Friday, July 29, 2016

First Second: Lucy Knisley's Something New

Having followed Lucy Knisley's career closely since her first book, I've at times felt both drawn to and frustrated by her autobio comics. On the one hand, she has a beautiful, clean line that grabs the reader and doesn't let go. She's witty and knows how to tell a story. The problem, as one friend of mine noted, is that she didn't seem willing or able to "spill some ink", to really find a way to express some deeper emotional truths without coming across as privileged. Trying to get a grip on precisely why her comics haven't worked for me, I thought to compare them to Gabrielle Bell's own travel comics. The reality is that both women are not wealthy but have had some amazing opportunities to travel that most people don't have because of their capacity as artists. In Bell's case, she's an outsider no matter where she goes, so her reportage always carries a fish-out-of-water element that still allows the reader to get a sense of place. In Knisley's case, her travelogues are often bogged down by her feelings about being in a place (usually about how awesome it is, or else complaining about some details about an otherwise amazing trip) getting in the way of actually conveying an experience to her readers. She also has a way of spelling out what she thinks are the themes of a work that feel superficial or contrived.

The main exception to this is Relish, which is autobiography told through a love of food. By concentrating on food and letting the autobiographical details flow in around that tight focus, Knisley was far more successful in conveying the importance of relationships in her life than her other books did. The problem with the other travel books is that they were far too self-obsessed, and if you're going to focus on your own thoughts, you'd better have a sharply defined and unusual point of view (like Bell), or else you wind up with something self-indulgent. When I started reading her newest memoir, Something New, I knew it was about being reunited with her ex-boyfriend and their wedding. I dreaded another self-indulgent exercise. While there was some of that, I was pleasantly surprised at how homing in on an experience that was so specific, introspective and personal was so widely relatable and emotionally powerful.

I think there are a few reasons why this was so. First, doing this with another person meant changing her perspective from going it solo to being part of a team. Second, she was brutally honest with what went wrong with her boyfriend (she wanted kids and he didn't) and how things slowly changed over time. Not that Knisley hasn't expressed her feelings in past books, but in Something New, she goes much, much deeper and becomes a sympathetic character in her writings for the first time. Third, the honest push-and-pull regarding weddings and the institution of marriage itself made for some interesting frisson in the story, as she had to explore a lot of conflicting feelings. Finally, her always unfailing eye for detail broke up the very long and winding narrative with all sorts of hilarious interstitial material regarding the institution of marriage.

Emotional tone is something that's often been off in Knisley's comics. She talks about her emotions and having strong feelings, but there's an odd, almost clinical reserve in how she goes about depicting this on the page. Part of that, I think, is that her line is so unfailingly smoothed out (bordering on relentlessly cute) and her color scheme so pleasant (lots of pastels) that those feelings are visually muted. To her credit, when she talked about her feelings for her future husband John and the difficulties they endured, Knisley's use of body language (especially in how she and John related to each other in space) is what sold it to me as a reader. Something that Knisley reveals along the way is that the experience of planning the ceremony, with a lot of conflicting feelings and political ideals at play, was so overwhelmingly emotional that she felt herself distancing herself from her feelings in the moment. It wasn't until the moment itself came that the catharsis of emotion was able to emerge, and she was insightful in how she related this experience to the reader.

The book's main flaw is that it's bloated at almost 300 pages. I recognize that in part, she tried to relay her own particular experience with the mechanics of getting married in a systematic matter, but there were too many self-indulgent sequences that slowed the book down to a crawl. There was a conflict between simply relating an emotional narrative and the need she felt to focus on wedding details, customs and history, almost as a form of reportage. The entire DIY chapter could have been jettisoned with no impact on the narrative (emotional or otherwise), especially as eight pages of it felt like reading someone's Pinterest board. There's also a weird dichotomy regarding discussing money in the book. The book's title suggests that she's a "makeshift bride", and there were a lot of remarkable DIY elements at work in her wedding experience. For example, the ceremony was held in a barn on her mother's property that the two of them helped build themselves. For some of the less expensive things (especially things she made), Knisley is quite upfront about how much they cost, but she's more vague regarding other things she had to buy, like her dress, the food, the wedding planner, etc. It would have been interesting to compare what she had to spend with the average price of weddings (which she discusses in detail), if only to play up the possibilities that are available if one is creative and has a community of people that are willing to help. Again, it's understandable for someone not to discuss the financials in a public forum, but the fact that she discussed some but not all of the details was a lost opportunity.

There are some interesting emotional tensions at play in the book, especially between Knisley and her mother. She discusses screaming arguments and stress, as her mom tried to wrest control of the wedding away from her at times, but Knisley also discusses the gratitude she feels for her mother hosting the event and going above and beyond to help make it work. That said, Knisley frequently portrays her mom as being petulant, petty and obsessed with control, and I would have been curious to see how her mother perceived the same events--especially when Knisley leaves for 36 hours to have her bachelorette party. Related to that is Knisley's barely-disguised contempt for the wedding planner that was foisted on her by her mom. While the ever even-handed and self-analytical Knisley tries her best to describe the ways in which she was helpful, the actual depiction of her is of a slightly bumbling, scatterbrained person who was overly familiar and didn't have great boundaries. The nature of the conflict between Knisley and her mom as depicted in the book was actually a fundamental question of the book: who is the wedding for, exactly? Is it for the bride and groom, is it for the family, or is it for the community? What is the relationship between money and control in this equation? That is, if someone is paying for something with regard to the ceremony, do they have the right to supersede the wishes of the bride and groom?

In the end, this is a book about accepting that some conflicts don't have easy resolutions, and we simply must learn to live with them and compromise as we make choices, understanding that each choice brings its own set of pluses and minuses. Marriage represents losing freedom and absolute, individual choice, but it brings the possibility of building something with someone. (Indeed, the book's title refers overtly to the old wedding rhyme, but Knisley repurposes it at the end as she and John have started to build something new.) Marriage still feels like a rite of passage into adulthood, a concept that was difficult to swallow. Marriage contains all sorts of patriarchal and religious baggage as a couple suddenly joins a club they didn't quite understand they had signed up for. There is only one conflict that utterly and inescapably goes Knisley's way in the book, and that's the decision to have children. While John relented and said he was willing to do it, he's depicted later in the book saying that he was more excited about having a wedding and didn't really want to have children. It's telling that the book's final scene shows Knisley having her birth control implant removed, as the "something new" is clearly not just building a new life with John, but also refers to the possibility of creating a new life with him in the form of a child. Knisley indeed did give birth a few months ago and is also documenting that experience. Knisley's decision to document these events in real time instead of allowing for the possibility of perspective gained after time elapsing is a bold one. It provides a sense of immediacy that sometimes is absent from memoirs drawn for the distant past and also allows for a sense of open-endedness and some questions and concepts simply left unsaid, unresolved and a matter for contemplation by the reader.

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