As the second-wavers like to say, the personal is political. This short little soundbite, so pithy and perfect and catchy, with the dainty plosives enveloping the two letter verb like puffy lips, top and bottom, like a kiss. And like any effective slogan, its ceiling can become so high and broad that one loses sight of the fact that, down on the ground, making the personal (private) into the political (public) can kind of suck sometimes.
Writers who have the compulsion to pour their hearts and lives out on the page make the choice of what to hold and what to show, and often even hide things right in the middle of what they show (unlike fiction writers, who show things right in the middle of what they hide. Or something.) So it's understandable that readers confuse the writer with what she's written, because what she writes is true, or, as David Sedaris says, true enough.
R. Crumb, a cartoonist who has drawn panel after panel of his very specific sexual fantasies about very specifically drawn women, still drew a very revealing image of himself during the filming of the documentary about his life Crumb. In the drawing, he's crouched in the position that all Cold War children remember well - knees drawn up to the chin, arms cradling the head, eyes closed tight in preparation for the nuclear flash. Surrounding him on all sides are dozens of cameras.
Thinking back to a cartoon he drew of himself riding piggyback on a big-legged woman with no head, I thought, "What could he possibly have left to keep private?"
And when I read his introduction of C. Tyler's autobiographical cartoon compilation Late Bloomer, I was startled when he wrote, "the level of honesty about herself is...shocking at times."
She shocked R. Crumb? If you've seen an R. Crumb comic where he lays his racism and misogyny right out there, you, too, would want to know exactly what's inside Carol Tyler that she's willing to show. And is it true? Is it true enough? Exactly what kind of person is this C. Tyler, anyway? Is she making the personal political, or is she just telling stories, or what? Imagine my surprise when, after I read Late Bloomer, I discovered that what shocked R. Crumb was nothing more than the inside of my own heart.
Which, I think, is the key of the personal narrative's appeal. Carol Tyler's work exemplifies the ability of the artist to lay it bare and confess all, drawing together the common threads of humanity with a unique flair that makes you wonder what will happen next.
In two of her strongest pieces, "Uncovered Property" and "The Outrage," Tyler masterfully combines both commonality and individuality, the first with a hilarious and sweet childhood anecdote, and the second, the tale I suspect shocked R. Crumb, covers the all-too-familiar horrowshow landscape of any woman who has suffered from post-partum depression.
Other stories include similar themes of dark domesticity; pointed critiques of church elders portrayed as profane on Saturday night as they are pious on Sunday, elderly women manipulated by con artists promising true love, and an achingly true-to-life horror story of being trapped at an airport with a toddler and a headcold. The story that was my sentimental favorite, however, is "Once, We Ran." There isn't much to it, really, just one page describing a small perfect bubble of a moment when she and her little daughter, in matching red skirts, dance on the blacktop of their driveway before going inside the house, because, as she says, details like these tend to disappear.
One can't help but vow to scrapbook or journal the perfect details of your life with your child just a bit harder after reading that important yet simple wisdom, even though the majority of us won't bloom into the artist that Tyler has after the last of our chicks leave the nest.
Although it's obvious Tyler has the chops, her style does take some getting used to. The dialogue in Late Bloomer overlaps and fills the panels, and song lyrics from a radio drawn into several scenes simultaneously weaves through. Once the reader adjusts, however, she becomes totally immersed in Tyler's flower-filled , animated life.
Tyler dedicates her book to "anyone who has deferred a dream due to raising children or caregiving," to late bloomers everywhere. Tyler, like so many women before her, deferred her own dream to spend years in the service of others. It is inspiring indeed, to find that after twenty years of living her creative life in the margins, Carol Tyler has burst out into a full bloom of brilliance, creating something truly inspiring - a mommy book without saccharine or excessive complaint, a testament to talent and creativity shining through at last, no matter what.
by C. Tyler
Fantagraphics Books, August, 2005
This review originally appeared at TARGET="_blank">J LHLS.
Saturday, May 06, 2006