The webcomics blog about webcomics

Fleen Book Corner: Are You Listening?

I wrote this yesterday, and a bit more besides:

There is a moment when I open a Tillie Walden book when I pause, knowing that there’s a very high chance that what I’m about to read will take up residence in my brain for an extended period of time until I am changed by the experience.

I pause not because I am reluctant, but because I’ll never again have that moment of anticipation when I have an entire new Tillie Walden story to look forward to.

For those of you who wish no spoilers, even those of the most oblique nature, take that as the review and get to a bookstore. Settle in in the place and conditions that you like to read best, and take your time. If you want a bit more, read on.

Are You Listening? is an extended two-character conversation set against an untrustworthy landscape and in that way it is like I Love This Part.

It is also about figuring out what it means to be a gay woman in Texas and in that way it is like Spinning.

It is also also about what happens when family turns toxic and has a cat and in that way it is like The End Of Summer.

It is furthermore also a story with science fiction elements that act as backdrop¹ without being an explicitly SF story and in that way it is like On A Sunbeam.

It is penultimately also an exploration of the selves we build and in that way it is like A City Inside.

It is finally also like none of those stories.

Are You Listening? is for a time ordinary, and for a time slightly odd around the edges, before becoming for a time full on hallucinatory — presaged by a pencil that refuses to continue on a map — possibly a break from reality and possibly exactly what it seems. If it were purely presented in words, it would be a classic of magical realism, probably in Spanish. If it were purely presented in visuals, it would be an endlessly transmuting Escher dream².

It is, on its own terms, the culmination of several lifetimes worth of skill at panel and story composition that have somehow been crammed into less than seven years. It is the logical endpoint of thousands of pages of masterwork level comics creation that could serve as the capstone of a half-century long career. Given how Tillie Walden threw herself into skating to the exclusion of all else for ten years or so before shifting to comics, it might well be the capstone of her comics career if she decides it’s time to shift again. It would be a tragedy to have no more comics from Walden, except for the fact that whichever next artistic endeavour she threw herself into would surely be as assured and captivating as this one. As she discovers herself, she just becomes more powerful.

It is the story of Bea and Lou, two women driving through West Texas (as in the geographic direction) searching for West, Texas (as in the specific city, which has had some hard times of late) through an endless landscape that doesn’t want to cooperate. It is the Room Of Requirement from Hogwarts³ writ large, a place becoming aware in response to the people that occupy it. It starts with reference to a diner that might not be there, or how there have been a lot of lakes coming through lately. And when you bring hurt and confusion with you, well:

West Texas is the perfect blend of giant and tiny. The land, the sky … it’s got its own mind. Its own heart.

When something horrible happens, or something amazing … really, anything big, it makes you feel like mountains could shatter, or the sky could disappear … you know what I’m talking about?

Well, most places, mountains stay put. Sky stays in one piece. Kind of cruel, really.

But here, everything is listening.

Are You Listening? is a question that Lou asks Bea in a moment of desperate grasping for safety; it’s a question that hangs over both of them and their respective hurts and losses. It’s a paraphrase of what they ask themselves, and the ghosts and memories they carry with them, and it’s implicit in the manner of the wise woman of West, Texas who Knows Things as she tells Bea some of what’s going on … and what will go on in the future. It’s the question that the book asks the reader, and the reader in turn asks of themself.

Or maybe that’s just me, but then I knew that I was going to be changed, just as I knew that the spine would naturally fall open to certain passages that I re-read and let the story’s alternate patience and frenzy wash over me. This is the book that will fall into the hands of a reader who’s not ready for it, and it will haunt them and their life will be the better for it. It pulls up emotions and banished trauma, it offers hurt and healing, and leaves us with the inescapable conclusion that all we have is we.

Your experience will be different; some of you will likely hate this book and you won’t be wrong. It’s a reflection our personal landscapes, which are no more stable than memory because we are each distinct and always changing. But if you want a book to challenge you — not just what you think about comics, or narrative, but what you think about you — then you will love it as I do, and we won’t be wrong.

Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden is available in bookstores from today. It is appropriate for readers that are willing to confront the fact that life is hell of messy, no matter how much we seem to have it together.


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¹ Although it didn’t make it into my recap, Walden talked about not setting out to do an SF story in On A Sunbeam at her spotlight session in Juneau this past April. It was much like her earlier assertion that she didn’t set out to write YA stories beyond the fact that she herself was a young adult.

Speaking of that session, there are process pages at the back that look suspiciously like thumbnails and draft pages in pencil, which is a departure from Walden’s straight-to-ink working style.

² Or possibly a vision of Inception filtered through Speed Racer. I am utterly serious.

³ Which phenomenon I believe Walden invented independently. Bear in mind that she spent every single waking moment from the age of 6 to at least 18 in perpetual crunch mode without the usual popular culture influences. She probably hasn’t read your favorite book or seen your favorite movie, but I can assure you she has excellent taste in musicals.

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