By Pascal Girard
The Squirrel Mother (2006)
By Megan Kelso
A YouTube video is spreading around of Jimmy dancing by himself, and when Bigfoot begins, there are embarrassing reminders of it everywhere he goes. His friend who helpfully posted it either miscalculated the impact of his prank or didn’t care. His uncle soon adds to the ridicule heading his direction by sharing footage of a purported Bigfoot. He takes a drawing class to get close to the girl he likes, but winds up unable to form a sentence in person, sketching photos of her from Facebook. Girard obsesses over new media vehicles for perennial concerns—teenage embarrassment, creatures of legend, crushes, the riptides of high school life. And the touchstones of Bigfoot are its storytelling approach in miniature, energy added to classical structures. Each of its forty-eight pages is in a grid three panels wide, four panels tall, with one exception. The lines depicting the characters are clear, and anything contained within them has one color, with no intermediate shading. Moments arrive in surprised and startled faces, the characters wearing expressions recognizable even before you glance to the English translation.
The clarity of presentation and the satisfying pop of the colors makes Bigfoot an easy read. The details feel right, even the exaggerations; most of the teens look lanky, as if stretching with the vertical emphasis of the pages. Old stories should feel right. The details in Bigfoot correspond to experiences most people have had growing up. They are specific enough to feel authentic, but not distinctive enough to distract. They pass the test of suggesting credible lives and a world in which they can progress. The concern is a good telling of a story you’ve heard before. It’s fun, and even if it’s a lot more pleasant for the reader than for the lead, there is no cynicism.
The world isn’t unfair, it just has a logic that’s hard to grasp in the first attempts. You get no sense that Jimmy won’t make his way forward, and the epilogue suggests it’s already happening, with Girard’s sole visual indulgence, the absence of the final three panels, puncuating a genuine triumph. Even the blank spaces are reassuring. Youth is in good hands, safe for when we need it again.
The Squirrel Mother, Megan Kelso’s anthology of fourteen short stories, is not in search of the recognizable. No entry feels like somewhere last seen elsewhere. The preferred tongue is the appropriate local dialect for her subjects. In “Kodachrome,” a family revisits its vacation within the slightly rounded squares of slide photographs. In the titular story, each of the six pages have two narrow panels in one line across the top, depicting a rodent family’s dissolution, and two giant panels, one above the other, where a human mother sews a dress for her daughter. “River,” the three-page conclusion, lines the edges of the story with locations where a man killed women, a geography of places the narrator knows and the context for her stinging final observation.
There are many unexpected variations in reading the anthology straight through, and they also arrive within the stories. The book invites sadness and anger, or in an anti-war interlude, both, but it most often achieves surprise. Building any expectation whatsoever in a few pages takes narrative economy, and The Squirrel Mother can feel like a cousin to the punchline engine of Perry Bible Fellowship—venturing further, and with less fear, but in the same singular control of where it wants things to arrive.
The destination is rarely a traditional narrative payoff, however, and there are times when the effect makes the book a step too oblique. Any abstractness does not feel intentional, but for some passages it must be inferred in to make the contents cohere. The book’s successes are many and wonderful, however, and the range even more. A look back at Alexander Hamilton recaps important history well while doodling gleefully in the margins, Madison and Hamilton trading digs over the Federalist Papers before embracing in lurid detail. The lines and shapes of the world curve in reaction to emotions and music provoked by a flute depicted in steadfast realism. A fork and a spoon romance each other, eulogizing the undignified passage of an antique set to the hands of a museum collector. And throughout, in the blank pages separating the stories, there is a single, small, everyday object, always a prelude.
Suggestion of this nature, in both content and presentation, puts you in a different territory from the more reliable pleasures of classical stories. Focusing upon young lives, though, needs both perspectives. Growing up shifts between the recognizable universal and the unsettling personal, seemingly at random, even if it’s all happened before. Real things can happen in front of you and slide past without comprehension, and imagination and make-believe can have immediate consequences. Looking back requires some ordering. Doing so honestly requires appreciating what lay beneath without mistaking it for how it was.
There is no going back. But even failed expeditions are better in pairs, and you get a lot closer.