August 29th, 2008

Narrate like whoa

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Lives

My latest reading adventure? Comic memoirs. It's become increasingly popular for people to draw their history in addition to writing it. I went on a comic memoir bender, and I ended up choosing three very different books, which just goes to show the possibilities of the medium.

The king of all comic memoirs, of course, is Maus (1973 - 1991). In Maus, Art Spiegelman relates the story of his father during the Holocaust. What I did not know about the book is that the book is actually about writing the book, which I thought was awesome. See, there's a dual narrative going on with Art asking his father to tell him his story so that he can turn it into this comic, so we hear the story directly from his father as Art heard it, essentially. And we spend enough time with Art and his father to get a sense of their life and their relationship; much of the book is about Art trying to understand his father. Surprisingly, Art doesn't come off very well in his own book; he's kind of a prick to his dad, who, in Art's defense, can be a little irritating at times. But there's a startling sort of honesty pervading the book, showing that there are no easy answers and people are complex creatures.

As everyone knows, the conceit of Maus is that the Jews are represented as mice. Everyone gets an animal: the Germans are cats (duh), the Poles are pigs, the Americans are dogs, etc. It's a good, simple way to identify people...until you start to think about the idea of representing an entire country's people with the same animal, as if one's nationality determines his species. Metaphorically. Don't think about that until later, though. Reading a story about mice gives the reader a healthy distance from the events, as does Art's father's broken English. He uses very simple language and tells his story in a matter-of-fact manner that ends up making the horrors of the Holocaust that much more horrifying. Because he doesn't need to dramatize it, he doesn't need to tell you it was bad. He makes killing your children so they don't get sent to the gas chambers seem so commonplace that you wouldn't believe it if you didn't know it was real. And this is why the comic form works so well: it allows you such an economy of language that you can get points across very quickly and simply—often wordlessly. And by providing images, it sort of fools your brain into accepting the reality of the image: this is what it looked like, he saw it.

Vladek's story is extremely compelling. We know he lives—and we know his wife lives because Art was conceived after the war—but the story of how is fascinating. I was reminded of both The Book Thief and The Pianist. Every person has a different story to tell, a different experience. I was always rooting for him, no matter what fucked-up situations he ended up in. His ingenuity was admirable, as was his basic human decency. It was interesting to compare the Vladek of yore with the aging Vladek of the present, mourning his wife and pinching pennies.

Maus II, written after the publication and popularity of Maus, gets even more meta, as Art begins to question how in the fuck he can even do this, even pretend to comprehend what his father went through and tell his story. It becomes a memoir about memoirs, like a baby version of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Overall, the book is fantastic, and I highly recommend it. It's easy to see why it's so acclaimed.

Maus is mentioned in the blurb for Persepolis (2003 - 2005). But here, Marjane Satrapi writes her own story, growing up in Iran and then going to school in Europe and then returning to Iran. People aren't mice, but she takes a cue from Spiegelman and uses very simple, almost cartoonish black-and-white art. Again, this has the effect of giving the reader some distance and serves the same purpose as it does in Maus, except I was pretty much completely unfamiliar with the history of Iran, so I didn't even know what I was in for. I didn't know about the crazy laws and the riots and the midnight executions and the children going to war and how did people live through that?? That's the book's biggest strength, probably; its ability to get this perspective of the country out in an easily digestible form. Again: every person has a different story to tell. Marjane Satrapi isn't as endearing as Vladek Spiegelman, though. I found her to be sort of bratty and irritating as a child at times and not the best person as a teenager either. But it's interesting to watch her grow into who she is, as she tries to reconcile her cultural identity with her sense of self.

Where Maus uses two linear narratives, Persepolis is more straightforward, generally progressing linearly with a little bit of non-linear storytelling slipped in. We watch Marji grow up, basically, as her country tears itself apart around her. Since it was on my mind, I was once again reminded of The Book Thief, this time because they both use the same sort of slice-of-life vignettes to move the story forward. Each chapter is self-contained in a way, focusing on a particular theme or incident. My neighbor Ari complained that it had a very "diary" feel as opposed to the more story-oriented movie version, and I could see what he meant. Unlike Vladek Spiegelman, Marji wasn't really a part of the major events; she was simply living with them.

Persepolis is a little easier to read than Maus since the art is much simpler, with very little background, and the panels are very distinct; unlike in Maus, you never have overlapping panels or anything interesting like that. Straightforward all the way. Yet Persepolis is much headier than Maus; people read Maus in high school, but Persepolis is more of a college book. Not just because it discusses Marji's sexual awakening but because it's very political and not too subtle about it. A lot of the time, the "dialogue" felt very manufactured.

Overall, I never got into Persepolis as much as I did Maus. I didn't connect as much with the characters and the story. Still, it's interesting and good, and I would definitely recommend it, as it certainly makes you think twice about taking your freedom for granted.

Persepolis is mentioned in the blurb for Fun Home (2006). When I told my neighbor Beth—who had lent me Understanding Comics and later Reinventing Comics—I was reading Maus and Persepolis, she recommended this book to me, saying it was one of the best books she'd ever read, period. Since I was on the kick already, I took her recommendation (confirmed by her boyfriend, Ari) without question, not really knowing what the hell the book was about. Alison Bechdel, known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, has not lived through any wars except the Cold War, so this is not a history lesson like the other two. This is a much more personal tale, marked by "gothic twists, a family funeral home, sexual angst, and great books." The blurb doesn't lie. Fun Home deals with three major issues in Alison Bechdel's life: her realization that she's a lesbian, her discovery that her dad is a closeted homosexual, and her dad's death. All three intertwine throughout the book, which one reviewer aptly describes as "non-linear and recursive." Fun Home is less a story than a character study, with Bechdel putting events together thematically and then returning to key moments over and over in an attempt to understand them. And it works really well.

One of Bechdel's major devices is to use the great works of literature her dad, an English teacher, was obsessed with as fictional maps for her reality. She finds scarily accurate comparisons to her parents and their marriage, maps the landscape of The Wind in the Willows to her own town of Beech Creek, and even describes her dad's life in terms of F. Scott Fitzgerald's. It's a brilliant and effective way to show how fervently she's trying to put the pieces together, make some sense out of her life by turning it into a story, giving it a comfortable element of fiction.

Bechdel's art, like her narrative, is far more detailed and complex. Backgrounds are rendered like photographs and written diary entries are reproduced with painstaking accuracy. She doesn't want to distance you; she wants you to see the world as it is for her, for it to be as real to you as it is to her. Everything is tinged in a dull green hue, giving the art just enough color.

The writing perspective is that of a traditional memoir. No broken English like Maus, no reversion to childlike constructions like Persepolis. We are very obviously hearing the grown-up Alison Bechdel reflecting on her life, so the language is as just as lush as the images. And it pulls you in, allowing you to share her struggle in understanding her father and their relationship, how they might have influenced each other. Once I began to grasp that there wasn't actually a story, I feared I might not really like the book that much, but Bechdel's writing is so strong and the way she presents everything is so fascinating that it didn't matter. I don't know whether she's any closer to the truth at the end of the book than the beginning, but I still feel enlightened. And, unlike Art Spiegelman and Marjane Satrapi, I actually like her. She's the only one I'd want to be friends with; she seems like a really interesting person.

If I think about it, Fun Home is unlike anything I've ever read. Even though I am a big fan of narrative, I found that the word that came to mind when I finished the book was beautiful. And I don't use that word very often.