Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Infinite Wait by Julia Wertz: bio, books and booze

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I have a complicated and knotty relationship with auto-bio comics, beset by apprehension and cynicism. There’s no doubt the genre produces some interesting material- Art Spiegelman, Seth, Robert Crumb, to name but a few, but more recently I’ve found a lot of it to be, quite frankly, boring. The popular sad-boy view where nothing much happens, the narrator questions his existence in a supposedly deep and meaningful manner, where banal routine events and turns are things into which the reader is expected to imbue STUFF.
It’s a viewpoint I’m much fatigued of, and one that I’ve observed to be pretty prevalent in male creators who go the introspective self-analysis route- there’s an emphasis on the seriousness of it all, perhaps because men are traditionally not expected to be tapped in to their emotions and feelings, so when they explore that plateau  there’s a need to present them in a valid way. Women, on the other hand, as we all know, are hysterical, wild, emotional wrecks, giving them -rather ironically- a greater freedom of expression and approach.
The boring, uneventful auto-bio comic reminds me of the trend (at least here in the UK) of ‘celebrity’ memoirs by pop stars/sports wonder kid foetuses- a 250 page book ‘written’ by a  17 year old on his experiences of kicking a ball around. Most of us, whilst happy with our lives, recognise that quite naturally, it’s of most interest to ourselves. Many creators recognise this too. So to overcome the boringness, there’s the incorporation of fictional elements and exaggeration for greater dramatic and humorous effect. That mediation can imbalance the text. Thus the auto-bio comic becomes a strange mixture of truth and fiction, leading to a remove, a dilution of essence, a loss of the honesty in the work. Not truth, necessarily  but honesty.
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Truth is a concept I’m incredibly wary of, referring as it does to an actuality or universal consensus. What I do expect from auto-bio work is some form of honesty, which, as a more subjective notion, is trickier.  My criticism isn’t that often auto-bio comics don’t ring true, but that they seem to lack any kind of honesty. That’s not an accusation that you can level at Julia Wertz.
Whilst the ideals of truth and honesty are upheld as values to which we should all aspire, in actuality people are comfortable only with a certain level of honesty, which when surpassed becomes embarrassing and even impolite. Conversely, we’re pleased when we think we’ve been honest with ourselves, usually because it’s the facing or acknowledging of something unflattering, unattractive or negative. This small act of pseudo acceptance is enough to makes us feel inordinately pleased, giving a sense of superficial achievement that is deceptive in itself.
We are all, I think, prone or able to dissect other people in a scathing and thorough fashion, but find it difficult to reconcile truths about ourselves.This where Julia Wertz comes in. With an internal gaze that’s unflinching and unforgiving, Wertz  blows all comers out of the water. Her honesty is searing, caustic, strengthening and yet not without fear. Her truths are coated in an equally zingy humour, a cloak that makes them less scary and more manageable. Wertz’s honesty is the ultimate defense mechanism, you cant criticize her or say shit about her, because she’s going to get in there first and do it better than you.
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There’s a lot of material in The Infinite Wait, enough to easily make 3 separate books; a point Wertz muses briefly on, but hey you get 226 pages of fantastic comicking so who’s complaining? Wait comprises of 3 stories, one which deals with Wertz’s lupus, one with her drinking and a short and lovely ode to libraries and books to close out.
Wertz’s documenting of her relationship with drink is portrayed terrifically. It’s a story of her life, of which drinking is a part. There’s no sympathy-baiting scene after scene  ’hey life crapped on me repeatedly which led me to become an alcoholic’ or repeated expositionary incidents of her staggering around caterwauling the streets at night, but instead she simply shows us her life and in between you get hints of a problem developing. Wertz too recognises it pretty early, but continues to drink anyway. Sometimes she doesn’t see it as much of a problem, sometimes she thinks she can handle it, sometimes she feels like the lowest of low.  The combination of as yet undiagnosed lupus and lack of direction and purpose do little to help.
Wertz appears to be a chronic hard-worker, needing to be in employment, needing to be doing something, needing to be tired at the end of the day with the blank, thoughtless release that provides. The party line is that acceptance of a problem is the first step to overcoming it, but Wertz accepts and acknowledges her problem with alcohol early on- and in Wertz-like fashion it’s a deflection, a covering of sorts- like saying ‘I know I’m a bitch, but I genuinely think…,’ while the first statement implies insight, the second cancels it out in a way. It’s not easy reading by any means; it’s relentless and  the pain lupus leaves her in is palpable, but it’s genuinely rewarding and entertaining. It’s funny and engaging, cringe-worthy and embarrassing, relate-able and interesting, painful to the point of self-flagellation, and very, very honest.
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A quick and final mention for the library/books story that closes out the book, all the more surprising for it’s change of subject and tone, and also because it’s not what you expect after having been emotionally tumble dried for the past hour or so. If you have been a child of libraries and books, you will read this with a warm familiarity and love, the recognition of vast, wonderful worlds encased within unassuming pages of paper- that feeling of anticipation and discovery is conveyed beautifully here. I would encourage you to buy The Infinite Wait, it’s a book that is so much, and does so much, and one that I believe will manage to surprise you even after having read a 1000 word review on it.

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