Thursday, November 03, 2016

How to Be Happy by Eleanor Davis

Eleanor Davis has a short foreword to this book of graphic stories, explaining that it's not a how-to book, despite the title, and pointing to some books actually on that topic that she's found helpful in her own life. But How to Be Happy really is about how to have a happy life, or, rather, about all of the ways that life conspires to make us unhappy, to make us doubt ourselves, to throw up obstacles and problems and miseries in our way.

So the characters in these stories are not happy. I think I can say it that broadly. There may be a moment or two of happiness here -- like any life -- but the overall emotion is less bright. But they all want to be happy, and are making heroic efforts in that direction: some directly, and some to live the lives that will make them happy and fulfilled, like the pseudo-Paleo cult leader in the first long story, "In Our Eden."

The centerpiece and longest story is the SFnal "Nita Goes Home," in which a successful woman in a polluted near-crapsack near-future world has to leave her mostly-utopian domed community to go back and see her dying father and engage in the life her less-successful sister is living in that polluted world. Nita can only get back to happiness, pointedly, by getting back to her separate community, getting away from the rest of the world.

Davis's other characters don't have it as easy -- some, like the ferryman of "Seven Sacks" and the musician of "Stick and String," are stuck in a world of wonders and horrors that are not entirely clear, and their main choice is whether to think about what they see and do, or to let it pass by. Others are living in something like our modern world -- going to a class to learn to cry, obsessively body-building to be able to save everyone, teen girls furtively reaching out to each other in suburbia or young boys exploring a derelict house that we readers know if not as wondrous as the boys want to believe. They are all looking for happiness and fulfillment, however the think they might find it -- and some will have better chances that others. But Davis doesn't let any of them fully attain "happiness" -- and what would that mean, anyway?

Interspersed with the longer pieces are short stories -- one page or two -- and some diary comics, including the story of a Greyhound trip cross-country. Davis's art style changes radically throughout, with an animation-looking flat color (reminiscent of some recent Dash Shaw books to me, though I think Shaw may actually be following Davis) in some stories and a detailed pen-and-ink style for others. Still other stories, mostly the single-pagers, are drawn very loosely, with only-barely human forms quickly thrown on the page sketchbook-style to crystallize a thought or emotion. It's a lot of artistic variety for one book that's not all that long, but every style is clear and true to the stories it's used to tell and right. I'm frankly amazed that all of those pieces were drawn/painted/created by the same person over the course of only a few years.

So Davis is monstrously talented: I'd heard that a number of times before, and now I'm impressed by how true that really is. I'd love to see her take on a book-length project: she clearly has the ideas and the ambition and the art chops to do something both big and great. I don't know anything, but I like to think she's hard at work right now on the next book, which will amaze us in another few years.

No comments:

Post a Comment