Sex and death — there’s just no separating them, is there? I mean, sure, one is fun and the other most assuredly isn’t, but it’s an awareness of our own mortality, and the fear of same, that elevates the sexual impulse in humans to something beyond the mere biological imperative of the animal kingdom. Rightly or wrongly — and I would argue it’s more the latter — humans view the act of producing offspring not just as a continuation of the species, but as a shot at some kind of personal immortality for themselves : a chance to prove that they existed, that they mattered, because they weren’t just passing through life, they actually left something behind.
Message for any kids who might be reading this : next time your parents try to convince you that the act of raising you is some inherently selfless or noble thing, tell ’em to fuck off — you’re doing more for them than they are for you, because you’re giving them a legacy. Without you, they’d actually have to achieve something lasting by dint of their own efforts. Which probably makes me sound intrinsically anti-parent, I suppose, but this isn’t about what I believe — rather, it’s about stating plainly what we all know, but seldom speak aloud : for human beings, the ultimate goal of sex is to literally escape death. But in the end, of course, there’s still no doing that.
For Eleanor, however — the protagonist in cartoonist Julia Gfrorer’s new book Vision, recently collected in a single volume by Fantagraphics after Gfrorer self-published it in serialized form — kids appear to be out of the question, as she’s something of a (forgive the term, but) spinster, her fiance having lost not only his own life in war but, by extension, hers as well. This story, you see, appears to be set in vaguely Victorian or Edwardian times and so, with no prospects for marriage or children on the horizon, Eleanor is relegated to staying in her brother’s home, where she’s assigned the thankless task of caring for his shut-in wife.
With that premise in mind, then, here’s a hypothetical question for you, dear reader : robbed of all chance at intimacy, first by death and then by circumstance, what lengths would you go to in order to find it? And who would you find it with?
Your bedroom mirror may not be your first choice, but who knows? Maybe in a pinch it would do, especially if there were someone on the other side of it, as seems to be the case with Eleanor’s. Who they are, where they are, how she can possibly get to them — these are questions Eleanor has as her “relationship” unfolds, ones that are exacerbated after she’s forced to make a choice about whether or not to have what’s surely a primitive and potentially dangerous form of ocular surgery, but they’re secondary to sheer need : for acceptance and love and connection, sure, but also to provide all of those things. With the man she was to marry gone and the children she hoped to have with him never coming to be, Eleanor’s mirror, and the voice within it, become a repository for every aspect of her love that has gone hitherto unexpressed. And while it’s plenty dangerous enough to assign all your desires and needs onto one person, foisting them all upon an inanimate object with potentially murky intentions may just be a ticket to emotional suicide.
Ah, yes — suicide. Eleanor makes a rather lackluster attempt at it in the early going here, but as things progress, we begin to wonder if there may be someone else she’d like to see dead —specifically her sister-in-law. The wretched old shrew certainly seems to be of a mind that Eleanor is slowly poisoning her, but she’s clearly not right in the head — what’s less certain, however, is whether Eleanor’s own mindset is any better. Unreliable narrators are one thing, but Gfrorer is upping the ante considerably here, given that we are likely seeing the world precisely as Eleanor does, in fact, see it herself — but that perception may very well be out of step with actual consensus reality.
Gfrorer’s cartooning, vaguely reminiscent of From Hell-era Eddie Campbell at its margins, is perfectly suited to this kind of tale, as her linework is as fragile and delicate as the health (physical and mental) of her characters — her dense cross-hatching and well-chosen placement of shading and texturing effects are primarily utilized in service of providing mood and atmosphere, while very often her figure drawing borders not quite on the insubstantial, but certainly on the ephemeral — general contours of form privileged over specific physical details to lend each person an air of mystery within a narrative already packed to the gills with precisely that. This world and its people, then, as delineated by Gfrorer, are equal parts lovely and scary, much like Eleanor’s affair with her mirror — and at the risk of sounding like a pretentious ass, the opposing emotional polarities offered by the thrill of freedom and the fear of the unknown that compel our erstwhile heroine to position herself and perform according to the voyeuristic commands of a disembodied voice are reflected perfectly as a kind of internal tension between form and function in Gfrorer’s artwork, best exemplified in her “scrawled” but undoubtedly precise line.
All of which, I suppose, brings us back to our original sex and death dichotomy — the central concern not just of this work but, in the eyes of this critic, of Gfrorer’s entire body of work. They might not be entwined in precisely the same way for Eleanor as they are for people in more, shall we say, conventional relationships, but they remain entwined regardless : after all, that mirror could just as easily be a portal to Hell as it could be to the man of her dreams and his magic castle. Or she could just be seeing —- and hearing — a distorted reflection of herself, conjured up by her profound sense of not only loss but longing. The picture is muddled, but by the time all is said and done, Julia Gfrorer’s Vision has never been more clear.
Review wrist check – Farer Universal “Stanhope” riding a Hirsch “Arne” sailcloth-effect strap in olive green.
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