Monday, November 26, 2018

Youth In Decline: Lauren Weinstein's Frontier #17

This week on High-Low, I'm going to talk about three of the best books of the year. We'll begin with Frontier #17: Mother's Walk, by Lauren Weinstein. Weinstein has long been a favorite of mine, thanks in part to what can be perceived as a lack of any kind of filter. She has a frequently raunchy, vulgar sense of humor that is mixed with a healthy dollop of absurdism. Her autobiographical work finds her exposing things about her past and present with no hesitation whatsoever. Her mixture of painting, scribbles and cartooning gives her work a unique look. Her comics about her marriage and children are raw and open, omitting most details related to conflict while keeping the emotional content and context of that conflict. There are more memoirs from a woman's perspective these days than ever before, but the way Weinstein found a way to be intellectually present for the events of this comic was astonishing.

This comic is the birthing story of her second child with her husband Tim. Weinstein was devoted to the idea of recording the experience before it faded from memory, and her willingness to spill ink (and paint) in every panel on every page made me feel privileged as a reader. It read like she was taking the entire reading public into her confidence, telling them secrets and trusting them with them. The comic is in equal parts beautiful, harrowing, funny, and absurd. Her scrawled pencils feel like they're being quickly scribbled on the page as though I was watching her try to tell this story as quickly as she could, before it all faded away.

What ultimately makes the story so effective is Weinstein's ability to detach herself from the narrative enough to make it coherent. Her sensibilities as a storyteller couldn't help but form a narrative around the experience and shape it into something that flowed in a way that made sense. This is also Weinstein's presence as someone churning over their own story, offering herself commentary and reflection. She's the type who mulls over everything, but the effect here is useful and steadying when compared to the chaos of the visual presentation. While there is some detachment, she turns that critical eye on the events and feelings as they happened and held very little back. She pulls away and pulls the reader in at the same time.

The baby's due date had passed but her parents were there visiting, and there's a hilarious sequence where she sends them back home so that she and Tim could have sex in an effort to induce labor. There's an astounding two-page sequence where they are both reaching orgasm accompanied by six floating, circular panels showing a close-up of ejaculation on one side and "the cosmic door of life and death" opening on the other. It's Weinstein's fascination with the recapitulation of larger cosmic mysteries by way of the mystery of sex (or as Elvis Costello would say, the "Mystery Dance"). It's the convergence of psychedelic transcendence with intimate physicality, and this is the heart of her work. The tiniest details of life recapitulate the most glorious mysteries. The most absurd daily events represent existential meaninglessness. As above, so below.

Weinstein then rewinds to the decision whether or not to have another baby and the time that went by while considering it, until she unintentionally got pregnant. Weinstein's willingness to share her emotions by way of showing them in panels rather than talking about them abstractly is another thing that gave the comic such an intimate feel. For example, she talks about about a long walk with her husband helping to clear the air between the two, but she also provides a couple of snippets of dialogue that reinforced this point. Speaking of which, there's no more effusive character in the book than her older daughter Ramona. Her sheer delight in knowing that she would have a sibling is fascinating when compared to her mother and grandmother's joyful embrace of life. Weinstein's mother is a political activist; Weinstein herself is a prolific artist and writer; and Ramona's saying "Now I will have responsibilities! And that will make me not lonely!" is a fascinating recapitulation of both her mother and grandmother. For Weinstein, an only child, giving her daughter this experience was not only important to her, but she revealed it was interesting as something to observe while it was happening, since she didn't experience it herself.

The birth experience as Weinstein described it was fascinating--inbetween and out of time, where breathing and waves of pain intermingled with musings on god. Weinstein notes that "if god exists, god is a creator and a destroyer". She's on the verge of needing an epidural when she talks to Ramona on the phone, and that allows her to let go. There's a merging of the mystical and the scatological as she imagines life about to be born while needing to take a shit (a part of childbirth that doesn't tend to wind up being highlighted). There are so many unforgettable drawings here. There's the rough and intense drawing of happiness on Weinstein's face as she holds her baby for the first time--her eyes and mouth just black strokes of pencil. There's the brief, touching moment of Tim holding the baby and giving her a kiss before he leaves to go take care of the dog and bring over Ramona. There's the simple grin of baby Sylvia. Best of all is the drawing of Ramona holding her sister, a beatific image that Weinstein refers to as "the best moment of my life". Ramona holding her sister saying, "My prayers have been answered" was unforgettable: a moment of pure, innocent joy and caring.

There's a lot of other stuff at work here, including talking about the life and death of their dog, to whom Ramona had grown close. There's the very different experience of Weinstein's friend Rami, who did not receive the same kind of support she did. There are small gestures and expressions, like the simply-drawn smile on Ramona's face walking out of the hospital. The shifting color scheme takes the reader on different phases of the experience. While Weinstein does create a story here, I never felt emotionally manipulated as a reader. It's the difference between art and artifice, as Weinstein's commitment to being present with her fears and dreams in the moment was a constant on every page, anchoring its flights of fancy with almost painfully visceral images.

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