Over the years, graphic novels have become something more than solely comic book fantasy, establishing a reputation as a platform for a multitude of serious issues. Although perhaps not the first, Art Spiegelman’s Maus played a big role in beginning this trend. Spiegelman broached the topic of the Holocaust with his seminal text. Ever since, the graphic novel has been fair game for explorations of all sorts of trauma. Leavitt’s Tangles appears to have all the ingredients to slip nicely into the midst of this modern tradition. It’s an autobiographical work. It deals with personal suffering that has a resonance throughout society. It ventures into grounds often cowered away from, and it does all this with a mixture of deft sensitivity and wit. As part of its genre, the premise is great.
Leavitt’s account deals with her changing relationship with her mother. A once vibrant individual, the mother becomes a cause of concern for the family after her memory fades and she begins to struggle with simple tasks such as opening a sliding door or packing a suitcase. Once she is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the reader is presented with an account of her downward spiral into the realms of dementia. We are dealing with truly tragic circumstances here, and many readers will recognise these events from their own life. I’m sure, with those readers at least, this work will strike a chord. As you would expect, there are some moments in the work that tug on the tear ducts. Particularly affecting are the little interludes in the narrative, when snippets of the mother’s demented utterances are featured. These include such gems as ‘Something’s gonna happen to it. Nice or not nice, nicely or lovely’, ‘Oh broccoli, who are simple’, and ‘Honey, can I open your voice?’ These are poignant moments because the reader sees the absurdity, the humour, and the deep sadness of such babble. It is something that every reader fears witnessing in their own lives.
Unfortunately, though, despite the odd tear-jerking moment, the potential that exists in the premise is not met. Leavitt, for whatever reason, doesn’t quite get underneath the skin of this material. There is something lacking, a sense of disappointment that someone who wanted to tell the world about life as a dementia sufferer’s daughter actually fails to do so. Although the decision to stick with sparse and simple prose seems justified at times, it also leaves the story teetering on the edge of report-esque writing. In parts of the narrative we are just told the actions of the mother from minute to minute. We are told how she walks, when she cries, when she has bathroom issues, and the accompanying illustrations show these incidents without really illuminating the prose. At almost no point do the pictures add anything significant to the words. And because Leavitt is in a unique position as a storyteller here, it seems a real shame that she never delves deeper into how this felt for her, as a daughter who had to watch her mother disappear. Her emotional reactions are so obvious. She misses her mother. She’s sad. She’s angry. Okay. You would be all those things, but there must be something more, something deeper, something original and unique.
The biggest disappointment of Tangles was that, at the end of reading, I didn’t feel as if I knew anything that I didn’t know before. With Maus, I learnt a lot about a subject that I had already studied and was already fascinated by. After reading Marjane Satapri’s Persepolis, I felt like I’d been entertained and taken a history lesson at the same time. Both of these writers used the graphic novel’s form and their unique positions to create original and fascinating portrayals of the traumatic events that affected their lives. Leavitt, sadly, fails to do so.
Tangles told me that people with Alzheimer’s forget things. That they begin to lose focus and their personality slowly ebbs away. It told me that going to the toilet becomes difficult for them and that they often wander off and can get lost. I read about how it’s hard for the family and how the sufferer will eventually become too difficult for people to look after alone. This is all extremely sad, and I felt for the family all the way through. But I knew all this already. And if I didn’t, I could’ve found it out on Wikipedia. I’d have rather learnt something exact about how it affected our author. Leavitt had the chance to show how this tragedy affects families, individuals, and most of all children of those with the illness. But the report-like narrative, and the reluctance to really delve into the darkest moments of the sadness, leaves the reader with the feeling that an opportunity for something groundbreaking has been missed.
Any Cop?: Leavitt mentions in the narrative that she took creative writing classes when she decided she wanted to write this story. Two contrasting pieces of advice often proliferate in such an environment. ‘Write what you know’ and ‘watch out for stories that are based on the truth’. Leavitt seems to have listened to the first nugget and ignored the second. The problem with Tangles is that its author often seems reluctant to break the surface and dramatise the painful truths about her family. The result is a story that tells people what they already know about Alzheimer’s, providing few shocks or moments of magic along the way. Read it for the few moments that do break these boundaries and show the reader what an absurd and saddening illness this is. Just don’t expecting to come away knowing anything more than you already do.