The Meta Self

If you knew someone else was going to read your confession, would you edit it? How honest would you be about your boss’ unwanted affections? Your lover’s crippled self-esteem and neediness? Your mother’s dwindling intellect?  Your father’s inability to understand or accept? Your own bodily failings, the feeling of being betrayed by your own skin? Would ego raise you up, or would guilt slam you down? How reliable is your diary? How aware are you of its fallacies? How aware are you of the fact that your entire  aesthetic taste in men stems from the moment when a handsome, black-locked and goatee’d family friend gave you a teddy bear when you were five? Do you remember that your hatred of pomegranates is only because years ago, on your first encounter, you couldn’t figure out how to eat them? Or that your father’s “lack of support” began with one missed soccer game, a far cry from him always missing things, though that’s what the story quickly became. Are you feeling self-conscious yet? I am. Things change, people change, when others are watching. When people know their words might carry beyond themselves, be it in a diary, they begin to rethink and reword. Now just imagine what it would be like if your paranoia extended beyond parents and nosey roommates, imagine exposing those Dear Diary declarations to the world. Imagine you accepted the dizzying task of distilling that diary for anyone with desire to buy or borrow it (we’re gonna skip over the ‘steal’ option because stealing books is wrong, mmk?) to get ahold of on a whim. Even though I’d love to wring out my superego, id and all the ego in between all over a reel of paper, the concept of committing to a memoir rather than babbling into the eyes and ears of the willing/unsuspecting kinda…freaks me out. Mostly it’s the organizational element, the winnowing down of all the weird, wonderful, and woebegotten bits of past that are branded MINE in big gaudy, dragon’s blood letters (complete with a tiny TM). That’s why I’m in awe of Alison Bechdel and the titanic endeavor that was her attempt to come to terms with her father, and likely, herself.

The award-winning, and ever-captivating Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, is so meticulously crafted of chronicled particulars that it’s almost impossible to question Bechdel’s veracity. At least, it’s almost impossible on the first read. By the third, queries creep out of the cracks of her colossal family home, compelling you to come closer and claim, if not answers, at least a taste of insight for the asking. What were her goals in writing the novel? How did she go about accomplishing them? How fair were her efforts? As always with literary analysis, we’re going to make some assumptions about the authors intentions, or if you prefer, disregard their actuality and insert our own from the evidence provided.

In so far as I can tell, Bechdel’s conscious goal was predominantly to pick apart her relationship with her father through the lenses of gender identity, sexuality, literature, and the hierarchy of power inherent in the parent/child dynamic. That said, I think there was a secondary goal of controlling that relationship and utilizing its new form to actively accept her father and the past. It’s this element of control that intrigues me the most, and which I feel is under-addressed in critiques of Fun Home.

When dealing with issues that are traumatic or emotionally charged, we have a bad habit of filtering them through our initial reaction. This leads to increased bias and weakened objectivity. However, if we record the issues in the moment or shortly thereafter, then return later (the greater the temporal distance the better) the more insight and understanding we can gain. In this regard, Bechdel shines due to her “own compulsive propensity to autobiography” (140). The access to and inclusion of records, letters, and photographs, along with her own copious documentation lends trustworthiness to her account. Even when she confesses that her entries became unreliable at a certain point, the very act of confession cements our trust in her reliability, as does her regular questioning and theorizing about the events rather than delineating them as capital T truths. She is discovering her past with us.

Yet, this is a false sense of security vested in our narrator. She’s not only lived that past, but spent seven years honing it into the version we’re now able to read. She chose every image, scene, and word within the book. And my, what words she chose: Libidinal, dishabillie, Icarian, intertextual, Saturnalia, monomaniacal, legerdemain, blithely, curatorial, aesthete, simulacrum, sluiced, gallic, percussive, onomatopoeic, painterly, multivalent, doleful, discomfited, redolent, humectant, milieu, conflated, cartilaginous, postlapsarian, maudlin, bathetic, deracination, erasure, lacunae, divagations, obtunding, and taxonomic. Indeed, it is her taxonomic process that initially daunts many readers. She does not hide her literary background, nor does she flaunt it. The prevalence of her language is consistent throughout, preventing that pretentious air from seeping into the gaps that would have been left by picking and choosing her vocabulary to make it more accessible. Her chosen words, when used in context, don’t strike you like a backalley-suckerpunch, but rather, they lure like exotic perfume, guiding comprehension and enhancing the stimulation of a moment. Each is ultra-specific, honed with exacting purpose, providing a meaning that a dozen words could not in its stead. These are the words that linguists live for. Why serve up a sentence (or several) on the obsessiveness of her father’s renovations, reaching to explain how they were limited to the confines of altering, restoring and decorating the house when she could simply refer to the endless act a monomaniacal? The right tool for the right job, as they say. But does she have too many tools? Does her expertise belie her confidence?

I wonder at her precision. Does she not trust her readers to understand her meaning in plainer terms? While it is certainly possible that she’s simply over-accustomed to such language, I believe her efforts to be more telling than that. By providing us with words whose accuracy and scope are acutely limited, Bechdel—assuming the reader has dictionary access from time to time—increases the odds that her points will be made clearly within the context she intended. But such controlling tactics delve behind her linguistic self-assurance and hint at insecurity with her topic. Let me be clear that this is not a criticism. The subject matter she’s wrestling with reveals her bravery in her very vulnerability. That said, it also highlights her need to possess it. Word choice is just one of the methods she uses to do this. Another is the choice of memories displayed in the novel.

Think about a parent. A best friend. A favorite toy. Now think about your relationship with them/it. How many memories surged to the surface? Could you even tell one apart from the next? If you were going to tell someone else, someone who knew nothing about you, about that intimate relationship, what would you share? Figuring this out was part of Bechdel’s task. Rather than approaching it in a linear fashion, she told the story with fluidity, slipping in and out of timelines, examining subjects along the synaptic chains that fired at their mentioning. This gave the work a holistic feel, for few, if any of us, remember chronologically. While the lack of a linear timeline might frustrate some, for me, it adds a scope and realism to the work, letting it revolve around central issues rather than seek a narrative path. It’s a strong form for contemplation and conveyance of anecdotal stories.  However, on subsequent readings, when the stories are less engrossing than the how and why of them, we can peel apart the process. What made her choose those memories? Which did she leave out? Why?

While pondering this, I watched her unfolding and refolding of her enigmatic father in the turns of his passion and his wrath, across the peaks of their connections, and the valleys between them. He is not centered in a particularly flattering light. If anything, the shadows of his humanity succeed more in vilifying him, even as she moves to extrapolate why he was the way he was. It was then that it struck me, a strange notion. Bechdel notes numerous times throughout the novel that looking at things through literary lenses creates a more visceral reality for her than unfiltered memory. She even states that “[her] parents are most real to [her] in fictional terms” (67). Due to this, I believe that by crafting a literary reality in which her father’s faults were at their most exposed, Bechdel built a world in which she could forgive him, because she could finally see. However, she did not leave him defenseless. Rather, with all the information she could compile, she attempted to defend him to a degree, rationalizing, though not quite justifying, his failings and flaws by stressing the prison of his own repression, which spawned them. This is self-editing for a noble cause: understanding. That said, there’s a secondary side-effect to Bechdel’s cathartic, mnemic collage.

By offering a foreign audience a deeply personal story, geared at coming to terms with a man we do not know outside of her portrayal, she manages to do her father a disservice. While she knows the whole story and reads the subtleties of his actions with clarity, we do not and cannot. Thus, near the end of the book, when a family friend mentions how weirdly close Bechdel and her father are as they play a piano duet (225), it’s nothing short of jarring. This is the first time in the entire novel, not seven pages before it ends, when we see true, familial intimacy between them. I have no doubt that there were other bonding moments before this, even if only a few, others beyond mere intellectual camaraderie, but they are not provided to us. As such, Bechdel, who lived the life and knows what’s missing from the memoir’s pages, puts herself in a position to forgive her father, without affording all readers that same luxury. Though, I doubt if she intended for us to feel that need in the first place, as ultimately, this story belongs to the Bechdels.

Whether she was moved to grapple with the impossible in the wake of tragedy, seek meaning in the senseless, or was simply thinking out loud is neither clear nor the point. Who’s to say that she was even sure of her purpose or that she needed to be? Earlier on whilst examining her childhood journaling she asked, “How did I know that the things I was writing were absolutely, objectively true?” (141). As always, I err on the side of asking over knowing. Questions lead us and unmask our thoughts. Thus, what matters most is not what was revealed, but the fact that she asked at all.

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.