(Conor Stechschulte; Breakdown Press)
Daniel Elkin: Sometimes you come across a work by an artist that completely ensnares you. Their work lingers long after you experience it, suffusing your day-to-day in subtle ways, causing you to look at the world with a new sensibility, askance and askew.
Conor Stechschulte is such an artist. Last year, his debut graphic novel, The Amateurs, was, for lack of a better term, monumental. I had a purely visceral reaction to it that required some deep thoughtful unpacking to make sense of. In the end, I chose it as my favorite book published last year.
Even now, The Amateurs continues to linger in my conceptions, and I remain a vocal advocate for the work of Conor Stechschulte.
That being said, a few months ago I found out that London based Breakdown Press had published part one of Stechschulte’s “ambitious series” called Generous Bosom, which Breakdown calls “an erotic psychological thriller about the rain-soaked night a stranded motorist is forced to spend with a strange, isolated couple.”
And it’s that. This is a simple encapsulation of the narrative of the book. But, like The Amateurs, it’s also something more. And it’s in that “something” that continues to churn in my noggin.
I’ve been sitting with this book for months now, knowing I needed to write about it in order to process it in some manner, yet every time I tried to put words to my reaction I found myself flummoxed by an inability to say anything at all. The crux of the issue? There’re no words for vague notions of partial ideas ill-formed in the ether.
See, there’s a thickness to every aspect of this book, as if gravity itself is exerting some different type of influence on these pages. There’s a disturbing weight to it, as if it were a singularity unto itself, composed, metaphorically, of an infinite density.
And this underlying heaviness confounds me, reduces me to babble and fills my head with colors and patterns, not words.
For some reason I want to call this The Risograph Effect. Not just because Generous Bosom is Risograph printed, but because somehow the process of Risograph printing echoes the difficulties I am having reviewing this book.
Why Risograph? Well, our good friends at Wikipedia talk about the Risograph process thusly:
“The original is scanned through the machine and a master is created, by means of tiny heat spots on a thermal plate burning voids (corresponding to image areas) in a master sheet. This master is then wrapped around a drum and ink is forced through the voids in the master.”
Think of something aesthetically profound as the thermal plate. Think of your response to it as the ink. That response, being forced through the voids in the plate as it is, does not make for a lucid response. Something else ends up happening and a writer is left with little other than writing about his or her inability to write anything at all.
Joyce Carol Oates once said, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” With Generous Bosom, though, because of its pull, I’m trapped in this Risograph Effect. Perhaps, Sacks, you can force the ink through the void so it resembles actual words to which I can respond. Hopefully that response makes sense. Surely then I can talk about this book.
Jason Sacks: What a beautiful analogy, Elkin. The Risograph Effect, produced by voids in the master. That perfectly fits this book in so many ways
As you say, Generous Bosom resonates in ways that are disturbing. There’s a weight to this story that comes from a psychological complexity and specific reality of its characters that is thoroughly grounded in a quiet, squalid place of deep loss and profound isolation. There’re odd implications of magic and intent in the middle of this story, and I hope we get into that later on in our discussion. But for me the real power of this book comes from how so much of it is about life’s major and minor misses, about how things don’t go as planned.
All the characters at the center of this book have major misses in their lives. Glen, our narrator, seems to drift through his life. Cyndi has been lost since high school, when she impulsively fell in love with her teacher and lost her childhood and her adulthood in one fell swoop. And finally Art, the teacher who had his life broken by the experience and struggles with deep depression and an intense sense of loss. These people are all isolated: from each other, from their larger society, and even from themselves. They are broken in a fundamental way and this book chronicles that broken state in a way that honors the characters as complex people.
At the center of this book is the extended sex scene, which is as real as any sex scene I’ve ever seen in any media. After a long, rather painful and awkward conversation about trust, the two characters decide they want to break their “cold spell” by having sex. For a moment, it all goes great. There’s a great attraction between man and woman, clothes come off quickly, and they seem to be in sync. As readers, we’re conditioned to expect that we’re going to see a perfect coupling between these two people.
But Stechschulte doesn’t work that way, and the drama he tells in this story doesn’t follow a predictable path. Instead it proceeds the way it might in real life. He gets hard, then soft; she gets wet then dries. They try different positions and different techniques but they just can’t connect physically. Stechschulte dwells on this missed coupling, and this extended scene goes from being exciting to painful. We start to feel the depression falling upon these two people, feel that they can’t escape from their real world problems with a furtive sexual encounter.
They can’t escape themselves. Their lives are a void and the ink won’t pass through it, no matter how they try to force it. These are complex people, broken people, and their lives forbid a lucid response.
Elkin: Well said, Sacks. They can’t escape themselves, can they? In one way, each character is fully stuck because of who they are. But I think there’s also layer of duplicity to every interaction in this book. It’s as if everyone is also wearing a mask, has an ulterior motive, is manipulating outcomes and is purposefully providing a narrative in the quest of some hidden goal.
This is a story that has rain as one of its central motifs. It pours straight down in blue lines from the heavens to the ground. Soggy. Fecund. It only makes sense that Generous Bosom: Part One begins with a story being told. We discover the greater narrative through a particular narrator. It’s a story filtered through a person who has his own intent, a story told in a bar to an old friend who may or may not be doing “better” in the world. We are given access insomuch as Glen wants us to know.
Generous Bosom also begins with a quote from Japanese writer Abe Kobo’s essay “Poetry and Poets (Consciousness and The Unconscious),” “The night is not an invited guest but rather the air that fills this room.” This sounds poetic and full of portent, which it is when taken out of context, suffusing a certain type of reading of this comic book, filling it with expectation of one set. In his essay, though, it’s my understanding that the “night” Kobo is talking about is what he refers to as Nihilistic skepticism, “the skeptical negation of all assertions”. He’s also talking about chaos, “one that remains indifferent to individuality.” Which adds even more thickness to my thinking about this book. As an epigraph, this does little to clarify. It opens instead of narrows and adds further voids in the master.
Ah yes, the Risograph Effect.
And to add further complexity to the whole, there’re other sudden stories occurring within the frame story. Right in the very middle of the book, in bright green ink printed pages; we are introduced to Shannon who is stuffing toilet paper in her bra to add to her bosom. Then we see a teenage Cyndi at the doctor as he massages her breasts checking for “the hardening of breast tissue”. These two pages interrupt, pause the reader, just as Glen moves through the doorway from his interaction with Art into the bedroom with Cyndi. It provides a breath, but bears no relation to the rest of the book.
What is it that Stechschulte wants us to understand here? This isn’t getting any easier, is it Sacks?
Sacks: Elkin, I’m going to sidestep that question with my own prejudice on this topic: authorial intent doesn’t matter. It’s the reader’s interpretation that really matters. And from that standpoint Generous Bosom gives the reader a lot to consider in this most Risograph of books.
The overwhelming sense that a reader gets from this book is the idea of isolation, of people and places being fundamentally apart from each other. The cover shows a house, small and lonely towards the bottom of the image, with the rain from an overwhelming sky falling upon the house like a brooding specter. Set against a gloomy green sky, with an accent of a fall golden orange, there’s a pervasive feeling of the house being apart from society.
Flipping to the title page, we’re shown a bed and window lonely against a sea of white. Again, things feel isolated and lonely, the incongruous sadness of the image accented by the small wheel on one corner of the bed, as if the bed’s placement is ephemeral.
Again and again, characters appear to be together with each other here but also apart from each other. Notice how much of this book is told in dialogue but how few times Stechschulte shows people looking each other in the eye. More often, a conversation puts each character in their own panel, literally inside their own box looking at their counterpart who is in their own box.
It’s mainly in the sex scene where Stechschulte has his characters make meaningful eye contact, but that’s the scene where nothing seems to quite go right. It’s as if the sincerity and human connection of that moment is sublimated by the duplicitous approach of the characters. Their manifold flaws result in a missed connection despite the sincerity. Cyndi and Glen want to connect but they can’t get their bodies to obey their brains in the way that they want them to. And though all of us in middle age can say that we’ve been in situations where our bodies have failed us, there’s a profound sadness to this missed connection that implies a deeper plan foiled.
You ask what Stechschulte wants us to understand. I submit to you that one of his themes is that loneliness is the air that Abe Kobo describes in his quote.
Elkin: Authorial intent doesn’t matter? You’re wearing your big boy pants now, Sacks, and stomping hard on the terra.
Okay, let’s put authorial intent aside. Let’s drop Stechschulte out of the equation and turn to the pages of Generous Bosom. I, too, believe that a work of art can speak for itself, that if an audience sees some thematic or symbolic moment in the work, then it’s there, regardless of what the artist’s intentions may have been. The work is communicating by itself.
But what is Generous Bosom communicating? Is it really isolation and that visceral, stomach- tightening desire to connect with others? Is this really some sort of parable regarding the social animal? Or, as I said before, is there something more nefarious at play here?
I think the ending of this book speaks to that. Actually, it shouts it. I’m not going to play the spoiler-monkey and reveal what happens, but it certainly points to plans, machinations and ill intent.
And is Glen any different? He plays the hapless good fella, but isn’t he kissing and telling? Isn’t he the one through whom we hear this story. It’s a “fuck story”, after all – one man telling another man about his “conquest”. Is Glen really a sympathetic character? The more you think about him and his motivations, the more skeevy he becomes.
Instead of that admonition to “only connect”, Generous Bosom seems to be saying that all our interactions derive from selfish motivations – that we use the people in our lives to further our own. The fact that there’re consequences to this doesn’t stop us from doing it, rather those consequences are what we end up calling “life”.
Maybe this is why I’ve had so many problems writing about this book. Maybe I prefer to watch the shadows dance on the cave wall. Maybe this generous bosom does not seek to give life through its lactation, but rather it’s a murdering minister that turns this milk for gall.
Sacks: I refuse to see myself in the people shown in this comic. I can appreciate them and try to understand them, and perhaps see some aspects of my personality that overlap with these people, but I’m not Glen or Art or, for that matter, Cyndi. Partially that’s because these are just fictional characters on the page. But partially that’s also because Stechschulte does such a marvelous job of making these characters feel very real and specific. They feel three-dimensional because of their flaws, of their kiss-and-tell (and exaggerate) and manipulation and deep sexual longing. They feel three-dimensional because of the lack of sympathy that we often feel for them – as we do our friends and, often, ourselves.
The thing is I don’t think that Stechschulte is admonishing us to “only connect”. It would be completely incongruous with the intent of a book like this to leave readers with a shallow admonition like that, especially since these characters never really connect with each other.
Yeah, the ending (and the whole business with the nails in the road and the rainstorm) places this book in a different light than my interpretation. This may be one of those cases where Act Two places everything we’ve seen in Act One in a completely different light. But to me the core of this bewitching book is connections missed. It’s in the way that we manipulate others – and often ourselves – to get what we want. It’s in the lies we tell, the moves we make, the stories we convey, which only sometimes overlap with objective reality.
And maybe I do see Plato’s shadows at play and see my own shape in those shadows. This generous bosom has the milk of human complexity.
Elkin: You’re right, Sacks. This is indeed only Act One. Breakdown Press tells us that “this is the first in an ambitious series, several years in the making” so we should really be looking at this book as set-up, not an entirety in itself.
With such heft, such portent in just this first installment, needless to say I’m already standing in line for Book Two. Regardless of how hard it’s raining. Regardless of how dark the night has become. No matter what comes next being forced through the voids in the plate.