My dad had secrets.
Oh, they weren't those sorts of really dark secrets that you might see on Lifetime Movie Network or something. He didn't have a second family in another state or a conviction as an axe murderer in the decade before I was born. By the time I came around, my parents had a comfortably bourgeois middle class life and no giant crises – at least not of the kind that you might conjure up as deep, dark mysteries.
But my dad did have secrets. Hard as it was for young Jason to believe, Dad had experiences before I was born – experiences running in the streets of East New York, Brooklyn, and especially experiences in the 1950s when he joined the military (my sister and I were never clear whether Dad was forced to join the military or joined of his own choice). Dad served in Germany, and was a really handsome man when he was young, so you know he got around a bit.
But much as my sister and I tried to get Dad to talk about those experiences, he steadfastly refused to talk about them until many years after my sister and I were out of the house. About a year after dad's cancer diagnosis and after the first of many rounds of chemo, my sister and I flew down to Ft. Lauderdale to force Dad to sit down and talk into a camera and talk to us about his experiences in Europe; of his girlfriends before Mom, about his freewheeling adventures, and about some of his rather wild childhood.
It turns out that Dad had secrets, but they weren't really secret. Dad wasn't covering anything up – he wasn't trying to hide his escapades from us – but he just didn't share them. There's a difference.
A very similar series of scenes happens at the center of Carol Tyler's You'll Never Know trilogy of graphic novels. Carol, who's about two decades older than me, had good reasons to talk to her dad about his experiences in Europe during World War II. And like with my dad, Carol's dad is elusive and difficult to pin down. But when the Tyler daughter gets the Tyler father to talk, all kinds of precious and wonderful – and occasionally dark – stories come out.
And if that was all that this trilogy was about, if it only explored the world of Chuck Tyler, lovingly told by his adoring daughter, that would have likely made for an interesting book. But that isn't all that You'll Never Know is about. This book is also about life in all its complexity and weirdness. This is not some neat and tidy trilogy of graphic novels. This is a set of graphic novels that are about life in all of it complexity.
I don’t trust stories that are neat and tiny. Life is seldom neat and tidy. It seldom fits into a neat, small, comfortable box.
A life is always complicated, unpredictable, full of twists and turns and the unexpected impact of unknown events. It's as much about your subjective reactions to things, the dead ends and sleepless nights and irrational irritations and daily grinds and every other little small little pressure every day that you have to deal with, as about the objective event that you're dealing with. Life is subjective, not objective, and any attempt to render life in an objective way can inevitably feel lacking.
So it follows that a memoir about a life should also be a bit messy, that it should defy efforts to simplify a life should be met with failure. That the depiction of life should be more impressionistic than objective.
You'll Never Know is a breathtaking graphic novel because Carol Tyler is honest enough to know that stories are seldom as tidy nor as dysfunctional as they seem on TV. Real life is weird and confusing and takes strange, unexpected twists and turns. Real life leads down blind alleys and is filled with strange, odd emotions and complex human relationships and a whole lot of frustration and exasperation and a kind of unending striving for comfort and peace and calm when everything seems to spin out of control in unexpected ways.
See, at its base this book is honest. It's a book about a woman honestly trying to figure out how to navigate all the complicated aspects of all of her life, from a husband looking for real romance after decades together to a daughter who doesn't handle that change well; from her aging parents who seem to be becoming different people in front of her own eyes, and from all of her own lost aspirations and dreams, sublimated into a daily grind in which sometimes the most heroic act is just lifting your own head to get out of bed.
But even while she's fighting off all the shit, Tyler is still creating an eminently relatable story that rambles and wanders in beautiful, compelling and completely honest ways. The story of Carol's trip to the National Archives with her parents in 2004 is a frustrating, long, annoying set of blind alleys, depicted with a beautiful combination of art styles, all seemingly strewn across the page in a way that thoroughly fits the story that she's presenting. The style is thoroughly protean: it takes its own shape as the story wanders and shambles, from simple cartoony figures to gorgeously rich color illustrations that could be hung in a gallery; from the lovely watercolors of a nice family moment at Christmas to a very regimented set of pages done like a journal, all fitting the mood and spirit and need of the tale that they are telling.
And all this storytelling diversity is in service of Carol finding the truth behind her father's secrets. I'm not spoiling anything by saying that the deep dark family secret is very different from the one that you might expect it to be at the beginning, but isn't that the way that life often is? The thing that we think is important often ends up being relatively insignificant. The journey will often reveal real truths.
My dad had secrets, but then again he kind of didn't have secrets. The family could always tell that whatever had happened to my dad in the 1950s, he was comfortable living in the moment and enjoying his relatively peaceful, though often quite chaotic, life. Carol Tyler's dad – and mom – also had secrets. But Carol has also learned the secret that gave my dad so much happiness. For want of a better phrase, and at the risk of embracing a cliché, You'll Never Know is about living fully in the moment, whether as painful as your husband walking out on you or as wonderful as the majesty of enjoying the World War II memorial.
It's a tremendously real story straight from the heart, told by a master cartoonist.