“A curious, semi-fictional memoir” – Passing for Human by Liana Finck

New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck’s second book, Passing for Human, is, we imagine, somewhat autobiographical. Without, hopefully, being too reductive, it’s about a young woman (Leola) who is writing a book about her parents and, gnawed at by literal rats of self doubt, she finds herself starting over and starting over, viewing her childhood and adolescence through a number of different prisms.

Now: the first thing you should know before you pick up Passing for Human, is that Finck’s art is (for the most part) somewhat scratchy, somewhat rudimentary, somewhat sketchy. There are interstitial title pages that are colourful and a couple of sections where colour or its absence is used to interesting effect but the book is mostly black and white. (My eldest daughter glimpsed the book as I was reading it and said it reminded her of Fluffy, Simone Lia’s book, and there is some truth in the comparison, although Finck’s art and narrative are both shakier, more anxious, than Lia’s).

Leola is, pretty much from the get-go, somewhat delicate. After what may be a date with a somewhat noncommittal fella (who we eventually learn is another comics artist) she plunges into a black pit of despair in which it is revealed that Leola lost her shadow and, perhaps, by drawing, the shadow will come back. The shadow, its loss, what the shadow does, how it relates to the shadow of Leola’s mum and grandma – this, perhaps more than anything else, is the ‘story’ of Passing for Human.

We spend some time with her mum (her parents met at summer camp when they were 15 but they lost touch and, during an abusive relationship, she takes her husband’s knife – all bad men keep knives beneath their pillows – and uses it to free her shadow which flees into the night; shadowless, Leola’s mum flees the abusive relationship and the country and finds work studying to be an architect; deterred at work from designing the buildings she’d like to build, she undertakes projects in her own time and is, eventually, visited by her former shadow…). We spend some time with her dad (who was “secretly a huge weirdo”, who may have been slightly autistic when there was no such thing as an autistic spectrum, who grew up too found a medical practice only for his partner Samuel to die, leaving Leola’s dad a bit high and dry). Leola’s parents marriage seems to suffer, largely as a result of her dad’s mental health, and her mum, worrying about Leola’s shadow, asks her own former shadow to intercede. We spend some time with Leola as a child (in kindergarten with the nuns, slightly ostracised by the other children, in need of an imaginary friend who is “completely real”, her affection for her dog Pepper, her unhappy interactions with a mean teacher). Alongside all of this, there is a sort of alternative religious cosmology going on (the story of creation, the story of Job, God and the devil as light and shadow) that recalls Isabelle Greenberg’s Encyclopaedia of Early Earth.

Now, as I re-read the above and in spite of efforts to the contrary, I can feel my short-temperedness peeping through. Passing for Human feels to this reader like a book that requires a measure of patience, a book (we’d go as far to say) that tests patience (possibly consciously). Each of the chapters in the book is chapter one and at the end of some of those chapters, the grown Leola questions herself, her artistic process, the ways in which a person strives for a measure of creative or artistic satisfaction – and you read about her sense of her own shortcomings and you have sympathy and think, hey, you’re struggling, like we all struggle, and you’re attempting to articulate that – but unfortunately in answer to the question, will this do? we found ourselves answering, no, not really. Interestingly, though, the eldest daughter who compared Finck’s work to Simone Lia picked up the book and liked it a great deal and found that it had things to say to her. So this might sincerely be a case of one of those things that just don’t suit an older man that very definitely suit a younger woman.

Any Cop?: A curious, semi-fictional memoir that falls somewhere between the work of Simone Lia and Isobel Greenberg.

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