Thursday, December 29, 2016

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and Flying Couch by Amy Kurzweil

What if Icarus hadn't hurtled into the sea? What if he'd inherited his father's inventive bent? What might he have wrought? He didn't hurtle into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt. -Bechdel
I'm taking a class from Roz Chast on graphic memoirs in January, and this was the assigned reading list (plus Flying Couch, a Holocaust graphic memoir by a woman I went to college with). Reading all four together lent a depth to each that I hadn't noticed before (I was re-reading all but Kurzweil's), and allowed me to look at the artistic decisions in a different light. My own memories and my recollection of the stories my family tells over and over are stored as images and clips--not words; the idea of recording those memories and stories not just with words but with drawings has always appealed to me as a medium for memoir in particular, and these four offered a wide range of the possibilities the graphic novel holds. Beyond the artistic differences (all four authors have dramatically different styles), one of the most interesting differences was the ways in which they chose to pair (or contrast) the voice-over type monologue with the images they chose.

Maus is by far the most famous of the memoirs and was by far the most difficult to read. Maus I only covers Spiegelman's parents' journey to the concentration camps, not their excruciating traumas afterwards, but Poland's inexorable progress towards the Holocaust is horrifying. Spiegelman moves back and forth between pages chronicling his interviews with his father where his own internal monologue provides the narrative text and panels depicting his father's life in Czechoslovakia and Poland where his father's voice takes over the narrative text. These transitions are elegant and easy to follow, and the flashes forward provide a break from the brutality of what is happening in the past. While obviously this is a Holocaust story, I found myself more drawn to these more intimate moments. His father is difficult. His relationship with his father is difficult. The heroism of surviving the Holocaust is complicated by the person his father has become, and the brutal honesty of his depiction of their broken relationship is very compelling.

Flying Couch is Amy Kurzweil's first full length graphic novel, and in it she chronicles her grandmother's experiences surviving the Holocaust as well as three generations of female relationships. Kurzweil uses stories her grandmother has told her along with hours of transcribed interviews to recreate her story, and she intertwines both old and recent memories of her mother and grandmother with her grandmother's experiences. The art is a little more chaotic than any of the other texts; Kurzweil rarely uses panels, and she layers and superimposes images and text to echo her own confusion and anxiety. She too has a fraught relationship with her parent (this time, a mother)--a theme that ran through all four books was parental disapproval of cartoonist as a profession--and some of the conversations she chronicles hit close to home.

Bechdel's Fun Home made me feel incredibly ill-read, even after reading 49 books this year. In it, Bechdel explores her own discovery of her sexuality parallel to her discovery of her father's complicated sexual identity. Bruce Bechdel, a high school English teacher, undertaker, and obsessive interior decorator was a difficult father (notice a theme yet?), who, it turns out, was sleeping with teenage boys and buying them beer. Alison discovers all of this right after coming out herself only weeks before her father's death, and the book gives a simultaneously tragic and unlikeable portrait of the man. Bechdel's narrative is interspersed with quotes from and references to Proust, Joyce, Collette, Homer, and likely dozens of others that flew over my head. Sometimes her narration describes the images in the corresponding panel, but more often than not they complement each other in more complex ways. She'll use passages from Proust across several pages with seemingly unrelated images and dialog, but upon closer inspection and re-reading, they often build on each other.

Last but not least there was Chast's description of the end of her parents' lives: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? There is another difficult parent/child relationship here, but this one is described with far more humor and irony. Chast's father is anxious and neurotic (much as Chast depicts herself) and her mother overbearing and powerful. Both are set in their ways (and borderline hoarders) as only elderly parents can be, and Chast documents their dotage with a balance of biting sarcasm and kindness. I laughed out loud at her descriptions of her mother--an assistant principal who dealt out "BLASTS FROM CHAST" when angry, and cringed at the parallels between her father and my grandfather, obsessed with their bank books and the thought that someone might break into their apartment and steal them. My favorite page was this, an enumeration of all the ways one can die, go deaf, or meet other terrible fates:

Chast's mother would have been one of my favorite characters in a novel, but seeing her through the eyes of her daughter made her more problematic and more real--a clear illustration of how strong characters often make terrible parents--perhaps even an exploration of how motherhood and personality are not always allowed to go hand in hand.

I enjoyed Chast's the most of the four. I love her cartoons in general, and she was able to weave her usual paranoid, neurotic sense of humor into an honest and difficult narrative. I liked reading so many graphic texts back to back--comparing them to each other both implicitly and explicitly allowed me to read them a little more carefully and to look at form rather than just consuming them as as I usually do. Also, it allowed me to knock 4 of my last 5 books off in a matter of days!

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

I've only read Maus I (which is indeed difficult, and also I agree that the intimate moments are best) and Fun Home which is... so good. Probably one of the best graphic novels ever written. I'd like to read the follow-up, about her mom.