Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Exception That Proves The Rule: Julia Wertz's Impossible People

There's a scene late in Impossible People, Julia Wertz's recovery memoir, where she meets New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. Chast reveals that she's a big fan of Wertz, because "it's not from the cartooning world. You don't follow any rules, which makes it unique and fun!" Wertz starts to follow this up about not really even knowing the rules before she's loudly interrupted by Chast's bird saying "Who cares?" This is pretty much Wertz in a nutshell. She does a lot of things as a cartoonist that I would hate from virtually anyone else, but her ability to draw you into her particular kind of storytelling is so all-consuming that I simply don't care as much. 

Impossible People is somehow both way too long and not long enough. It covers way too much ground sometimes, and the deleted scenes that Wertz has posted on her Instagram would have added the kind of rich detail found in her best book, The Infinite Wait And Other Stories. At the same time, Impossible People meanders, loses its way, picks up loose threads again, and is held together not by the fact that it's a recovery story, but rather that it gets at what is referred to as the "root" in recovery terms. Wertz bites off a lot more than she can chew in terms of the cartooning and character design, but her sheer determination and ambition to finally tell this big story somehow makes all of that less important. There are a lot of ways to think about the book, but let's start with the obvious. 

Wertz has a profound understanding that memoir is a genre like any other genre, one where the artist can manipulate any element they want to produce the story they want. "Truth" is irrelevant so long as a good story is told, yet "truth" has always proven to be an important marketing element for memoir. If something is true, it creates a voyeuristic thrill absent from fiction, and in many cases creates a window of misery porn for readers. Wertz absolutely rejects all of this, to her credit. The subtitle of the book is "A Completely Average Recovery Story," in part because every recovery narrative, no matter where rock bottom happens to be, tends to fall along certain patterns. The key to starting recovery that actually works is coming to terms with negative emotions and all the ways in which we seek to conceal them, usually by lying. Being honest is the first and hardest thing one must do in recovery, and it has to continue throughout--especially in not lying to yourself. 

Wertz uses a lot of recovery language in Impossible People and gives us glimpses of meetings, sponsorships, and accountability partners. A key character is her brother, a recovering drug addict who provides a lot of hard advice and compassion. The thing that makes Wertz a great writer--her ability to spin anything into comedy--is precisely the thing that made recovery difficult. By minimizing her own pain and attempting to laugh it off, she delayed getting to a lot of her root issues of exactly why she started drinking. Notably, Wertz doesn't go into much detail as to these events, but the truth is that it doesn't matter much what they were, so long as you're able to talk about them out loud to a therapist, sponsor, or peers. The Blue Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is mostly filled with recovery narratives. Recovery is a kind of belief system, beginning with giving yourself over to the infamous Higher Power, and so recovery narratives are really conversion narratives. 

One very smart thing that Wertz does in the book is explore the problematic aspects of recovery, beginning with the higher power, the religiosity of AA, the misogyny inherent in its origins and execution, and much more. She doesn't linger on it, as this book isn't a critique of AA in particular, but what her brother points out and what she learns is the most profound lesson of recovery: isolation is death. 

This is the heart of the book. Wertz has always painted herself as a misanthropic curmudgeon for comedic purposes, but the reality is that she's simply a shy but socially curious and empathetic person. However, worrying that your problems aren't "big" enough, feeling unworthy of love, friendship, success, etc, feeling like a burden to others and other ways we trick ourselves into isolating. For addicts, what happens is either lapsing into addiction, or worse, trying to white-knuckle sobriety. I would argue that this is uniquely exacerbated by the rugged individualist ethos of American culture. Seeking help is weakness. Buck up and stop complaining. No one wants to hear your problems. If you don't do it yourself, it's not of value. All of this is illusory, of course, whether or not people want to admit it or not. For an addict, it takes a lot of work to purge this social pressure, but the reality is that at a genetic level, humans are social animals. They need each other. They want to communicate with each other and always have--dating before even language. Our trauma is what tricks us into isolating ourselves and making ultimately ineffective choices for our coping mechanisms. Our culture encourages us to do this. Trauma isn't a contest as to who's had it worse; rather, it should be understood as something we all experience and need to reach out to others to cope with. 

As a result, Wertz presents an array of characters who are fully fleshed out in a way that she's never done in any other book. Sure, her friends and family have had supporting roles, but not to this extent and not to this degree of openness. Cartoonist friend Sarah Glidden and recovery friend Jennifer are prominently featured, with the latter particularly grounding Wertz and calling her on her shit. There's a boyfriend (Jeff) that Wertz becomes devoted to (to the detriment of her recovery), only to have him tell her he's cheating on her as he breaks up with her. The one problem with all of this is that Wertz's character design (beyond her own iconic avatar) has always felt perfunctory at best. Furthermore, Wertz's work has always had a static quality where body language, the relationships between bodies in space, gesture, and other key elements of cartooning have felt limited. It didn't matter as much when Wertz was just going for jokes, but it made things more awkward for the deeper, more interpersonal discussions that made up so much of Impossible People. The problem is that Wertz didn't seem to be able to create avatars as interesting or evocative as her own for anyone else, giving them mostly a vaguely generic cartoony naturalism that wound up not being enough of either. As drawings qua drawings, they were sometimes distracting. 

Fortunately, Wertz is well-suited to draw the other co-star of the book: the buildings of New York City. Her level of detail, care, and precision in rendering buildings stands in contrast to drawing people, but it nonetheless added so much flavor to the book. The other fortunate thing is that Wertz's talent as a writer is so prodigious that the cartooning issues melted away not just with her always-winning one-liners, but also her deeper, more interpersonal relationships. Her frank talks with her brother, her heart-to-hearts with her best friend Jen, her hard-won wisdom from her sponsor, and even the flirty banter she has are all totally absorbing and have such a strong rhythm that it holds the very loose plot together. It's less of a plot than episodic storytelling, albeit with a strong thematic throughline. That throughline and lesson of recovery is what gives Impossible People its very warm heart. The sarcastic Wertz is really someone who is quite sincere in how much she loves so many people in her life, and the lesson of the book, as it is for all of those in recovery, is learning how to practice gratitude for the loved ones in our lives. One may not feel like you deserve it, but practicing gratitude, reaching out, and being there for others just as they are there for you is the essence of all community and the key ingredient to fostering mental health. Julia Wertz explores the lessons of recovery and emphasizes that sobriety on its own is irrelevant with community, all while never deviating from everything that made her funny in the first place. 

1 comment:

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