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Underwhelmed

True Stories

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 2/6/2002

I approached the brilliant, brutal work of cartoonist Phoebe Gloeckner with an uncomfortable but familiar ambivalence. Hers is the kind of art that makes me wonder whether nearly every young woman artist has only one basic story to tell: the one about her pain-engulfed passage--possibly forced and most likely way too early--into adult sexuality.

In my early 20s, I spent a lot of time in creative-writing workshops, and it seemed to me that more than half the women in those classes were writing detailed stories about rape or incest, or humiliating first trips to the gynecologist, or even just the semi-covert sexual politics of the elementary-school playground. I remember feeling simultaneously amazed and sickened by all these episodes of female trauma, by the way they could grab a class's attention faster than any other type of story no matter how inherently compelling or well written.

I don't mean to belittle these women's personal experiences, but I could see that many of these young authors implicitly understood the power of this kind of narrative, implicitly knew that they could force an entire room of nervous, neurotic, self-involved budding writers to pay close attention to them, especially if they'd been given the chance to read their explicit confessionals out loud to the class. There were few with the actual literary gifts of, say, Mary Gaitskill, whose first collection of stories, Bad Behavior, set a qualitative benchmark for the late-'80s literature of female degradation. But quality rarely mattered. To have been violated and to have lived to tell the tale was generally enough to garner the audience's perverse adulation.

Although I didn't recognize it clearly enough at the time, I now look back and remember, with some small horror, that I too became haunted by this zeitgeist. I started out wanting to write about so many things--some but certainly not all of them autobiographical, some but certainly not all of them about my own difficult adolescence. And yet the lure of seeming surefire success was too powerful, and I spent many years in graduate school mining my own intimate traumas in the secret hope of gaining minor-league literary fame and fortune à la Gaitskill.

I remember composing a story about a wistfully remembered, drunken one-night stand that somehow--through the class-comment/revision process--got ratcheted up to read like a date rape. The end result was nothing like the "real story" that had inspired it; I had utterly failed in conveying the complex and ambivalent things I'd wanted to say about my state of mind at the time of the actual event. But the revised piece was deemed a workshop success. I read it to a barroom full of fellow students, who cheered, whistled, and applauded at the end. Sure, it was "fiction," but I'm certain most of my audience assumed I was telling a true story. Basking in the mob's momentary love, I conveniently ignored my own knowledge of the story's essential falsehood.

Which gets me back to Phoebe Gloeckner, an artist I read about last August in The New York Times Magazine. In a long profile, Gloeckner was hailed as "arguably the brightest light among a small cadre of semiautobiographical cartoonists who are creating some of the edgiest work about young women's lives in any medium."

An occasional reader of graphic novels, I was instantly intrigued, although I flinched at the description of Gloeckner's work as "edgy." Back in grad school, "edgy" was one of the highest accolades you could offer a piece of writing, along with "transgressive"--and the works that earned those labels were almost always about female sexual trauma. But I shunted aside those mixed memories from my own early writing days, purchased Gloeckner's first book, A Child's Life and Other Stories, and read it in one sitting. It's a devastatingly beautiful piece of art--"at once traumatic and picaresque," as the Times describes it--about a particularly ugly girlhood among males (stepfathers, etc.) who take advantage and females (alcoholic mother, manipulative drug-addict friends, etc.) who betray. Gloeckner's alter ego, Minnie, is angry, observant, fearful, proud, insecure, starved for love, curiously lustful, and much too eager to please, in the way of so many young girls.

Gloeckner's drawings are explicit, and there are some panels so graphic that they effectively turn the reader into a voyeur on the author's remembered violations. And yet, I do not feel the same kind of cynicism or discomfort about Gloeckner's work that I felt about so much similar material I had encountered 10 years ago. There's a plain honesty here, a refreshing lack of theatricality--quite different from the extreme self-consciousness that pervaded the work of those young female writers I knew, myself included.

Maybe it has something to do with the medium. Even in the age of Oprah, a cartoonist like Gloeckner can never hope to achieve the kind of fame that can come to novelists or memoirists who exploit their own "transgressive" and "edgy" stories. Artistic obscurity provides protection for the more subtle, difficult nuances of autobiographical stories that can't be reduced to the unidirectional narrative of victimization and recovery. I wish Gloeckner the huge and adoring audience she deserves--but then again, I don't.

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