Monthly Archives: August 2014

Fun Home, Not-much-fun Home

 

Fun Home, Not-much-fun Home: Bechdel, Satrapi, Barry and The Graphic Novel and Memoir

Nearing the end of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel and memoir Fun Home, I wondered what it would be like to read the entire text without the drawings. The dark humor, the straightforward yet complex prose was clearly a masterful brew. I found myself drawing exuberant little stars – my substitute for highlighting – in a great many places on each page. This author’s particular blend seems both to draw the reader inside her deepest perceptions and, simultaneously, keep a safe, buffering distance. I wondered if it is the wry prose, the wry voice that achieves this or if that simultaneous distance and inclusion is achieved precisely through the use of both art forms together. The title of the work, Fun Home on its own, without its subtitle A Family Tragicomic (the one and only thing I dislike about the whole project) and without the cover drawing, stands quite strong. Just those two words comprise several layers of pain, humor, irony. Alone they beckon and captivate. Alone they make me laugh.

It is the use of cartoon that permits the almost adolescent-feeling or raw, streetwise way of telling while it is the use of sophisticated vocabulary, literary knowledge and articulate phrasing that permits the psychological consideration of Bechdel and her parents. What would it be like to separate them? Would the prose, apart from the drawings, hold enough water? I decided to try.

In fact the experiment would have worked better if I had done this from the start, because, having read the text and viewed and read the drawings together the first time, it was fairly difficult to take the text on its own the second. I already knew. Could not ignore what was in there as if I didn’t. Ultimately I ascertained that the text would certainly need filling in or fleshing out (which is not at all the same as development) without the supporting drawings, yet the text was almost  – not quite – a self-sufficient possibility. A different sort of project, but possible. Not so for the drawings. Supporting seems a very fitting word for the drawings; enriching and humor-infusing as well. I come away from the experiment completely skeptical that such a lengthy tale could be told with just the drawings. I know, this skepticism comes from someone who works with words and language or music as my own primary art form, and hybrid works my emphasis toward the future. Therefore it may be that it is harder for me to envision, while a visual or graphic artist could possibly interject here a clear idea or proposal of how to do that very thing. I remain skeptical.

Another consideration for me as a reader is that graphic novels are a personal challenge. My learning style and brain type require a strong measure of visual organization, a level of order on the page for full absorption, processing and contemplation. Off the page that is not such a challenge; that is; in music or other art forms or experiences. Viewing Bechdel’s work through that lens, as compared to Lynda Barry, for example,  I was relieved that Bechdel is not difficult to follow. Even though she takes up a particular topic and moves forward somewhat chronologically, she goes back in time to take up each new topic, usually chapter-wise. This was so skillfully ordered and the language had such a logic to it that there was none of the sense of being “scattered” that I have seen in other works of this genre.

Speaking of other works of the genre, I feel in Fun Home a significant departure from Marjane Satrapi’s Persopolis books, another notable, highly-effective, artful example of the graphic novel and memoir. They differ in many ways, not the least of which is the emotional approach. Satrapi seems largely to allow the events to speak for themselves. She comes across as adored, loving, and adorable. Her family suffered the most from circumstance, not psychological tumultuousness and affective insufficiency. Not so Bechdel’s life, Bechdel’s childhood and adolescence, Bechdel’s family. Satrapi’s tale orients us toward a global critique, a critique of governments, policies, politics and their impact on individuals and families. Bechdel’s work orients us toward a critique of parents (and families) who inflict their own unresolved pain on their children. In fact we could look at her story from the perspective of how homophobia in general destroys family, thus a critique of society (and certainly that is not absent from Fun Home), but in Bechdel’s work, we are seeing how the parents destroy family, or at least individual children. We don’t walk away saying, “Oh, if only Bruce had been accepted as a gay man in his community, poor guy.” Neither does Bechdel ask us to completely write him off as a human being. It is a huge offering that she makes towards him in the very last frame. If we didn’t know it before, she informs us that a harmful parent is not so one-dimensional as to be easily sorted onto an all-encompassing pile of badness. In that sense, Bechdel’s world is not as black-and-white as its actual medium.

Closer to Bechdel’s approach but not as directly critical of her parents is the work of Lynda Barry, especially through her character Marlys and Marlys’s family members. Barry is not as angry, does not eviscerate any relatives or parents. Perhaps this is partly because no one, as far as I recall reading, in her immediate family, no one with authority, publically did anything so brutal as committing suicide or directing abusive behavior towards Barry’s character. Perhaps it is because she presents most of her work (which is at least loosely autobiographical) as fiction while Bechdel is unashamedly autobiographical.  Or perhaps it is that Barry uses the childlike perceptions and voice of, well, an actual child throughout the work. Marlys just reports. Even in works like 100 Demons, Barry doesn’t really tell us whose inner demons she is revealing – are they hers or those of Marlys or another of her frequent characters? In the end, considering these three graphic novelists (all of whom are, in fact, autobiographical in their projects), even though I think it is all of these things that soften the voices of Satrapi and Barry and sharpen the verbal knives, however humorous and lovely, of Bechdel, they feel alike in ways far beyond genre and far beyond gender as well.

 

Summer Ryde

I spent the summer in something like a bewildered pondering. In between classes to teach and classes to take, boxes full of our possessions spread out vertically across  America, from Midwest to Southeast, I wasn’t sure  what to do with myself, with my time. Wasn’t sure how to wait out the summer, or if waiting it out was even an option.  Or an acceptable use of my time.

The mail came. A package. I opened it up and extracted a large, fuzzy pink mustache pillow with ties on the back to attach it to the front grille of my car. Or maybe it was a pair of fuzzy peach pig ears to fasten over the side-view mirrors, the identifying symbol of a car-sharing app. A smaller bag from the box contained a tiny device to attach my phone to the air vent on the dashboard. I decided to do as directed, so I detail-cleaned my car, attached the mustache (or was it the pig ears?), turned on the phone app and began to drive friendly total strangers from one end of the sticky, melting city to the other. At all hours of the day and night.

We talked. We listened to the radio, to my CD mixes. They told me their names, rated my driving and the relative cleanliness of my car. They stepped into my storybooth on wheels, and when they had finished talking, having been transported from bars to restaurants, hotels to airports and apartments to juice bars, they stepped back out. They left behind candy wrappers, bracelets, paper coffee cups and stories. I returned the bracelets and threw away the garbage, but the stories, well…some of those I am sharing with you:

Ryding Around

Father’s Day

Sunday morning, 8 a.m., just south of downtown, I drove into an apartment complex and put on the flashers at the designated spot. My passenger appeared and leaned over, opening the passenger-side door, as Ryders are encouraged to do.  “Oh, maan,” he groaned and lifted one flip-flop into the front next to me, the rest of him tumbling in after. He was wearing shorts and a baggy Madras shirt, a handsome thirtyish face coated with dark stubble. He winked a swollen eye and said, “I can’t believe what I just did,” As I drove him to a near-empty parking lot in the Gulch to retrieve his car from the night before, my passenger talked to me like I was his trusted auntie, confessing that he did not even know exactly where he’d spent the night with the woman he’d gone home with or exactly where I’d gone to pick him up on my first Ryde of the morning. Repentant, that’s what he was. Never doing that again, Ryding home with a stranger and having to face her the next morning. And Father’s Day, too.  And a Sunday.

I sent him off with a breath mint and reassuring words and answered my next summons just barely within the allotted fifteen seconds before it bounced to some other lucky Ryde driver. This next Ryde was a man leaving one of the newer Gulch high-rise condos, also headed to his car left the previous night by the Woodlands Indian vegetarian restaurant alongside I-440. “Glad to see everyone Ryding instead of driving home dangerously!” I joked, and this man, round and rumpled and smiling, said, “Well, I’ve gotta get home fast and shower and shave. Gotta do Father’s Day stuff today. Kid wants to do brunch and church, that’s what he requested, so I’ve gotta pick him up from his mom’s in an hour.” The requested very precise and out of sync with his language.  I offered him a mint or a coffee-shot candy and he took the mint.

This turned out to be the theme of the morning. Six nonresident fathers in a row, from one side of town to another, needed morning-after Rydes to their cars so they could make it back home to shower, shave and go to brunch with their children. Three fathers were alone, three with women with whom they shared the familiarity of a current romance. I thought of my own children asleep, wondering if they would see my note and call their out-of-state father when they woke up.

I didn’t think long because the beeping green button was offering me now only seven more seconds to claim my chance at the next Ryde. The GPS sent me in circles around Lifeway Christian and my passenger wasn’t picking up the phone. Then a text came in. “Holiday Inn on Broadway and 10th.”  I pulled  in and a couple came over. “Sorry I couldn’t answer, “ the man said amicably in the voice of one who has never heard spoken language. “I’m completely deaf! Can’t hear a thing! Can you take us to Pancake Pantry?” We arrived at their destination to the usual round-the-block line. I ended the Ryde, the man asking a question I couldn’t understand but thought I knew. “Can you lip-read?” I asked, and he nodded. “It’s always like this, the line for The Pantry, but it moves fast.” He smiled, touched my shoulder and hopped out with his partner, who squeezed my hand while the green button flashed only six more seconds to grab the next request.

 

Bachelorettes

Coming home to Nashville often feels like I’ve come to a new destination city. One of the many things about our growing homeplace that I wouldn’t have known had I not begun driving for Ryde, the side mirrors of my oldish Camry adorned with the identifying fluffy peach pig ears, is that it’s become a bachelor and bachelorette party hotspot.

This week, in the middle of a brief burst of rain, my passenger acceptance ticker flashed Ryde green. I caught it in the first two seconds and was summoned to a high-rise condo in the Gulch. A stream of gals in pink matching t-shirts came through the front doors into the valet area, the soon-to be-married bachelorette sporting a plastic tiara. The giant sign she wore listed many instructions for this final night of single-gal status, including the following:

  1. Dance with an aging cowboy on a tabletop at a downtown club
  2. Sing karaoke, change the words to something that maks your mama blush; and
  3. Find a husband for one of the single girls; kiss him first to see if he’s any good.

I gave four members of this peppy group, gathered from all around the nation, a Ryde to Rippy’s where the bride would presumably commence these prenuptial tasks.

There were three bachelorette groups and one bachelor party group that night.  One of these was a swarm of gals in various black embroidered tops and giant sombreros. Four hopped into the pig-eared Camry and included me in their ebullient talkfest as we headed onto Hillsboro from Golf Club Lane and down to the Village. Two other Ryde cars caravanned behind me, the entire party jumping out laughing in front of Cabana and tumbling in the front door, oversized sombreros banging into each other and impeding their entry.

It wasn’t until the arrival of the bachelor party guys, who got into the Camry and asked to be taken to their own little shindig on Demonbreun, that I became aware that the Cabana sombrero ladies had left behind an essential party favor in a sparkly pink box with a vintage design, about the length of a, well, pencil. This was not a night for discretion, and the bachelor party men blurted, “Hey, look, someone left some of those penis sipping straws! You must’ve had a bachelorette party in here before us!”

I bid the bachelors adieu and felt a pang of sadness for the sombrero ladies, all dressed up in their sombreros with no straws to sip. So I did the only right thing. I turned off driver mode on my app and went all the way back up Broadway to the Village, turned left onto Belcourt and pulled up to the Cabana valet, my kindred spirit of evening work shifts. “I drive for Ryde,” I explained, as if the fluffy peach pig ears were not already a dead giveaway. “Some passenger ladies left a, uh, “special” party favor in my car and I need to run in and return it.” “Oh,” he said, ignoring my attempt at discretion, “You mean they left some penis straws? Go right on in, I’ll watch your car.” So I went in carrying the telltale pink box, trying to appear as unembarrassed as the valet and found the gals. As I pulled aside the net partition, one of my Ryders recognized me and jumped up in excited gratitude, her giant sombrero knocking into the one next to her. Suddenly, the group of partiers was upon me, erupting into cheers and thanking and hugging me in drunk-tight embraces until I managed to escape, the evening’s penis-straw deliveryheroine riding off in a silver Camry to rescue more of our fine city’s passengers in distress.

 

Is She or Isn’t She?

Pondering Just About Everything in Marianne Wiggins’ The Shadow Catcher, As Likely She Would Have Us Do

There was…something…so I scoured the internet. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to be one of those celebrity gossip-reading people spending her time searching for the intimate details of some {choose one from the following list: actor, musician, Fox News anchorwoman, model, talk show host, recording artist, novelist}’s life. And it wasn’t because of the Rushdie connection, which I hadn’t even realized or recalled at first. Until my friend F. asked what I was reading for my current work, and I said, “Marianne Wiggins’ Shadow Catcher,” and she responded, “Marianne Wiggins!…Wiggins…who was married to Rushdie?” and I said, “Ohhhhhh…..ding. ding! That Marianne Wiggins!” But no. It really wasn’t that. Was it, then, my wondering about certain details regarding author Wiggins’ father…and sister? I admit to being a person overly preoccupied with everyone’s father and everyone’s sisters. But it wasn’t that either.

I think it was the irrepressible urge that came over me to pour Wiggins and her book through a fact-or-fiction sieve, to isolate the yolk, and not because I feel that the egg white and the egg yolk must necessarily be made into separate omelettes. Clearly I don’t feel that. I am definitely of the all-in-one, mix-it-up together-omelette variety. In large part my interest was in the legitimacy of reinterpreting or restating conversations and reinventing real-life relationships to suit a story. In part it was in understanding whether Wiggins just boldly dared to lend her name and the names of family members to fictional or half-fictional characters (or fictionalized representations of real people). And the only reason I would care if that is…well, acceptable for a writer to do, given the rigid specifications of certain publications in the field of cnf – otherwise I only care about the book in question and whether I enjoy it or find it somehow meaningful – is that I want to know if I can do that, too. Can I make up a character named Nina Adel who is just like me in name and basic details but isn’t actually me just so I can make a relative meaner or an authority figure crazier than they actually are or were? Can I commit the misdeed of exaggeration for the sake of illumination?

Whatever the reason or justification, I scoured the internet to discover whether Wiggins was exaggerating or inventing or twisting or, perhaps, engaging in absolute truth-telling from inside the subjectivity of her own perspective. What I found was a series of articles by reviewers who all claimed not to care whether Wiggins had invented another Marianne Wiggins or even half of one. “Who cares, really,” these reviewers said, and at length, “what the true story is or was, when the writing and storytelling is so masterful?” But I don’t believe them. I don’t think they really were not-curious because life has taught me that a question – whatever question – is only mentioned by those to whom it has occurred, just as accusations (especially convoluted ones) are mostly made by those who have themselves done whatever it is they are accusing someone of having done. The two things are very similar. Just as I am, in this reflection, more or less making the assertion that the reviewers were chomping at the bit just because I was. Chomping at the bit to know how much of this novel was Marianne the Writer and how much was merely Marianne the Character and whether Curtis was who he was and did what he did because of society’s restrictions on his sexuality or because he was a user and a deceiver or because Marianne the writer engaged her imagination as a writer does. Or all of that in some measure.

That is, I have a feeling that these multiple reviewers cared or were curious and said they didn’t or weren’t. How could a writer and reviewer be lacking in curiosity, and about such a grand proposition at that? In fact it seems that it is the very nature of the genre to inspire such questions and it is, of course, also inherent in the job of the reviewer to ponder and dig.

Recently I attended readings by Lorrie Moore and Susan Minot and Karen Joy Fowler. Two separate readings. All of these authors were or are touring to promote current works of fiction. The works were identified very specifically as fiction (as all three are considered fiction writers, so no surprises there). All three, as well, told the story of the truths behind their works of fiction. Each situated her current work at a different place on the cnf-to-fiction prose-writing spectrum, though none crossed over to outright nonfiction at all. While Moore and Minot spent most of their time reading from their work, the opposite was true of Fowler, who talked at length about the substantial connections between her life and her book. And all I could do was keep wondering, given those connections and author similarities, how successfully Moore and Fowler dreamed (as Minot’s book was another thing altogether, a situation far removed, apparently from her own life, yet eerily preceding a recent similar event as if a premonition) a completely different person out of their own very real selves in those works (novel and short story, respectively). What they had to cut away from themselves, what they had to tack on, to remold. Which of course took me back to Wiggins, who may have done a bit of the opposite, making a not-Wiggins and calling her a Wiggins, to some undisclosed and perplexing extent.

Earlier in this reflection, I said, “I want to know if I can do that, too. Can I make up a character named Nina Adel who is just like me in name and basic details but isn’t actually me just so I can make a relative meaner or an authority figure crazier than they actually are or were? Can I commit the misdeed of exaggeration for the sake of illumination?” I struggle with this for a number of reasons. One of these is that the decision whether to privilege the truth or the story comes up rather frequently. It seems that the decision to privilege the story could be followed by a wild flight in the opposite direction of the truth. This would then be clearer – a piece that is very lightly based on reality or inspired by reality (I see these words a lot with regard to film and fiction) which seems more acceptable to the reading and viewing public.

Personally I am not interested in a wild flight from the truth. I’m interested in the exact opposite. In my life I have lived in the direct flight path of harmful untruth. Even a useful mistelling of word or deed, presented for purposes of illumination, is hard for me to put forth in my writing. The particular world I often try to illuminate is especially challenging in this regard. It looks very different on the inside than its beautiful outside would let on, much as a pretty peach skin can be deceptive regarding its mealy contents. It rings true to me that people tend to prefer to believe the pretty exteriors they encounter. To acknowledge that many people are not at all who they say they are, as Wiggins so expertly addresses in her novel, is upsetting and unsettling and hard to live with. If we didn’t customarily believe that people are who they say they are, relationships would become impossible, living in community would be impossible, existing within any social structure would be impossible. This seems normal to me. However, because people are so accustomed to taking others at face value, when it is pathology or deception that lies beneath the surface, it becomes a difficulty for the nonfiction storyteller, as perhaps great drama or strong backlighting or intensive measures towards unmasking are necessary. Sometimes a tiny truth about motive completely changes the overarching meaning of what may seem like a kind or generous or possibly just benign act. If you are not privy to the true motive or driving force or ultimate intent of the actor, an assumption of normalcy will continue to mask actual harm or harmful intent or unhealthy, longstanding patterns of behavior.

I am in awe of writers like this who succeed at revealing that tiny morsel or motive, especially without taking intensive measures to do so, and thus allow the truth to come slowly up to the surface on its own, or allow the reader to have a either a sudden or slow, undramatic moment of revelation. A moment of quiet understanding. There are places in The Shadow Catcher where Wiggins manages to retell the entire story (this happens separately with all of the major stories contained within the novel) in just one sentence. Maybe two.  And that is one of my fascinations. How to get there more discreetly. Less awkwardly. Without (much) excess.

All of this, however, is a departure from a little urge to address the lengthy passage near the front of the novel that is certainly amongst the most thrilling place-based pieces of writing that I ever recall reading. Wiggins describes her impending-late-arrival journey to a meeting about a film version of the novel we are presumably about to read. In just a few pages, she turns the drive to the appointment into an engaging connection to the geography not only of the San Fernando Valley (the location of the drive) but to the seismic and geological history of the West…which will come back to us later in the novel. It is such a gorgeous geological exploration in the moment regardless of that. Truly thrilling. And another aspect of this which sets up some of what’s to come very beautifully is the voice of humorous cynicism that gives us a breather every time it returns after painful moments in the novel. Wiggins mostly pulls it off perfectly and without waving a big sign that says, “Hey, readers, this is your moment to take a break and chuckle!” I noticed, however, several moments when she broke into a language – the character Marianne’s language – that felt a bit pedestrian compared to the entire rest of the novel. But I didn’t mind that, really. I sometimes need to be reminded that even in the best of all works, nobody’s perfect, and that’s okay. John Hiatt, who is one of my favorite songwriters and has been for many years, wrote a song for his daughter which contained the lyric “She is beautiful, she is small, she don’t wanna play basketball,” and it took me about five years of heavy listening to stop saying, “Uggghhhh. How could he write something so clumsy and stupid in the midst of such an otherwise deep and gorgeous collection of songs?” But now I get it. I may not have liked the way he chose to lighten up, but it probably made somebody laugh as much as it made me cringe.  And…yes, nobody’s perfect, and perfection, in any case, is relative.

Finally, I want to say that the passage I referred to here on the geology and geography of the San Fernando Valley (and entire West Coast) is one I will return to many times – and please, you should, too. You won’t regret it! It’s noteworthy not only for its beautiful language and the special set-up of the novel but also because it is a wonderful example of paving the way early in a creative work to establish opportunities for hybridity later in the work. Oh, and..well, it made me happy to read it.