English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

December 17, 2009

Can anyone tell me “What It Is?”

Filed under: Uncategorized — jeremiahm @ 2:41 am

While obviously a labour of love, Lynda Barry’s What It Is seemed to me paradoxically both painstakingly produced and at the same time, thrown together.  The book appears to defy convention.  Is it a comic?  A scrapbook?  Is it autobiography?  Is it a work book?  Is it a how-to manual?  After reading through the text and images of the 150+ pages, my conclusion is that it is an eclectic and humorous at times emotionally touching and for the writer I’m sure, very cathartic, visually enticing, and daring piece that seems to lose steam about half way through.

Here is my take on the reasons this book was published, which by the way isn’t remotely researched, nor do I present it as truth but mere conjecture and perhaps with a sense perplexity about the reasons why this book was made the way it was: the publisher, Drawn and Quarterly, commissioned the self-styled painter, cartoonist, writer, illustrator, playwright, editor, commentator and teacher Lynda Barry to do a book for them, maybe something autobiographical.  So Barry endeavours to create an artistic presentation (or representation) of self, using collage and her illustrations to anchor the text.  About half-way through her narrative, she stumbles.  Maybe she gets bored with it, maybe she doesn’t feel her life beyond high school is interesting enough, maybe there are parts of the story she just doesn’t want to tell.  Maybe she had only intended to write about her childhood and how she came to be an artist but that wasn’t taking up enough pages.  Who knows?  What does happen is that 1/3 of the book becomes not only an homage to her former writing teacher, but also an instructional workbook on that method.

While some may have found this aspect perhaps useful or creative, I found it neither.  I thought it seemed sloppy and tacked on.  I am not here criticising the method that Barry presents, nor even how she presents it (which at times I admit were very clever) and the the methods appeared useful and rigorous but probably intended for amateurs–either that or there was some metaphysicality involved that I am not really willing to discuss at this point without examining it further.  My problem with this section is that it just didn’t fit with the greater part of the text, I mean the story–which to me was the heart of the book, although it did tie in to what I am choosing to call the “thesis” of the book, but more on that later.  It was as if the author wanted to talk about this teacher that was a great influence on her writing, but found the only way she could present her ideas was through the exercises.

Another reason why I find the book so unbalanced is that it frequently jumps from comic to collage in spurts of say 3 to 5 pages.  The tone is even throughout, and the collages are interesting but get repetitive and boring after a while and I had to keep preventing myself from skipping through them to get back to the “comics” section which I found more interesting and compelling.  The reason I didn’t skip over the collage parts, even after I found them to get repetitive, had as much to do with my obsessive nature of reading every bit of any book I start reading as uit had to do with the fact that the words and images in the collage did pertain directly to the theme of the story, and I would often enough find something very clever in the collage–again just enough to keep me from going hrmm, and skipping ahead.  To me, when these collages stopped adding anything new to the story or theme and began to look as if they were obsessive and just taking up space, I began to feel the book was made to be longer than it should.  Maybe Barry couldn’t bare to cut out any of those collages which she obviously worked so hard on, I couldn’t say.

One thing that the story leads to is this idea that writing is organic and that if there is a story, it need not be thought out ahead of time but just needs to flow out uninterrupted.  Barry, here adapting the method of the aforementioned teacher, uses the metaphor of an image to initiate story.  What she means is a “metal image,” some sort of memory that a story can  evolve from, like imagining a photographic image and being able to rotate it and look at it from different angles, three dimensionally.  This is a fascinating concept, especially for one who has been studying the relationship of image and text for a semester.  The idea that one can start with an image, just a mental image (usually attached to or altogether embodying some kind of memory) and explore that image as if one was inside of it and could expand their view of it in all directions and then create a story about it is something still pretty new and not fully explored ontologically.  As I said it is somewhat metaphysical and I think that if it hasn’t been done yet, art theorists need to delve into this.

So in short, I enjoyed much of the book, particularly the great illustrations and storytelling, the innovative use of collage and idea of images initiating text, Barry’s “thesis” as  I called it.  I didn’t really enjoy the over-long workbook section, was not at all inclined to try it out for more than a moment (and after reading through all of the tedious-looking exercises was even less likely to do so), and although I thought the collages were interesting and put to good use, they became far to repetitive and were extremely overused.  Also, I felt that the story was incomplete.  She leaves us off with an unfinished narrative, somewhere in art school getting very serious about her work but no “happy ending”, or how she got from there, to where she is today.  What about the husband or lover or friend that appears early in the book?  How does she first get published or her work exhibited, etc?  Does she fall in love and get married and have kids, or lots of dogs?  I felt we were left hanging, and that she wasn’t going to give us the inspiration as artists and writers trying to get value from her book (except for the lesson-plan she springs on us towards the end).  The story is incomplete and the book feels like it rails off and dithers.  It ends unceremoniously with a few pages of her notes, showing how she applied the method she just prescribed in writing the book.  Again this is intersting, but it’s not an ending.  As a reader I felt abandoned, and I felt the 150-or so pages could have been put to better use.


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