The Self

Lately, I’ve found myself awash in waves of nostalgia, warped by the fog of years. I began writing this on my birthday, sitting alone in a hotel bar, soaking in a beer-bolstered Aussie’s insistent conversation several seats away. Normally I’d have been irritated by forcefulness with which he asserted his sense of self on the room at large, but it was a good day and the raucous regaling felt àpropos for whatever reason. A short while before I took up my notebook, my parents had gone back to their room, leaving me, per my request, to drink in the atmosphere. Behind the Aussie, at the nearest table, a demur older couple spoke in veritable whispers. The bartender, in her overtly traditional dress shirt, black vest, and bowtie smoothly slid in and out of various groups, her comments offering a tempo to the room. So many stories. It lulled me as much as it invigorated me. I felt at home, nestled in the words of strangers. Yet I wasn’t really listening to them. The conversations coalesced into calming white noise, covering my conscious mind and letting it drift. I thought about my childhood, the birthdays that brought me to that one.

I don’t remember many of them, or much of the life led between them. The surreality of that had struck me before, that I could have forgotten so much of my own life. It unnerved me how frail my memories were, how malnourished. Perhaps that’s why I’d been speaking with my parents about our old house in California, reflecting on how there were only a handful of spaces in it that I recalled. It became a corny sitcom parody after a while: I’d say where one was in relation to the other and they’d correct me at the punchline. But I could’ve sworn that your bedroom was at the top of the stairs…There was a hall? Seriously? What do you mean we didn’t have a sitting room? The bathroom? I don’t remember…I can’t recall. How much have I lost? How accurate is what I retain? I tell the story about the fireplace. I know the fireplace. There was an elaborate and brilliantly successful Santa Claus hoax when I was four, involving hooves on the roof, leather gloves, soot, and mostly eaten cookies. I get its location right, but I wonder…how much has the story changed with each retelling? They say that memories solidify with rumination and visitation. Each look back etches the image deeper, enhancing and strengthening synaptic pathways. Each look back recreates the memory of who we were and our understanding of who we are.

As a child, I didn’t stop. There was too much. Too much everything. Energy. Time. World. I had to keep going. I couldn’t stop and look back at the footprints when the path pulled me forward. So I left them to the wind, allowing my past to be swept away unexamined.  It grieves me. I feel like every footstep, every moment is a lost self, a child abandoned to the wilderness of time. Yet it wasn’t until recently that I’d even noticed. Only during the last few years have I reflected and contemplated on events as they came and after they’d gone. Maybe if I journaled more it would help, or would have. I never really managed to maintain a diary, as the concept turned out to be more enticing than the act. I’ll record everything! That’s what people do, right? I’ll be so deep…memorable. I’ll save me forever…what should I write? Maybe…um…I wonder what’s on TV… I bought at least a dozen diaries from age eight to fourteen, and not a one has more than ten scattered, forced, and meager entries. Not only was I not yet a writer or even intrigued by the profession, I was too explosively extroverted in youth to manage the thoughtful, or at the very least patient, dedication requisite for self-chronicling. I’ve always wondered how others managed it, and whether or not it really is the key to keeping ahold of the past. For many memoirists, that seems to be the case.

The memoir is a tricky subgenre of nonfiction, made mischievous by its flexibility. How honest an author is, how creatively they stretch their literary license is up to them (though some experts disagree). Tug too hard, or take it too far, turning verifiable facts into falsehoods, and you might be at risk of relocation to the fiction section. Quote too much direct dialogue and some literati will eye you with suspicion for no memory is that perfect, while others will argue for the necessary evil. Every memoir comes with a choice, a question of how to balance what happened with what makes for a compelling story. Even the decisions on what to leave out of a book critically impact its form and honesty, adding contrast like the negative space in a painting, drawing attention to what is presented, or even deliberating highlighting what is not.

I’m guessing you’ve started to wonder what the hell this tumbling turn down Memory Mountain has to do with literary analysis at large. My point, as it so often and unsurprisingly is the case, is buried in a question: How do we translate the characters of real life into writing and what becomes of them when we do? The obvious answer is through the aforementioned memoir. But now we’re back to the issue of veracity: How do we know a memoir is accurate? They’re inherently subjective, and even good memories are biased by perspective, the passage of time, the number of recitations of any given memory, and the locations of magically meandering hallways and sitting rooms. So let’s say we accept the natural stain of subjectivity. What about the shoddy, shifty ways of the mind, which misplace and lose crucial details of everyday life? How do we combat that? Documentation is a good start, bringing us to, hopefully, more than half-complete Dear Diary entries. We can also look to art, photos, journals, letters, recordings, and phone calls to others to consult with and/or argue about what happened. These are solid starts, though how to compile the wealth of a life into something sensical and readable is another challenge entirely.

What lens will you tell the story through? What will the focus be? Full autobiography? Semi-biographical autobiography? An attempt to commemorate a career or occasion? A way to work out unresolved issues? A way to say what you never could? The options are overwhelming, which may be part of the reason why the authors who not only write them, but draw them, are so impressive. Over the course of the next week or so, I’ll be examining parts of the works of three such writer-artists (to pick at even one of them as a whole would be to either inaccurately quantify it as something it’s not, or to drive myself batty). To begin, I’ll look at  Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, its rendering of the self, the father, and its attempt to understand both.

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Who are you?

Recently, I’ve been compelled by a different side of writing: the whole voyeuristic, social experiment, stalking-with-camera-equipment-through-the-savanna-while-whispering-dangerously-loud-play-by-plays. It goes beyond a private desire to don a lab coat and safari hat whilst standing behind a two-way mirror and exclaiming “Crikey!” at what’s happening on the other side. It’s about experience. It’s about research, and life is research. Sadly, lab coats are optional.

When you want to write about something unfamiliar, the best way to start is (presuming, of course, that it’s safe, legal, physically possible, and morally sound) to go out and do, try, live, taste, see, breathe, or otherwise immerse yourself in your subject matter. But what happens when your subject isn’t, strictly speaking, real? What if the adjective “unreal” is more apt? What happens when your subject is so marvelously heady and intense that it’s two tabs shy of a 1960’s sponsored overdose?

I don’t have the answer, but I suppose you could always ask Paul Auster, whose classic novella, City of Glass, inspired the equally classic graphic novel adaptation of the same name. Both tell the same intrinsic, Noir story that can only possibly be described as a metaphysical mystery, which, as fellow blogger Stephen Frug notes in his own glance at City of Glass, is ” a mystery in which what begins as a traditional mystery peels away the metaphysical certainties of the world to the point where the nature of reality becomes the central question, replacing the identity of the culprit (or whatever mystery the book begins with).” To simplify: the mystery begins tangibly, as traditional mysteries and detective fiction are wont to, and then morphs gradually, wrapping the reader in a cocoon of uncertainty that seals them away from the world they know, feeding them questions and doubt, just like the protagonist, thus deepening the connection between the reader and the one they watch. Okay, maybe that wasn’t quite so simple, but what is when you bring in metaphysics? What I’m trying to say is, Auster presented the world, Rafiki-style, with the lovechild of cerebral surrealism and third-person, psychological thriller, Noir. This already masterful work was then translated into a graphic novel by the skilled hands and minds of Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, allowing the work to change a whole new medium.

Confession time: I haven’t, at present, read more than a few scattered excerpts from the original novel. I know, I just shot my credibility in the foot, but don’t quit on me just yet. I did read the the comic (re: graphic novel, re: ikonologosplatt) twice. See? Aren’t you glad you stayed? The focus of this post will be on certain facets of the adaptation of the novel, but not on the process of adaptation, and as such, the book isn’t relevant beyond the already provided background information. I want to focus on concept of identity in Karasik, Mazzucchelli, and Auster’s story as it unfolded within the comic medium, and thus, as its own separate entity (re: thing). Because, quite frankly, it is and it deserves to be treated as such, though I’m hardly the first to do so. That said, I’m happy to do it again.

Our story starts with a question: Who are you? No, let me stop you there. Answer me without adjectives, strip away the titles, nouns like ‘accountant’ and ‘reader.’ Who are you? What perfect word defines you? A name? Alright. But is that your name, or someone else’s? Is there only one of you? How can you be sure? It’s a matter of identity and proof of identity.

The frustration of the above paragraph, the grappling contest of strength and mental fortitude that I posed you with is at the heart of City of Glass. “Who are you?” Though he may have been rude and abrasive in his delivery, when the Caterpillar asked Alice, he was far kinder and more telling than those who asked Daniel Quinn, the protagonist and many-chambered heart of our glass city. Quinn’s city is a city of doppelgangers and ever-duplicating selves. Each is a reflection, distorted and warped, dimmed or distant, fresh or forlorn. Unending, one identity echoes, unity unhinged by an excess of self and sudden necessities. When need arises, either for understanding or information, for plot or propelled purpose, another self will be seen.

But perhaps I’ve pushed too far into the purview of prose and metaphor. Let’s ground my meaning. Mm. Well, hm. We’ve hit a snag. How can we ground suppositions centered precariously atop abstractions? As Frug noted, this is a metaphysical mystery.  It works best without a body, and as a mysterious narrator says within the graphic novel, it works best when it’s nowhere at all. How do you untangle something like that? Do you pretend at the straightforward, elegant genius of Alexander and simply cleave the Gordian Knot? But then, cleave has two meanings, doesn’t it? It’s a contranym, composed inherently of conflicting definitions. One glance at ‘cleave’ means to hold fast, to resist separation or its threat, while another means to separate or divide by force. This paradox, aggravating though it may be, provides us with the first glimmer of an answer as to how we might possibly analyze the issues of identity in City of Glass. 

Auster’s work is a graphic novel, which stays unified by maintaining one voice and one tone, while following one character who divides into parallel and foil selves both within–naming his roles as author, detective, character, and client individually–and without–peopling the story with doppelganger selves. Again, I know this enigmatic desert blisters the brain and parches the throat, but I promise, the oasis isn’t far off. The source of these endless selves, this one-man show of a story, is the need to explore the unconscious, the need to pick apart what makes people change and how, and the obsession humanity has with seeking itself in others.

The author and his artistic adapters accomplish this by building an over-intricate hall of mirrors: a city of glass. What is a reflection but a fragile, fleeting moment of identity, suspended before you, behind you, about you? There at a glance and gone with but a wrong step or shift of the light. This is how the book builds its cast. Peters upon Peters, Daniels and Pauls. So many share the same name that by midway through the book, even a casual reader can’t help but question what else they might share. Paralleled predicaments, roles, jobs, losses. These separate, yet indelibly linked clones creep through our detective story, silently shifting it away from concrete answers, looping it back around on itself and over itself until the act of asking becomes a prize greater than answers we originally sought. It’s the journey, not the destination, as they say.

This is perhaps one of the most startling facets of the book: By the time you realize you’re lost, the path back has already disappeared. You no longer know when you stepped away from it, when the city took you and turned you about. When you finish the journey and eventually go to start it again, you realize, or at least think you do, what happened. It disarmed your senses by starting a step to the left of normal, then guided you gently, quietly, onward, until eventually it abandoned you altogether, leaving only the fleeting light of questions to carry you forth. And suddenly, what began as just a little bit weird became a reality as engaging as it is confounding. You and Quinn are caught up in the case together. You share his caring, yet contrastingly neutral demeanor. You switch when he does, willing to do and become whatever is necessary to finish, to solve it and find an understanding of something…anything. But that’s the kicker. In the end, understanding, like everything else, is unnecessary.