Monday, May 26, 2008

Graduation Day: At a Crossroads

Among the most appealing visual narratives to appear in recent months is the surprising At a Crossroads: Between a Rock and My Parents' Place, by Kate T. Williamson, published by Princeton Architectural Press, available here. The book, a nonfiction graphic novel (in the elastic meaning of the term; alternatively, an illustrated journalistic account) describes the period upon the author’s return from Japan, during which she produced the ultimately quite successful A Year in Japan, which I have not read. Her hangout during this interval—expected to be three months, but ultimately, twenty-three—was her parents’ home in Reading, Pennsylvania. The narrative and image selection of Between captures the out-of-place and –time that often characterizes the years after college, which sometimes include the odd interlude with one’s parents and the peculiarities of home life, like animal incursions (squirrels below, bats in my own case).

I am pretty distant from those interludes now—my twenty-fifth college reunion looms—but I well remember the loneliness, diffidence, idiocy and urgency of the transition. There are a handful of things no one really tells you in life. One of them is that having very young children is an insanely taxing and often boring enterprise, even when you’re deeply invested in it. Another is that the cocoon of similarity (of age, sets of concerns, interests and anxieties) that characterizes college life thankfully does not last. Upon being loosed into the world, the graduate is confronted with an astounding indifference. Suddenly, no one is terribly interested in what you think or do or want. Please get that platter out to table #8, thank you very much. And then fold the napkins.

Williamson’s book sneaks up on you a little. The illustration—and specifically the figure drawing—is somewhat indifferent. It improves when a character requires a specific emotional signature, often amplified and focused by the text. But the directorial sensibility of the work is quite appealing. The story switches back and forth between not very dramatic scenes, illustrated states of mind, and wordless notations of seasonal change, the latter immersive, tranquil. As a character, she’s impossible not to like, partly because she’s willing to present her own dopey affections. There are passages where the narrative sags, and the reader wonders maybe a little about what made the threshold cut as content. That said, if a teeny bit of indulgence creeps in now and again, the offense is a misdemeanor as compared with (for example) the article by former Gawker blogger Emily Gould in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine. Gould’s indulgences, in part because they casually indict others, are felonious. Williamson pokes fun at herself, almost exclusively.

Finally, Williamson’s transition satisfies. In the crowded realm of (often tedious) visualized memoirs, Williamson delivers a smart, honest, feminine take on the value and the cost of going back to the nest. I recommend it as a graduation gift—and a tonic for what’s to come.

(Full disclosure: Princeton Architectural Press re-published a book I co-edited in 2006: Strips, Toons & Bluesies: Essays in Culture and Comics.)

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