January 2013

Martyn Pedler


Be Alone With Me: Sunday in the Park with Boys and The Nao of Brown

"I like going on walks by myself," thinks Jane in Sunday in the Park with Boys. "I like reading by myself. I like shopping by myself. I like eating by myself. I like being by myself. I like being alone. I like being alone. I like being alone." The repetition tells you what's coming, and here it is: "I hate being alone."

If you're reading this, you survived another Christmas and New Year's. This time of year exists to tell you that unless others surrounded you, you've failed. It doesn't matter if you're usually alone, and usually enjoy it. Sitcoms, songs, advertising, the quaver in a family member's voice over the phone? They all say you're wrong. It seeps in through your skin.

Jane Mai spends most of the autobiographical Sunday in the Park with Boys convincing herself it's okay to be alone, even as evidence mounts that it's slowly killing her. There are almost no other human characters in the book. Just Jane and her thoughts, the square panels capturing her cartoon face and close-ups of the world around her. When we do see her in bed with a nameless someone, she's silently asking, "Why don't you understand? Why don't you understand?" Instead, Mai creates new conversations: with her dog Stinky, her wise reflection, a giant centipede that sits on her head like a writhing crown...

And with you, too. She narrates the story so you can hear her and draws herself so you can see her. She's performing her loneliness for you. This is the deceit at the heart of any artistic depiction of solitude. You watch a movie with a heartbroken drunk alone in a room -- but she still hits her marks as she staggers into the chair, and when she mumbles to herself, it's underneath the boom. And who do you think Batman's posing for when he's alone atop a Gotham skyscraper? It's not for the Joker. It's for you.

Is fiction why it can be so hard to feel truly alone? A song comes on and suddenly you're out of your body, watching yourself cry, enjoying how miserable the moment's become. You sigh louder than you need to, though there's no one there to hear it. You shrug off a brave one-liner for the mirror -- and for your documentary crew, invisible and intangible. Mai muses on this through the simple transformative power of being outside during thunderstorms. "If you walk really slowly you are reflecting on life and it becomes very serious. If you run you are doing something drastic and crazy!" She's watching herself from the outside. We all do. It doesn't falsify the emotions she's feeling, drawing, transmitting. Because before you tell someone a story, you have to tell it to yourself.

Sunday in the Park with Boys is a slim book, ambitious but almost zine-like, and that helps its aura of honest. Autobiographical comics like this live and die on that feeling. Mai doesn't wallow, turning out into misery metaphors or grim spectacle. When the cute cartoon Jane draws a self-portrait, it's one page of something horrible -- closer to naturalism, except for the centipedes crawling out of her eyes and mouth. It makes you wonder if the rest of the book's style is to cushion us from how bad things really are.

Glyn Dillon's The Nao of Brown also features a young woman repeating a phrase: "Mum loves me... Mum loves me... Mum loves me..." Nao Brown -- half English, half Japanese -- screams along to music blaring through her headphones, trying to drown out the self-loathing monologue in her head. Within the book's first few pages, she's imagined herself snapping a cab driver's neck and opening a plane's door, watching everyone sucked out into the sunshine up above the clouds.

Showing an act of violence and then revealing it as a fantasy is a cheap gag of popular culture. ("Surprise! That dead horse you just saw me beating wasn't dead at all!") In Nao, it's far from funny. These flashes terrify her. She's desperate to be free of them. She attends a Buddhist Center -- where Dillon does a fantastic job of mixing genuine insight with human banality -- but her psychological "homework" doesn't help. There's one panel showing her friend hugging her close, saying "You're doing so well..." Nao collapses into her arms at the affirmation. The body language brought me to tears.

Nao's world isn't as insular and intimate as Jane's, and Dillon achieves amazing performances from his drawn characters as they interact. The way their faces convey emotion is painful and raw to a degree rarely seen on the page. Reading an argument between Nao and her unlikely boyfriend, Gregory, I was a voyeur; I forgot to admire the artist's techniques, and instead worried I shouldn't be seeing these faces at all.

Nao first notices Gregory because "he had the fixed stare of 'Nobodaddyo.'" The Nobody. A favorite character from her favorite story. (This is a story filled with other stories: snippets of fables; sci-fi toys; romance-gone-wrong anecdotes; and Nao's own internal monologue, always whispering her worst fears. We are the stories we tell.) "I drink from your head, too," she tells Gregory, pointing at her Nobody-shaped mug. Is he her tulpa, he asks -- a fantasy materialized into reality from her deepest desires?

No. Nobody's nobody. Others don't arrive empty. They bring baggage, drink too much, quote the wrong author at the wrong time. After their worst fight, it's as though the red of Nao's rage has stained everything in the room. Some interior worlds are externalized with talking dogs and depression centipedes. Sometimes colors. Sometimes the slack twist of a mouth, the defeated curve of a spine, the abstract eyes of a toy.

Sunday and Nao connect in different ways. Sunday reaches out, places itself in your hand, and says, "This is how I feel right now." Nao takes its time, letting you sink into it like quicksand. They're as honest as each other, and share the same ache for understanding. They also share unexpectedly upbeat endings. Nao's moment of realization is big -- maybe too big, Hollywood big. Jane's happy moment comes fast, too, at odds with how far she'd fallen.

Is the worst over? Orson Welles famously said a happy ending depends on where you end your story. In The Nao of Brown, Dillon provides a lesson in embracing the moment, without spoiling it with what might comes before or after. And when Sunday says everything will be okay, it's not a glib happily-ever-after. Jane is writing it to make it true. Telling herself, and you, that it's possible.

In fiction, no one is ever alone. That is its lie, but also its magic.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. Happy new year.