Emmanuel Guibert’s How the World Was: A California Childhood is only the second graphic novel I have ever read. The first was Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis. I loved it, and I remember that I was sort of shell-shocked when I finished it. It’s about a young woman’s life in Iran, beginning in the Iran-Iraq War in the ‘80’s and proceeding through the Islamic Revolution. This material would be emotionally moving even in a text-only novel, but Satrapi’s illustrations – panicked faces peeking out of chadors – made the emotional content of the book all the more intense. I read it all in one sitting, except that at one point I got up, headed to my computer, and started looking up the prices of plane tickets to San Francisco (I was living in Connecticut at the time). Satrapi’s book had made me want my mommy.
How the World Was is not as upsetting as The Complete Persepolis, but I enjoyed it just as much, and I do think the graphic novel form added to my enjoyment. Guibert is a decent writer, but he is a wonderful visual artist. I think I would have enjoyed this book just as much if it had included only pictures – although of course the written story is nice too. The protagonist is Alan Cope, whom the book jacket refers to as Guibert’s “dear friend.” Guibert has also written another graphic novel (or graphic biography, really – that’s what the book jacket says, but I’m not sure how I feel about adding another genre to my repertoire so soon after “books whose endings are made boring by Communism”); this other graphic whatever is called Alan’s War, and I have read wonderful reviews of it. I once tried to persuade a book group to read it, but I was outvoted and I think we read something awful that month. I think we read Sarah’s Key.
Alan grew up in southern California. He was born in 1925, which makes him two years younger than my dad and two years older than my mom, and this connection was definitely part of the appeal of this book for me. Guibert’s storytelling technique (which I am assuming comes from taking dictation from Alan Cope, though I’m sure Guibert nudged the story into shape here and there) involves alternating between grand, sweeping pronouncements (“The air was clear and wonderful. Nature, absolutely magnificent” ) to quirky details and anecdotes. Passages like the first one are part of the reason I suspect that Cope dictated the novel to Guibert. Writers (good ones, anyway) usually stay away from stock adjectives like “clear” and “wonderful” and “magnificent,” and even more so from adverbs like “absolutely.” If this were a typical book-length biography, I would shudder to have to live so long with those sorts of words in the air, but because words in general are scarce in this book – and because Guibert does such a good job of using these abstractions to establish voice (because, of course, non-writers do use words like these, all the time). My parents’ stories operate in the same pendulum-like way: the grand, sweeping tidal waves of drama and emotion (the Depression, the war), followed by details that manage to be emblematic, even though I don’t think either of them ever tried to make a detail emblematic; it just happened.
The illustrations in this book are not complex, but they are beautiful. Most are in black and white, but every so often Guibert uses color, as in these four full-page drawings depicting an L.A. freeway at sunset:
That orange – right now I think that if I had to go my entire life without looking at any colors except that orange, I would be just fine. Except that I would miss that yellow. I want to paint everything in the world that orange and that yellow. And also that blue.
One of my favorite series of illustrations covers four full pages: fifteen drawings total. These drawings show a mother slowly dressing her young son. First, the child is sitting naked on the chair, thumb in his mouth, eyes drifting off sleepily to the side. In the second, the mother is helping the little boy to his feet. She has him stand on a chair, where he wraps his arms loosely around her shoulders to keep his balance while he steps into his underwear and then into his short pants. Then she pulls his shirt – a middy – over his head. Next, she sits on the chair and holds the little boy in her lap while she puts on his socks and shoes, stopping a couple of times to rub spots off of the shoes with her fingers. No longer needing his hands to hold on, he child sucks his thumb again. By the final frame, the boy is fully dressed in one of those loathsome sailor suits that were right up there with starvation on the list of what made growing up in the 1930’s awful.
There is nothing grand or special about these illustrations (or about anything in this book, really), but they are understated and accurate in so many small details. The next time one of my artsier friends is expecting a baby boy, I would consider buying a copy of this book and cutting these drawings out to frame them. I don’t condone the abuse of books, of course, but this would be for a larger purpose, and the finished product would be lovely.
Also, a quick aside: do parents still stand children on chairs in order to dress them? It seems to me that nowadays, parents are supposed to be the ones to adjust to their children’s size rather than the other way around. These photos make the older method seem awfully sweet – and I’ll bet it’s easier on the mother’s knees too.
I recommend this book to just about any reader, even – or especially – if you’re convinced that graphic novels will never be your thing. They’re not my thing either, in general, but I was happy to make an exception for The Complete Persepolis several years ago and for How the World Was this week, and I will definitely be taking a look at Alan’s War sometime soon. Emmanuel Guibert has a great gift at telling visual stories.