June 2013

Martyn Pedler

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But She's Gone Now: Reading Anders Nilsen's Grief

In the preface to his 1976 novel Slapstick, Kurt Vonnegut tells a true story that sounds like farce. His sister died of cancer, he explains, which would've been an "unremarkable death, statistically" -- except for the fact her husband died two days earlier on "the only train in American railroading history to hurl itself off an open drawbridge."

Vonnegut then adds, in a paragraph of its own: "This really happened."

Republished last year, Anders Nilsen's Don't Go Where I Can't Follow tells the story of Nilsen's fiancée, Cheryl Weaver. In reproduced postcards and letters they sent to each other, in journals and sketches and cartoons of their lives, Nilsen shows us their time together until her death from cancer in November 2005.

This really happened.

Don't Go is a beautiful, brutal book. It's more than half over before the section called "The Hospital" -- mostly happy evidence of travel anecdotes and deepening love -- but I realized I'd been holding my breath as I turned each page. I knew what was coming, even as Nilsen didn't; couldn't. One page begins with his scrawled words "FAIRNESS IS A HUMAN DELUSION." It ends with "I WILL BE SO GRATEFUL IF THIS ALL TURNS OUT FOR THE BEST." 

The final section, "The Lake," consists of the funeral attendees walking to water's edge to scatter Cheryl Weaver's ashes. Nilsen's still talking to her underneath each panel. ("I think you wouldn't have liked this very much, to have been there. Everyone fussing over you. It would have driven you nuts.") He avoids showing any faces, including his own, except for one moment where he's alone by the water and his tear-streaked cheek barely juts into frame.

Why? Maybe he feared faces would've tipped it toward melodrama. Or maybe he just couldn't bring himself to draw them. In the author's note to the new edition, Nilsen writes that he originally meant for it to be a small, self-published book for family and friends. When it was conventionally published, he was "never entirely at peace with the idea of making money from the experience it depicts, or having some of the rawest moments of my life on display."

It was hard to shake the feeling that I shouldn't be reading this -- like I'd wandered into someone else's grief. No matter if I was invited, I was an intruder. I've been lucky. My experiences with death are limited. Those truly close to me who've left my life have left by choice: their choice, or mine. No matter how much I might miss them, it's mediated by the fact I know their stories continue. I'm just no longer a part of them.

Nilsen's The End continues his story, without her. It's a collection of material from the year after Weaver's death, expanded from their original publication in 2007: short sketches, fragmented dialogue, totemic mazes, men catching fire or struggling under enormous weights. "Hello, welcome to my life," one figure says. "The world has fallen apart. It's really quite spectacular. A wonderful subject for study."

The longest sections of the book show Nilsen -- again, almost always faceless -- engaging in frustrating conversations with shadowy others. He demands answers; he offers them money; even when he's talking to Weaver, she reminds him that she's dead and he's really only talking to himself. That's what The End is: Nilsen talking himself in circles and drawing to find a way out.

It's shockingly sad, as it should be. (The section called "Since You've Been Gone I Can Do Whatever I Want All The Time" is somehow more heartbreaking than its title.) It's not always despairing, though. There's an aching, vividly-colored plea to make more of life -- and its power isn't undercut by the sense Nilsen's trying to remind himself of that as much as his readers.

"But she's gone now," he says. "We are blessed, but we are not entitled to our blessings. Everything is a gift, everything is a borrowing."

When I was younger, and surer, I taught creative writing to university students. I told them they were welcome to bring autobiographical work to class, of course, but if they did they needed to expect it to be treated exactly like fiction. True or not, we'd dissect it just the same.

I don't think that any more. I know memoirs aren't beyond criticism, and that careful craft isn't the enemy of creative honesty. Nilsen no doubt made decisions to best generate effect: direct address, limited color, the recurring facelessness, the way the maze imagery creeps throughout. But right now -- call it compassion or cowardice -- these books left me at a loss. All I know is I'm grateful to have read them. I don't know what else to say.

This really happened.

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