Making friends with Mansfield, Ashlee Nelson

Mansfield and Me: A Graphic Memoir
Sarah Laing
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781776560691

The graphic form is in some ways a more complex undertaking than straightforward prose, for a graphic text must concern itself not only with the words of the narrative, but the art. Even more than this, the words and the art in a good graphic work should add to the meaning of the text by the way the two work skilfully together. In Mansfield and Me: A Graphic Memoir, both the words and the art belong to Sarah Laing. Laing is a writer, a cartoonist, and a graphic designer by trade and she has applied her skills to each in a uniquely beautiful way. Nor is this the only synthesis accomplished by the book: Mansfield and Me is both a biography, of sorts, of Mansfield, and an autobiographical narrative.

The narrative of Laing’s life begins with her earliest connection to Mansfield, a series of artefacts in the homes of her great-aunt and great-uncle and of her grandmother with stories that related back to Mansfield. Laing’s memory of drifting aimlessly in the water at the beach under the care of her grandmother morphs languidly into Mansfield’s narrative, beginning with her own vacation at the nearby bay where Mansfield vacationed with her family under the eye of her own grandmother. This juxtaposition of the two narratives carries on through the book, often with the events of Mansfield’s life that Laing chooses to portray somehow mirroring or connected to the events in her own life. Occasionally, this is done through Mansfield’s stories rather than her life: when Laing faces the ordeal of finding a date to her first school dance, the narrative interjects an illustrated snippet from Mansfield’s “Her First Ball”. And though Laing’s narrative moves forward chronologically, Mansfield’s stories, both fictional and from life, are not given in a matching chronology: they best link thematically. The use of “Her First Ball”, for instance, jumps us forward to Mansfield in 1921, a little over a year before her death, but the next time her narrative breaks in she is 19 and leaving New Zealand for London in order to be more artistically inspired as a writer.

At times, the two narratives intermingle, and the influence of Mansfield on Laing is directly represented by her character speaking to Laing. One example is when Laing’s first-year university self wonders (listening to the stories of sexual experiences of a new friend) “How can I be a writer if I haven’t really experienced anything yet?”, and Mansfield’s voice is interposed over the friend, telling Laing: “I wasted a lot of writing time in pursuit of experience.” The conversation here acts as a bridge between Laing’s life and Mansfield’s, since afterwards the narrative switches to Mansfield telling Laing about her experiments with drugs at Aleister Crowley’s. The juxtaposition emphasises the importance of Mansfield to Laing, but also makes for a more accessible approach to Mansfield as a person. The Mansfield of Laing’s memoir is not just the iconic literary figure, but almost Laing’s imaginary friend, with the effect of making Mansfield seem more, rather than less, real. Laing, of course, cannot actually have insight into Mansfield’s mind, but this approach creates a sense of friendly rapport between the two, and seems to affirm the imagined insights into her thoughts, feelings and opinions (Crowley is described by Mansfield as “Deranged opium fiend more like”).

The artwork here is not traditional pen-and-ink (or its digital equivalent), but watercolour, varied to distinguish between the two narratives. When Laing is writing about her own life the illustrations are in colour, while Mansfield’s for the most part are rendered in black and white. Colour is occasionally used in the Mansfield sections as a subtle means of emphasising the floating, dreamlike ambience of some of Mansfield’s writing, as in the page illustrating her  description of the garden at Garsington:

The flowers come in as a bright dazzle … an exquisite haunting scent a shape so formal and fine so much a flower of the mind I see pairs of people – they must be different there must be a slight air of enchantment a kind of, musically speaking, conversation set to flowers.

Larger, more detailed landscapes, such as the garden at Garsington, or more abstract full pages, such as the one in the water at the bay, depicting the first transition from Laing’s life to Mansfield’s, are where the watercolour technique is at its strongest.

Personally, while I like the use of colour, Laing’s drawing style isn’t my particular cup of tea. It’s very stylised, simplified, somewhat cartoony. This will not necessarily detract from others’ pleasure. (This approach to comics art is often seen online, where Laing herself publishes a blog of autobiographical comics, and I’m reminded especially of the style of Kate Beaton’s Hark! a Vagrant.) However, there are some (less subjective) downsides to Laing’s particular style in the longer graphic novel form. Though a high point of the art is the use of colour and the free-flowing quality of the watercolours, this mode doesn’t always suit the narrator’s interruptions. As a result, the narration is at times a bit stilted, with simplistic sentences in separate panels: “I thought I’d never finish my novel”; “But then I did”. Or with sentences oddly split up across panels: the fragments “I tried on granny’s dresses”, “I played Chinese checkers”, “& examined the writing box on top of Cousin Mildred”, all seem to belong to the same sentence, but are split apart by the art in the book. It’s not necessarily a problem, just a function of Laing’s style. But it is a quirk that works better in shorter vignettes for her online blog than in a complex longer narrative.

Sometimes the ambiguous sentence structure caused me to read a fragment unaware that it belonged to the clause before, and therefore lose the meaning of parts that only made sense when combined. For instance: “before we were due to move to New York City on September 17, 2001” makes little sense as a statement on its own, until combined with sentence-fragments from a few panels earlier: “We flew up to Auckland to finalise our visa application” and “and to spend the last few days chilling out with my family”. Again, this isn’t a huge drawback, but does create a certain break in the narrative, which can be distracting. It also means the text is a little simplistic at times, but the pseudo-journal approach of the memoir suggests this is an intentional technique.

Despite these few criticisms, the book overall is a very worthwhile read. The creative and personal lens through which Mansfield is portrayed is both unique and entertaining. And, my ambivalence about the illustration style of the characters aside, the creative use of colour and the watercolour medium are a work of art that’s a treat to enjoy.

At the risk of patronising readers familiar with graphic novels, this is a comic book intended for an adult audience. There are elements of Laing’s existential crisis, as she navigates the awkwardness of finding her place in the world, that will resonate either with those still in the midst of that journey, or those who have come out the other side. I would also suggest that, in its application of Mansfield to modern life, this might be a useful text to include in an undergraduate study of Mansfield. Those offended by the free use of drugs and, in the artistic sense, the not-infrequent graphic depiction of sex, might want to steer clear, though I can’t help thinking that Mansfield herself would have approved of Laing’s project.

Ashlee Nelson is a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington, and has lectured on and written about graphic novels.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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