Just when you think it’s safe to disregard Stuart Bowden’s cutesy comic book storytelling, it creeps up and kicks you in the tearducts. Arriving fresh-garlanded from the Adelaide Fringe, The World Holds Everything Apart, Apart From Us is elevated by its mastery of disguise. You think it’s a pithy space fantasy, but later realise that its shot through with real-world grief. Beneath the spaceman’s visor, you’ll find a tear-stained face.
Avian, a cosmonaut attempting to immunise himself against loneliness, has lived in hermitage for 14 years. In the middle of the Aticama desert, the driest on earth, he’s fixing his one-man spaceship, The Story, so as to get as far away from everyone else as possible. In that time, he’s encountered only three people, with one of whom, an astrophysicist called Sarah, he falls in love. Having grown accustomed to isolation, the further he falls, the scarier it gets.
Bowden knits form to content beautifully, telling Avian’s story as if keeping himself entertained. Milk crates become supersized lego blocks and a soundtrack – two parts Amelie, one part The xx – is composed from live sample-loops. Even so, it starts off a cotton-wool daydream, so light it’s in danger of floating away. ‘We are the world’s emotions,’ Bowden suggests, nearly suffocating us with schmaltz.
Nevertheless, the narrative glances off its crux so nonchalantly that you, like Avian, barely register Sarah’s terminal illness. No amount of forewarning prepares you for the actuality of a loved one’s death, since love lives only in the present. It doesn’t think things through, existing not as thought or even want, but as a need. It longs to collapse the distance between us, as if two hearts have been tied together with a bungee chord. Avian’s eight years in space, once the elastic has snapped, are rather eight years of life lived on hold.
Bowden makes a welcoming, sometimes impish, narrator with a slight overreliance on kooky charm. It’s his writing, however, pristine and fragile, that really deserves plaudits. As his tale gains matter, his text finds a purity, particularly where love is concerned. A couple of lines, too perfect to spoil, could stop hearts in themselves. Looking back, I can’t really work out how it all made sense together, but, just like love, it definitely did at the time.