Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On Death and Dying: What We Need To Know

Belgian cartoonist Willy Linthout's slightly fictionalized Years of the Elephant was about the suicide of his son. His follow-up, What We Need To Know (Conundrum), is a hilarious but bleak account of three brothers and their aging mother, and how they manage or don't manage as they get older. Each of the character's struggles is both frustrating and heartbreaking, as many of their problems stem either from their own actions or else an inability to communicate need in a timely fashion. It's about the ways relationships can wither and our own habits can calcify us beyond help. It's also a story about the peculiar and unique ways in which each family communicates and the bonds that create a sense of identity that can only truly be understood within that family.

The book begins with the relationship between "Ma" and her oldest son, Walter. He's a cantankerous, borderline-Asperger's type who still lives with his mother as an adult in an adversarial but symbiotic relationship. Despite his distrust of things like modern medicine, he manages to take care of her, in his own way. He's the sort who can't be bothered to take care of himself in any meaningful way but who can invent a device to detect if his mother has gone through his underwear drawer. Ma herself is a fractious, needling and prickly sort who became a shell of herself after the death of her husband. The contrast between the earlier, hell-raising woman who was ready to kick her husband's ass after he stayed out too late drinking and the woman who could barely leave her bed later in life is a bracing one. Her eventual death starts a spiral into near-feral and drunken behavior from Walter, who is now without a purpose in life.

Roger is the loving, benign middle son who becomes a raging alcoholic. He seeks help and tries to quit but can never quite do it. There's an astonishing segment where he's in the henhouse, drinking some booze that he secreted away from his wife, where the chicken starts talking to him and gives him the "Ten Commandments for the Alcoholic". It's a litany of secretive and deceptive behaviors that he was obviously following to a tee, even as he was deceiving himself into thinking that what he was doing wasn't so bad. Charles is the youngest, and the suicide of his son haunts him throughout the book and creates an ever-increasing gulf (literalized on the page) between he and his wife. Charles is Linthout's stand-in, In this book, he's mostly a minor character, with his story getting the least amount of time of page time. He's the only character in the book who finds a way to get better (through being creative) and slowly comes to terms with the tragedies in his life. Learning how to revisit them in a positive way was the key to repairing the relationship with his life and start to live as a happy person. That didn't free him of the influence or burden of his brothers, but it was clear from early in the book how much he loved them on a totally unconditional basis.

The book is divided up into a series of anecdotes, following each member of the family over time. Walter is by far the most entertaining but sad character to follow, given his stubborn and eccentric intellect and total lack of social graces. Small details about him buying a cheap brand of sardines because he likes to use the oil from the can to lubricate his bicycle are especially funny. The book itself is drawn in a highly loose and expressive style reminiscent of early comic strips like The Katzenjammer Kids. It's all pencils and no inks, so the emotional power of the work is instantly noticeable. The occasional extraneous line looks like Linthour's story simply spilled out of his pencil with the ferocious energy of a young gag cartoonist, giving this story an immediacy and intimacy that would have been missing in a more polished take. There are no easy lessons or homilies served out in this book. There are no platitudes about family or how we have to take care of each other. It's just a brutally funny, honest and hard look at the ways in which families can disintegrate.

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