Books B-Side My Bed
By Summer Broyhill
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened
I may be the last person on earth to have read this book (just like I will be the last person on earth to successfully use the word “meme” in a sentence), but if by some chance I am not the last person and YOU are the last person, then I know I have done a public service by recommending it to you. And anyway, one can’t talk about refugees and feminism every month.
When Allie Brosh, popular writer, illustrator, and internet meme-mother (Did I do it? Did I use “meme”?), published selections from her blog “Hyperbole and A Half” as a book in October 2013, the reception was ecstatic. Fans of her work had been heralding her as a crude-comic genius for years, but now she was profiled on Goodreads, NPR, and even Bill Gates’ blog as a success story and all-around person-to-watch. Brosh has created a guerilla genre by popping unexpectedly into and out of a thousand different artistic identities and using every storytelling resource at her disposal to make her point. I struggled with how to categorize her book on my own bookshelves: Was it comedy, memoir, graphic novel, a blend of both unreliable and reliable journalism, incisive social commentary, philosophy, self-help, or magical realism? This may be explained in part by Brosh’s synesthesia, a trait she shares with Vladimir Nabakov, Wassily Kandinsky, Duke Ellington, and Pharell Williams, among others. Perhaps her own ability to experience multiple-sensory stimulation explains why she can draw such clear cognitive lines between pictures and thoughts, and why her words can feel as emotionally evocative as her stick figures feel dynamic and nuanced.
Brosh’s last post on her blog is also dated October 2013, and though a sequel to her book has been due out since 2014, it’s publish date has been postponed indefinitely and Brosh appears to have gone internet-silent. It is here that I would like to point out that I am referring to Brosh as “Brosh” because I know her as an author and I’m old-school like that, but just about any online-devotee of her work will unabashedly refer to her as “Allie”, will reach out to her directly via facebook, twitter, or the comments section of her blog, and will legitimately expect a personal response. And up until about 2014 it seems that that expectation was usually met. Brosh’s interaction with fans whom she has never met but who nevertheless seem to view her as their friend, confidante, and/or unsolicited advice repository seems to have been a consuming creative and business endeavor all its own, and when I investigate these interactions for clues as to why she bowed out of her online-star existence, the sheer volume is enough to make ME want to take a nap just thinking about what her time/energy commitment must have been keeping up with it all. And what, I wonder, was the opportunity cost therein? How much of a real, face-to-face, feeling-the-sun-on-your-neck life can you have if all of your time is spent creating blog-comics and then coaching people through their emotional responses to your blog-comics? What ever happened to putting art out there into the ether and letting people make of it what they will, because art is personal and one’s response to art is personal and anyway I’ve always seen creative projects as metaphorical children: you nurture them, care for them, obsess over them, and then one day you just have to be a good mother and let them go. Bye-bye, baby! I’ve given you all I can and now you can make it on your own!
Brosh has taken breaks before. In October 2011 (What is the significance of October, I wonder?), Brosh published her most acclaimed blog to date called “Adventures in Depression”, which ended with the words, “And that's how my depression got so horrible that it actually broke through to the other side and became a sort of fear-proof exoskeleton.” Followed by a picture of a maniacally depressed Brosh biking furiously and hands-free towards God-knows-what while exclaiming “Nothing can do anything to me.” So fans were justifiably worried when they heard nothing more from Brosh for over a YEAR.
And then in May of 2013 Brosh affirmed that she was alive and still creating with her “Depression Part Two”, which made me laugh and weep with about equal ferocity (READ IT. The fish metaphor alone is probably the poetic achievement of the century). In her preamble to the post, she makes a fairly succinct statement of purpose for her entire enterprise by asserting, “there are flinch-y, uncomfortable things everywhere. Seeing them is inevitable. If we can laugh about some of them, maybe they'll be less scary to look at.”
Brosh brings a lot of perspective to bear on mundane topics as well as cosmic queries. It’s like she is in possession of a telescope that can zoom out to the multiverse and zoom back in to her own mind with equal facility. In thinking about depression, she contrasts the evolution of a single-celled organism endowed with an innate need for survival with her own feelings of stagnation and hopelessness
While considering the problem of motivation, she has her alter-ego undergo mitosis so that in parallel panels her moral high-ground-self can fruitlessly admonish her sloth-like-demon-of-torpor self. She takes a letter she wrote to her future self at age ten and excoriates her own nascent conceptions of time and space. But you can imagine how her vibrant artistic and emotional understanding of the world could become a burden.
A therapist once told me I might be too smart to ever be happy (which probably tells you most of what you need to know about why I don’t believe in therapy). What she said was a vast oversimplification which, when taken at face value, really begged the question: if people of relatively middling intelligence like me are doomed to be unhappy, what sort of hell are truly intelligent people going through? Are intelligence and happiness always inversely proportional, like parallel lines speeding in opposite directions, or are they on some kind of circular continuum where they might eventually meet? Does a threshold of intelligence exist below which (if you are somewhat smart) you are condemned to be miserable but above which (if you are exceptionally smart) you have a roughly 50/50 chance of becoming either an alcoholic or a Buddha?
Anyway. I think what she meant was that I was too apt to see every event of any size in life as a precipitating event, one where all the logical conclusions raced through my mind in an instant like spider-vines and therefore no action seemed worth taking because I already felt I could logically predict every possible outcome. Which is a quality I think Brosh and I may share. And I question whether the capacity to convey all that logical activity constitutes a release valve (Bye-bye, Baby!) or an obsession (not dissimilar to an obsession with cake.
By the end of the “Hyperbole” book I felt pretty personally wounded by how hard Brosh was on herself. She closes with two chapters on Identity wherin she mostly contrasts her good intentions and her need to see herself as a good/nice/even exceptional person with the relative unremarkableness of her own efforts at goodness/exceptionalness. When she makes relentless fun of herself for expending moderate effort to throw litter away and then feeling like she’s a veritable Captain Planet, I couldn’t help but see her as her own dopamine-denier. I saw so much of myself in that self-criticism, but also felt enough rational perspective to dissent. How can the best in you ever grow from a Sapling of Predisposition to a Redwood of Manifestation if the worst in you is constantly belittling it? Just because any small thing I do is never going to measure up to the most anyone has EVER done doesn’t justify dismissing myself as a waste of skin.
And if I were Allie Brosh, that would be the title of my closing panel. And that panel would have rainbows and balloons and flying unicorns wreathing a stick-figure, cape-clad-me. But in the case of my blog, you’ll just have to imagine it. Or else I’ll have to create my own genre-confounding artform to convey it.
Summer Broyhill is an actress, musician, dancer, scholar of human behavior, and devotee of the spirit of relentless inquiry. She lives with her husband in a book hoarder’s castle in Queens. You can see more of her reading list here.
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