Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Battling Demons: Look Straight Ahead

Elaine M. Will's depiction of a teen's descent into psychosis in Look Straight Ahead reminds me a great deal of Nate Powell's Swallow Me Whole. There are significant differences, however; Powell's story actually dips into magical realism and does not have a happy ending. With Will, the delusions experienced by lead character Jeremy are powerful and life-altering, but they are never treated as "real". That said, she spends a lot of time depicting Jeremy and his state of mind as something that is poorly understood and treated by his family and his very small circle of friends. Indeed, Will draws a direct line between Jeremy's already-shaky state of being and the outside forces that eventually force it to shatter, which included bullying. It doesn't help that Jeremy is brittle and withdrawn, living in a fantasy world that eventually mutates into a demented realm of psychosis. Throw in a demanding father who doesn't begin to understand his son or what he's going through, and Will lays on Jeremy's gauntlet pretty thick with an array of faceless, brutal bullies and friends who don't quite understand him.

Will uses a mostly naturalistic style with faces that are slightly on the cartoony side of things. That tension makes the fantasy/psychosis segments of the book very effective, as it's not especially jarring when Jeremy meets the demons he's created. Indeed, the parallel fantasy story that Will writes for him is a compelling one, as he's compelled by god to stop "the Quietus" which will bring about the end of the world. This causes him to act in bizarre ways, like collecting certain candy bar wrappers and other actions that have a significant place in the logic of psychosis. Those were the strongest scenes in the book, especially when he wanders down into a cave where he encounters some demons who have his drawing hand and are gambling, gabbing about other people they've driven to madness and eventually death. At its heart, the logic of psychosis relating to depression (something that is far more common than most people understand) is that of a voice telling you that you are worthless and don't deserve to live. In Jeremy's case, the voice took the form of a fantasy character he had created in his sketchbook, which is likely why the only way out he saw was in the form of a heroic quest that only made sense to him. These are powerful, disturbing scenes that Will is up to the task in depicting; her rare use of color comes when Jeremy's sense of reality is at its most warped.

I found it unfortunate that her plotting went a bit by-the-numbers in the final third of the book. He's institutionalized and quickly relapses as he received little support. He meets a rebellious guy in the hospital who becomes his role model; when he urges Jeremy to escape and to stop taking his medication, the results are a bit on the melodramatic side. Indeed, Will plays up the drama surrounding virtually every event and character in Jeremy's life, making it seem inevitable that he's going to snap and further descend. The sole exception is his therapist in the hospital, who treats him with respect and doesn't deny his delusions. I honestly would have preferred a story that didn't feel the need to overdramatize what is already a horrifying experience for both the sufferer and his friends and family, although once Will started stacking the deck early in the book, I suppose the eventual outcome was inevitable. Still, much of the book cleverly avoids cliche and is innovative in the way it depicts depressive psychosis; it's unfortunate that this wasn't the case down the stretch. That said, it was refreshing to see both medication and mental health professionals portrayed in a positive light; while far from perfect, Will depicts them as caring individuals who are trying to help those who are far gone in many respects. In one of the final books to receive a Xeric grant, Will clearly had a powerful story that she wanted to tell. There's no question that she's a skilled artist who is quite proficient at using a number of different storytelling techniques and formal tricks to create her narrative. She's certainly talented enough to perhaps use a bit more restraint and subtlety in future projects, allowing her considerable talent to show more and tell less.

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