A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
If the title to this graphic novel makes it sound a little all over the place, then that’s appropriate because all over the place is exactly what this book is. That and charming and witty and also in places quite sad. Allie Brosh is, along with Matthew Inman, creator of The Oatmeal, a bona fide internet sensation – one of the first wave of young authors and artists who have made a name for themselves through social media. In 2009 Hyperbole and a Half started life as a blog and webcomic. By 2011 it had 150 million page loads and Brosh announced a book deal. Published in 2013, Unfortunate Situations is the result.
It’s a funny book. Some of Brosh’s best loved comics make an appearance – the stories of Simple Dog and Helper Dog, the story of The God of Cake – these are superlative and filled with the gentle, yet acerbic wit that is Brosh’s trademark. Even as she tells us how Simple Dog is unable to pass the most basic of dog IQ tests (getting out from underneath a blanket is way too tough a challenge for Simple Dog) she does it with such fondness that we don’t for a second question how much she loves her pea-brained pet. The same goes for Brosh’s younger self, who destroys her parents’ peace of mind on a regular basis. Brosh regards herself through the distance of years with wry puzzlement. Was I really like that? she asks, the way most of us do when we remember how we covered the entire kitchen in flour or painted the cat blue and the fact Brosh asks the questions most of us ask tells you much about her success. She captures the moments we all experience but mostly fail to process – the embarrassing, awkward moments that pets and small children and our own incompetent selves put us through. It’s OK says Brosh. I’ve been there too and uses her drawings to capture the emotions we all feel at those times – the mortification, the anguish, the impotent rage – with a humour and warmth that makes them manageable.
It’s reassuring stuff. The world is a big confusing place and many of us feel we can’t cope with even the most basic demands of adulthood – doing the laundry, eating properly, returning DVDs on time. Brosh’s book tells us it’s OK to be a schlub, to have been a terror as a kid, to have pets you can’t control, to quail in the face of a house invasion by a psychopathic goose and if that was all it did, that would be fine by me. But remember my comment about how this book is all over the place? In amongst the heartwarming anecdotes are other stories too – ones about Brosh’s experience of depression and her various investigations into how her mind works. The result is tonally weird. One moment, I’m reading about the antics of Simple Dog and the next I’m exposed to Brosh trying to find a tactful way to tell those close to her that she feels suicidal. Brosh’s comic on her depression is one of the reasons she became so famous – she posted it on Reddit after a lengthy and unexplained absence from her blog to seismic response, showing once again how she’s able to capture an experience that many of us have, but fail to find a way to convey to others – and it’s not hard to see why she decided to include it. Some of her other picks are harder to understand. The two comics which end the collection: Identity Part One and Identity Part Two aren’t just inward, they’re complicated, especially Identity Part Two which takes as its theme our inability to ever understand our true (and shitty) nature. Here’s a sample of Brosh’s thinking on the subject:
I didn’t want the source of my problems to turn out to be “You’re just sort of naturally shittier than what you wanted, and you had to trick yourself so you wouldn’t find out and be disappointed.”
Confused? Me too. Brosh is quite capable of tying herself up in existential knots of the kind even Wittgenstein would have tired of unravelling and while this kind of overthinking says much about Brosh as a person and (possibly) why she ended up suffering from depression, this is sadness without the charm. A book dedicated to these knotty issues would have been fine. A book which starts out in the open fields of life’s little mix ups and finishes deep in the dark woods (literally) of self-deception lacks the consistency that would have made it really enjoyable.
Brosh’s next book, Solutions and Other Problems comes out in October of this year. I’d actually like her to concentrate on the darker stuff, because I think this is where her gift actually lies – not in the mishaps with pets department, but in the exploration of the murky crevices of human behaviour. The front cover features a reptile climbing up a curtain while Simple Dog watches in confusion, so I might be in for a disappointment. We’ll see.