Rusty Brown

By Chris Ware

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I’ve never read a graphic novel before.

This isn’t a principled stance I’ve taken – I know the whole spiel about how graphic novels are novels, and they are High Art now, and they are very sophisticated and deal with adult themes. I’m not disputing any of this – how could I? I’ve never read one.

Art evolves, and I’m completely fine with that. I know that sounds defensive, but that’s only because it’s in print, on the internet: I really am fine with that. I have watched completely open-mindedly as the graphic novel has become mainstream and achieved artistic legitimacy. I think it’s a good thing – I think more inclusive artistic definitions almost always benefit the form, and the culture, over time. They accelerate growth.

But I have never read a graphic novel, again, not because I have a problem with them – not at all! – but because…I don’t like them.

I don’t like reading them, and ‘reading’ is the operative word there. I think they’re often beautiful, visually sumptuous and mesmerizing to look at. But I have been reading for a long time, and I am used to the flow of words on a page. On a page that doesn’t have a ton else on it, a page where, if there are pictures (which there almost never are), the words arrange themselves tidily around the pictures and don’t scatter themselves through it.

I find graphic novels a little difficult to read. That may be the point, right? It might be that the difficulty of finding and ordering the words, visually, is designed to make you slow down and look at the pictures. It may be that this actually makes you take in the words more deliberately, makes you pay more attention.

But I do not, viscerally, enjoy the drag on my mind. I am used to ease when reading, total mental comfort. The ability to immerse myself, mentally, effortlessly, in a text, is one of the things I love about reading. It’s almost meditative. It feels like swimming. So I have found the new proliferation of graphic novels amazingly easy to resist.

But my mother gave me ‘Rusty Brown‘ for Christmas this past year, explaining (sort of apologetically) that it got really good reviews*. And it is gorgeous, with amazing, complex layouts and lush, arresting pictures. So, the other day, when I was totally fried from work and wanted to try something a little different, I sat down and read it.

*My mother was completely correct, by the way: the reviews for ‘Rusty Brown‘ are ecstatic.

And now I have a question: how am I supposed to feel about this book?

I’m not asking what I’m supposed to feel: happy, sad, existentially frantic. I’m asking how I’m supposed to feel: am I supposed to feel the way I feel about books? The way I feel about visual art? The way I feel about movies?

Rusty Brown‘ is a story, it’s a narrative; it has characters and a plot (sort of), a lot of which are communicated through the written word. In this way, ‘Rusty Brown’ is a book. But it’s so visual – the story, plot points and character elements, as well as overall mood, are all communicated visually. In this way, it is like a movie.

And some panels are so stunning that you stop, and stare, and react to them just as pictures. They are moving, desolating, some of them. They almost all involve snow.

I can see why ‘Rusty Brown‘ received such incredible reviews. The pictures are incredible, moving back and forth between schema and detail seamless, laid out so inventively that they are almost mobile. They communicate shock, grief, the grinding passage of time, profound alienation, vast, existential bleakness.

Chris Ware

In fact, most of the emotional content of ‘Rusty Brown‘ is bleak. It is the story of several lives which meet around a middle school in Omaha, Nebraska. This is what I mean when I say it has a plot, sort of: it actually has several plots, or rather, several lives. It’s about an intersection – it doesn’t have a climax. It’s about the rich, complicated human context that lies underneath even the most ordinary moment, in the most ordinary place. It asks you to consider how long the journey has been that has gotten you here, has gotten everyone here, how much everyday time, everyday suffering, has accumulated underneath each and every one of us.

So it doesn’t really have a plot – it has a tone. To quote the New York Times, “Though there are a couple of perverts (and possibly a criminal), his characters aren’t people of wealth, power or energy; they’re self-conscious, often inarticulate, trying to break free of the mundane or anesthetize themselves to it. The characters weave in and out of the 113-page opening sequence, which dissects a single day at a Midwestern school in the 1970s, with its smell of “spilled teacher’s lounge coffee, old milk, formaldehyde and lip gloss and hot lunch.”

Each of the characters is lost, alienated, lonely. The children are awkward, afraid they won’t fit in. The adults are aging, fading, their youthful dreams lost, their bodies unrecognizable. Everyone is miserable. Or, to quote The Guardian, “The remaining narratives display a shared concern with regret and ageing, anxiety and ennui (there’s a lot of repetition and masturbation), the sense of lives being missed for a combination of factors, from parental neglect to racial intolerance. The book poses essential questions about the formation and hardening of character: what limits our chances of happiness or fulfilment? How do behavioural patterns form? And why are they so hard to break?”

It’s kind of a lot: a big book about the grinding alienation of life, hard to read, emotionally bleak. It’s a masterpiece, but, like many masterpieces, it’s impressive rather than fun. I am impressed; I am also really, really glad that the book is over.

It’s a rough thing to think about how hard, how much quiet suffering the people around you are carrying around. Beautiful, bleak pictures make it both easier and harded to connect with material like this, at least for me. Pictures are vivid, yes, but they are less vivid than my imagination, and the pictures relieve me of the need to imagine.

Is the entire genre the same emotional gray of ‘Rusty Brown‘? In my imagination, all graphic novels are beautiful and dismal, and I’m sure that’s not right. I feel contaminated by this novel more than I understand it, laid low and blue. It was really, really good, there’s no way to miss that, but it’s hard, and strange. It’s grand, and sad, and lovely, and cold. It’s pretty magnificent, but in a way that leaves you more lost than when you started.

Ultimately, it’s hard for me to mentally file ‘Rusty Brown‘ as a ‘book’ in my mind. The experience is more like a movie – the parts of it which are the most moving are the visual parts, not the words. It doesn’t elicit book-feelings – it elicits movie-feelings, photograph-feelings.

So, I think I want to read another graphic novel.

Maybe this sounds weird, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I won’t be able to figure out how I feel about this form until I read some more. Different kinds of graphic novels, not just this sad, magnificent one. I’d like to read a funny one, a sweet one, and a violent one. And probably about eight sexy ones.

Conversations with Friends

By Sally Rooney

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One of my small narcissisms: I disdain book fads.

Every year, there are It books, authors the literary cognoscenti have their panties all twisted up about, the new novel that the New York Review of Books declares a Must Read, that every independent bookstore has on it’s Staff Recommendations table (in hardcover), whose author Terry Gross just interviewed last week.

I try to avoid these books.

It’s not that I think they’re all bad books, not at all. Many of them are celebrated quite appropriately (you can count me, for example, among the legions of frothing Elena Ferrante fans).

However, they aren’t all great: some are merely well-publicized. Some are highly experimental, a novel written in all questions, or a novel in one long sentence (these are real things*, and I’ve actually read and loved one of them). Some are more timely than good. Some are fine, but no one will, or should, remember them in five years.

*’The Interrogative Mood‘, Padgett Powell; ‘Ducks, Newburyport‘, by Lucy Ellman

I’m a snob for the Literary Canon – we’ve talked about this before – and, the truth is, if I spent my time reading every contemporary novel that Michiko Kakutani thought I needed to, I wouldn’t have time to read anything else. So I like to give a book twenty years or so, see how it ages, see whether it’s a flash in the pan or whether anyone remembers it a decade later.

But I make exceptions, for all sorts of valid or stupid reasons. Sometimes a book comes recommended by someone I trust; sometimes it catches my eye; sometimes I have already learned to love the author, or the author keeps being compared to someone else I love (careful with this one – it pretty much never turns out the way you want it to).

And, a few weeks ago, I was going through my old New Yorkers and came across a review of ‘Conversations with Friends‘, a fad book from 2017 that I had successfully avoided. But this review (by Alexandra Schwartz) was called, ‘A New Kind of Adultery Novel‘. I didn’t read the review – I didn’t need to. I’m kind of a creepy little pervert, and there was absolutely no chance I wasn’t going to read a New Kind of Adultery Novel. So this week I read ‘Conversations with Friends’.

Frances and Bobbi went to school together. They dated, and then they broke up, and now they are best friends, college students in Dublin, where they perform spoken-word poetry together. Bobbi is beautiful and outlandish and charismatic. Frances is our narrator, plain and severe, quiet and cerebral. She is a socialist and poet, a bisexual who believes that love has been co-opted by capitalism to wring unpaid labor out of mothers.

One night, the two friends are approached after a show by Melissa, an established artist and photographer. As they begin to get to know her, it becomes clear that, like many people, Melissa prefers Bobbi, and Frances, a little defensively, strikes up a friendship with Melissa’s husband, Nick. Nick is a actor who is semi-famous, handsome and much smarter and more sardonic than he appears. As Frances and Nick begin an affair, the relationship between the four adults becomes more and more complicated until it begins to threaten even the love Bobbi and Frances have for each other.

People went kind of bonkers about ‘Conversations with Friends‘. I myself had multiple girlfriends tell me that I had to read it (that way that people do that makes you want to hit them). And I think I know why, even if I do not perhaps share the wildness of the enthusiasm.

Rooney has a way of writing, a plainness of presentation, which is nearly unique and very effective. This is a little what people are reacting to when they talk about the revolution that Hemingway’s prose represented: the way the spareness of the prose, the lack of adornment, left the reader nowhere to hide.

But Hemingway wasn’t writing about the intricate interiors of human relationships – Rooney is, and so the effect is very different. When people write about feelings, even the feelings of fictional characters, they tend to explicitly frame them as feelings, to soften their reality, to layer them away from fact: “I felt as though…”; “He acted like I was…”; “It was as though I had been…”. We lard our feelings with metaphors and analogies, which are illustrative, but also distancing. Even as we contemplate the feeling, we are imagining something else.

Rooney doesn’t do this. She doesn’t invest in the emotional reality of her characters so much as she simply states it as reality and moves on. She doesn’t interpret or elaborate. Because her prose so fundamentally inhabits the experience of her protagonist, when she does employ similes, they have the effect of turning back inwards, into the mind of Frances.

“Certain elements of my relationship with Nick had changed since he told Melissa we were together. I sent him sentimental texts during daytime hours and he called me when he was drunk to tell me nice things about my personality. The sex itself was similar, but afterward was different. Instead of feeling tranquil, I felt oddly defenseless, like an animal playing dead. It was as though Nick could reach through the soft cloud of my skin and take whatever was inside me, like my lungs or other internal organs, and I wouldn’t try to stop him. When I described this to him he said he felt the same, but he was sleepy and he might not really have been listening.” (p. 232)

Sally Rooney

All of which, because of the bareness of the prose, has the effect of making Frances a little hard to take.

Which, ok, a brief temper tantrum on my part: I really, really hate when people object to books because the characters aren’t “likable” or because “there’s no one to root for”. I think it’s infantile to assess books the same way you pick friends: by how much you want to have a beer with them. If you’re only reading books that have people you explicitly like, fuck off to ‘The Babysitters Club’ and let the adults talk.

So it’s not a problem for me that I don’t like Frances (or Bobbi) at all. But, let’s be real: a book about complicated, narcissistic, chilly people hurting each other is a different emotional experience than one that involves heroic, kind people battling evil. ‘Conversations with Friends‘ is a very different book than, say, ‘The Hobbit’. I understand why people reacted to strongly to this book: it’s emotionally bracing. But, like most things that are bracing (a stern talking to from a loved one, a leap into an ice cold lake), it wasn’t pleasant until it was done.

And maybe it wasn’t even pleasant after it was done? But that’s OK – pleasant is emphatically not the point.

Rooney is experimenting with a different way of communicating about emotions. She’s trying to show the interior life of a young woman, show us her anger, and her loneliness, her fear and her attempts at love, the way that she herself experiences them. The prose is meant to be immersive – there is no framing here, to give you distance. And because Frances is angry and lonely and scared and receives no consolation from love, the experience is a little bleak, a little real, a little rough and almost totally undigested.

It’s tough, because I know I was supposed to love ‘Conversations with Friends‘, and so I really, really didn’t want to. When I finished it, I thought it was competent and over-rated.

But I’ve had a couple days to think on it, to get some emotional distance from Frances, and I think maybe I did love it. Or I really, really appreciated it? Or I saw the same thing all the fart-sniffing New York literary whosits saw: a very smart new writer trying something different. And succeeding.

Mating in Captivity

Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

By Esther Perel

God, I hated this book.

I shouldn’t even have read it. I don’t like self-help books, and I don’t like books written by therapists, and I don’t like people who use the word ‘erotic’ – this obviously wasn’t the book for me.

But my mother gave it to me (which is worrisome in of itself, and I am not going to unpack it here) and asked me what I thought, and it’s just a short little book and I figured: eh, how bad can it be?  Just blow through it, tell Mom what’s what, move on.

Mating in CaptivityI was right about one thing: it is short.  But since it was excruciating to read, it didn’t feel short.  And since (as I have mentioned before) I have a rule about finishing books once I’ve started them, I couldn’t move on once I’d begun, and so I became sort of mired in ‘Mating in Captivity‘, (captive to it, if you will) thrashing and miserable and unable to get free.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that ‘Mating in Captivity‘ isn’t about sex – it’s about intimacy.  This is a book about relationships, about how to maintain a sexual connection in the context of a long-term relationship.  But it isn’t exactly a self-help book.  It’s more a series of case studies: different couples, the way in which their sex life is guttering, the advice that she gave that couple, why she gave it.  How she understands the problem, why she believes that problem arises.

Now, I really hate talking about intimacy.  Not sex – I love talking about sex.  But talking about intimacy makes me uncomfortable.  And, yes, I am aware that makes me a poor audience for this book (or perhaps the perfect audience, hard to say).  And, yes, I went in skeptical – I did not have an open mind.  I tried, but when I know that intimacy is going to be the subject, people talking about feelings and connecting and closeness, then I just cringe away instinctively.

Esther Perel.jpg
This is the image of Esther Perel from her book jacket, and, you have to admit, she looks super cool.

Let’s start with the positive: ‘Mating in Captivity‘ is probably not a bad book.  And Perel is probably a great therapist.  She comes across as wise, and gentle, unjudgmental but also unfoolish.  She managed to write an entire book about sex and intimacy without once making me wonder what her own sex life is like, and that’s a serious accomplishment.  In fact, that’s a major therapeutic credential, and I’m honestly impressed.

I’ll also say this: she is open-minded about decisions, mistakes, and lifestyle choices which other therapists would pathologize, and I’ll bet that makes her a more effective counselor for struggling couples.

The book is clear and well-organized.  The argument is lucid and evenly applied.  I’ve never read any book in this genre at all, so I can’t say whether the thinking is totally novel, but I can say it is not conventional, and it’s probably often useful.

But I hated it.  I hated it a lot.

First of all, I hated the narrative voice.  Perel adopts a tone which is confidential and sexy: part cool aunt, part girlfriend, part romance novelist.  I feel almost bad dinging her for this, because I think I know why she’s doing it: one of the projects of her book is to remind people that sex is supposed to be fun, and so she tries to inject that fun into her language.  But you can’t force fun.  Maybe it works well in person, but on the page, you sound like you’re trying too hard.  Her writing bristles with flirtatious little locutions:

“luscious sexual life” (p. 24)

“with whom he lay in a languorous paradise” (p. 28)

“get their groove back” (p. 142)

“feeling free to express the bawdiness of his lust with her” (p. 116)

Language like this feels self-conscious to me; it makes me wince.  When I feel as though she’s trying to spice up her prose like this, I pull away from the argument.  Forget intimacy – this kind of language makes me want to avoid sex.

But, if we’re being completely honest, the more fundamental problem is that I don’t buy into the project of this book.  I don’t really understand, having read it, what it was meant to accomplish.  Was it supposed to help couples who are having problems like these?  Are you supposed to identify a couple whose problems resemble your own, and then take the advice given to them?  Are you meant to sort of wallow in the general, intimate atmosphere of the book, picking up good tips for relationship hygiene?  Was it meant to get a conversation going, encourage people to think about their own relationships a little bit more?

I don’t think intimacy works this way.  It’s not that I’m a therapy-skeptic, not at all.  On the contrary, I believe that therapy, including couples therapy, can really help people.  I’m just not convinced that reading about other peoples‘ couples therapy is as helpful.  And so this books starts to feel like Perel just…musing about relationships, laying out her general ideas about how intimate couples should and do work.

And, while she is a licensed and practicing couples therapist, I’m not sure why I’m reading that book.  While I agree with her basic values, and each chapter is coherent, I don’t feel like I really know anything now that I didn’t know before.  She is not presenting a unified theory of intimacy, and she is discussing the problems of a very narrow slice of the population.  This is a book about the normal marital depressions that affect the affluent, via specific case studies of people who are often quite obnoxious, and I wouldn’t have read that book if I had known what it was.

I really want to give Perel credit where she is due it: despite the fact that I think most of her advice is generic, on some things she is unusually open-minded, and these chapters are the most interesting.  Her stance on infidelity, which is pretty radically unjudgmental, is the best example of this, and, because she isn’t spending time blaming anyone for adultery or adulterous urges, she manages to write about those things with genuine wisdom and humanity.  And the things she says about them are interesting; I have not read them before, and I have not thought about them that way before.

The State of Affairs.jpg(It’s also worth noting: I was apparently not the only person who thought that Perel was at her best when writing about infidelity.  Someone at Harper must have agreed with me, because her next book, which I have not read, is called ‘The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity‘.  I would actually, despite my aversive reaction to ‘Mating in Captivity‘, be kind of interested to read this book, which is probably the best recommendation that I can give Perel).

I think that my conclusion is this: given that the subject matter makes me want to jump out of my own skin, and that I don’t really endorse the project, it would have been a mistake for me to expect to enjoy this book.  The best that Perel was going to get out of me was a grudging respect, and this she did get.  Probably a great read for anyone who likes reading about relational difficulties, but for the intimacy-avoidant among us, ‘Mating in Captivity‘ should be avoided.