class isn’t an easy read. Drnaso’s blank, Playmobil-ish faces are hard to tell apart; I sometimes struggled to work out which character was which. The way he presents the class’s improvisations as reality on the page can also be, to put it mildly, extremely confusing, as if two films have been suddenly spliced together. But perhaps this discomfiture is half of the point. In the age of social media, fantasy and reality are increasingly blurred; an addiction to the notion of self-help, Drnaso suggests, is born of exactly the same impulse that has people tweaking their personalities, and even their bodies, online, and why should we regard one as better (or worse) than the other? It’s all delusion. In 2022, artifice and authenticity are close to the same thing. Who could slip a paper between them?

As for John, he is in some senses an Everyman figure: an all-purpose mountebank who might just as easily represent, in cultural terms, a certain kind of politician as a guru or cult leader. We know he’s making it up as he goes along. We know he’s preying on the deepest vulnerabilities of his class. Yet we can do nothing to stop him. Drnaso’s flat drawings, dun shades and slow-spooling scenarios are relentless and deliberately so. The crowd walks blindly towards this trickster, falling hungrily on his every exhortation. They believe only what they want to believe. Reality is inverted. The person who resists will be lonely indeed.

  • Acting Class by Nick Drnaso is published by Granta on 18 August (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply