When Jean-Jacques Rousseau penned his Confessions in 1769, he probably had no idea he was unleashing a new literary genre upon future readers, one that highlights its authors’ most private and loathsome deeds and desires.
The revelations in Confessions, though undeniably repulsive at times, underscored Rousseau’s critique of repressive European mores and social and political institutions that twisted the individual citizen into an emotionally and morally stunted midget. This radical linking of the personal to the political and the social has resonated through literary and popular culture ever since. Rousseau’s recent heirs, as evidenced in these two graphic novels/memoirs, largely do away with the philosophical grounding and drop readers straight into the emotional dirty laundry.
Joe Ollmann’s Mid-Life sets a raw, scatological tone on the first page as John, a thinly disguised stand-in for veteran cartoonist Ollmann, cleans up shit from the cats left behind by his adult daughters. On the way to the garbage pail, he literally steps into another fecal headache: one of his infant son’s dirty diapers.
John and his much younger wife, Chan, have fallen into the typical funk of new parenthood, with arguments outnumbering love-making sessions by at least 10 to one. John is also battling a mid-life crisis brought on by his 40th birthday and a sustained rut at his job. John’s wild swings between self-loathing, resentment, stoic resolve, and erotic fantasizing are complemented by Ollmann’s jittery, frenetic illustration style, which transforms the crowded panels into rows of tiny cages.
John’s story is paralleled with, and eventually crashes into, that of Sherry Smalls, a successful children’s entertainer. Like John, Sherry is disillusioned, drinks too much, feels artistically compromised, and is given to lacerating spells of self-pity. After watching one of her videos with his son, John is overtaken by an erotic obsession and mounts a campaign to meet her – to what end, he is not prepared to ponder just yet.
It may be true to life that John would fall for a wounded fellow traveller like Sherry, but because she represents, in essence, little more than an extension of John’s own narcissism, the story misses out on many emotional and narrative possibilities. Yes, we see John at his most naked, but because he is not challenged by Sherry in any meaningful way, and because his persona is too cynical and hip to philosophically or spiritually reflect on the roots of his unhappiness, the reader may finish this admittedly entertaining story, shrug, and say, “Yup, people are like that.” Ollmann’s work here hints that he is capable of something more profound.
Critically acclaimed cartoonist Chester Brown takes readers into even murkier moral and sexual territory with Paying for It, a painfully accurate title for this lengthy and clinical document of Brown’s experiences with various sex workers. Brown prefaces his first paid tryst with the story of his extended break-up with his last girlfriend, who starts a long-term open relationship with another man while still living with Brown. Readers may be compelled to question Brown’s assertion that his girlfriend’s rejection does not elicit feelings of jealousy or rage, but they have to take him at his word, here and throughout the book.
Brown employs a transparent narrative device in which a succession of characters – friends or ex-girlfriends – question his decision to renounce romantic love and monogamy for the company of prostitutes. This troupe of paper tigers is always put in its place by Brown’s ridiculously self-serving arguments against monogamous relationships, which he sees as the root cause of most human suffering. These arguments have as much authority as those of a child shouting at his classmates that Christmas is all a big fraud because Santa Claus does not exist.
Brown spends more than 200 pages on his dreary encounters with at least a dozen prostitutes, many of whom he rejects out of hand for the crime of not resembling 18-year-olds with overdeveloped breasts (though he still pays these rejected women: Brown is a gentleman to the end).
Paying for It is a tedious work that serves little purpose other than to justify Brown’s need for paid sex. The drawings are monotonous, the dialogue stilted, and because Brown is fixated on personal justification, the work is largely void of any sense of discovery or insight. Brown lacks even the curiosity to wonder how the prostitutes feel about lying down with yet another beady-eyed john who traces their bodies for any sign of imperfection.
Brown isn’t satisfied to let his argument speak for itself, saddling the reader with over 40 pages of numbing appendices that “address” issues of prostitution and argue that if it weren’t for the legal and social strictures against it, most of us would gladly join the party. The less said about these easily disputed rationalizations the better. If Brown is going to cloak the confessional mode in such disingenuous garb, he might want to warn the reader next time out