Thursday, July 1, 2010

Graphic Memoirs

Small, David. "Stitches: a memoir" W.W. Norton & Company: New York, London 2009, G.N. Catalog # 92 S6369

Bechdel, Alison. "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" Houghton Mifflin: Boston, New York, 2006, Catalog # GN 92 B3915

The genre of memoir has attracted much attention in the past few years with the success of the autobiographical reflections on youth in the work of Mary Karr in “The Lairs Club” and Kathryn Harrison with “The Kiss.” Their work has generated a fascination with the retelling of personal histories that rivals interest in the imagined world of fiction. Of course in many respects these genres are not too far apart in that they both use the imagination. One must add to this the recent spate of Graphic Memoirs, including, Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and David Small’s “Stitches.” It takes a great skill in use of both memory and imagination to find the most effective way to image events of one’s life in metaphor and make analogies between one’s experience similar experiences. As sensory beings who discover life through taste, smell, and picture, we need very concrete forms to portray an emotion, or thought with precision. This can be done with just words but graphic memoirs have the advantage of being able to directly present images and figures to do this. But such representation can never be an exact transcript of experience in a photographic sense.

The author of graphic memoirs has an advantage in that he/she may use actual pictures of gestures, faces, expressions, and actions to tell the story of his or her life. However, more importantly, the author can present a literary comparison, mental image, or metaphor in a physical shape drawn by the hand. One example of this concreteness of expression in graphic memoir can be found in David Small’s “Stitches” when he describes his mother’s temperament that he endured as a child. She was angered by young David losing his shoes while exploring the upper floors of the Hospital where his father worked. Her “silent fury” is compared in the text to a “black tidal wave” and then that wave is pictured as a massive ocean wave topped with foam breaking against the picture of his mother glowering with rage. He then he pictures himself being drawn into the whirlpool left by the wave. The inappropriateness and injustice of his mother’s anger is conveyed with startling impact in the very simple drawings and the effect upon the child of that anger is shown in an even more dramatic way. David Small would often present a series of traumatic experiences such as a punishment through scalding by his grandmother with a mute series of stark images. In these simple sharp black and white drawings he shows his grandmother’s angered expression, the hot water pouring in the sink, and his fear afterwards lying shivering in bed. The series of terrifying moments are drawn in outline pictures that are very effective. There is no dialogue or commentary to soften the blow. These were some of the most moving scenes of the memoir. The reader is made to suffer the terrible events passively with no language as a cushion or barrier just as a child might experience these things.

Alison Bechdel uses the possibilities of graphic memoir to convey experiences through fantasy and literary analogy very effectively. She is able to literally redraw her parents as characters in a F. Scott Fitzgerald or Henry James novel to make an important comparison. She imagines her dad, the focus of her memoir, in his early relationship with her mother, as a young F Scott Fitzgerald in the army falling in love with Zelda. She shows this by morphing his image into that of Fitzgerald. She makes the unreality of their early romance clear by how it was shaped by his father’s fantasy life through visually quoting from his letter imaged with his handwriting. Bechdel also extends the methods of graphic memoir by representing the actual handwritten text of her father’s diary and integrating the diary into the frame of her young father sitting in his army bunk. This technique of layering using facsimile of diary, letter, and notes into the drawings of imagined scenes is her father’s youth. In this way, she adds multiple textures to the story she is telling. What one gets a full sense of memoir as a constructed artifact. The reader is able to observe all the elements that the author is playing with to allow one to get a full sense of how she is constructing and reconstructing his image. These two examples indicate that graphic memoirs are a new and startlingly effective literary form that can be used to convey the both immediacy of the moment and elaborate reflection on the meaning of one’s life.

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