Stitches: A Memoir by David Small
W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009.
329 pages (hardback)
You’ll notice the cover of David Small’s graphic novel Stiches: A Memoir looks ominous. The Undead come to mind; and I don’t think that is a misrepresentation. The adults are looming, dreaded figures. Their form of caring is questionable, but they are a product of their times. (Excused? No.)
The paperback cover (l) emotes more of the rebelliousness toward the Undead; which is accurate as well. Where the adults may well represent prevailing actions and attitudes, David Small would refuse to become a product of his upbringing. So much about this novel screams his antitheses. It is in the quiet, the spare dialogue, the subtle hand in each character’s posture, the angles, the lighting, the ink washes. It is easy to see how this novel has excited so many in the comic world.
***David Small, as a child, may have used Art to disappear. As an adult he using Art to reappear; to confront the demons and to refuse any sense to the natural order of things. He would use every voice he owns.
Depicting this coming-of-age story with dazzling, kaleidoscopic images that turn nightmare into fairy tale, Small tells us of his journey from sickly child to cancer patient, to the troubled teen whose risky decision to run away from home at sixteen-with nothing more than the dream of becoming an artist-will resonate as the ultimate survival statement. A silent movie masquerading as a book, Stitches renders a broken world suddenly seamless and beautiful again. (from one of the many summaries/synopsis, here.
The story would be disturbing in its own right. A child’s imagination alongside a child’s perceptive gaze. But the Art work… I appreciated the dark tone of Small’s Memoir without his using copious amounts of black ink. Where Charles Burn’s Black Hole uses the weight of the ink to insure atmospheric tones, Small has imbued every page with a more delicate hand. Just the same, I don’t believe Small is trying to fool the reader with a sense of normalcy where terror lies beneath it. He spends frames entering the locale of his childhood, vacant nighttime studies, before drawing us through the front door of the house, its means of approach a silent and uncomfortable experience.
David is the child, rendered small and tormented, drawn with a beautiful delicate face. The grown-ups are adults, they are near on haggard–except for Small’s crush. And whatever their reasons for being the way they are (prevalent medical standards of behavior, lifestyles, or sexual repression), what does it matter to a child who is vulnerable to their decision-making?
I would read and forget Stitches was a Memoir–a coping mechanism, I’m sure–because when I would remember… That scar so roughly stitched together is not merely figurative.
It seems the only Memoirs I read are in graphic novels. As an otherwise non-Memoir reader, I recommend the comic form to other non-Memoir readers.
Small’s takes on a creative non-fiction form (and no, not just because it is drawn). It reminds me a bit of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, but more spare, and leaner (fewer chapters or mini-stories). He “tells” less and “shows” more. He isn’t educating, he is relating a story..a tale of near escape, of hope. Stitches quiet patient form conjured for me Jeff Lemire and his Essex County, Volume 1: Tales from the Farm; though Small’s lines are smoother and finer.
An image may be difficult to look at, it isn’t because the drawing isn’t quite lovely. At times the desire to look away isn’t to be blamed on the explicit nature of the frame (like the one above). Just to look at the first panel I provided. His mother’s hand silencing him. Cover that left side to where you only see the mother. In that one portion alone there is menacing energy; angled away and forward, urgent; angular features, set jaw, the eyebrow… The image on the hardback’s cover has me fairly cowering.
I wasn’t sure what to do with this novel when I finished it. It is creepy and sad, and angering. Many of the summaries accompanying this book are bit misleading; Small’s descent into Hell begins much earlier than adolescence. But Hope is found in the determination and the small acts of rebellion, until Small is finally able to escape. Still his parent’s role, their affect, lingers. This is where the novel feels unflinchingly honest (the summaries have that right). I’m not sure we are supposed to come to terms with the parents. I think the reader is to dwell on the fact that Small escaped, and all that rebellious determination has proved useful. He doesn’t have to follow along. He can be different, live differently. He can’t be silenced.