Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Grief, Up Close: Anders Nilsen's The End

The End by Anders Nilsen
Fantagraphics, 2013
Neil Gaiman's Sandman Endless Nights is a bit of a mess. I only bring this up for the 15 Portraits of Despair sequence realized by Barron Storey (with Dave McKean). Storey's despair is noise and violence and repulsiveness, part a reflection of the immortal wave-function god-thing Despair previously established in Sandman proper, part a reflection of the reality of despair the emotion - it's ugly and hard to get through, it overwhelms. Sometimes despair is like static that takes over your life, like in 15 Portraits... and sometimes it is a spotlight, a laser that hyperfocuses your new reality isolating you in the bright light of ceaseless sadness, like in Anders Nilsen's The End.

Nilesen's last completed work is the truly monumental Big Questions, his decade in the making masterpiece of mythology and people and birds and snakes and things, falling from the sky. The End (in stores today), in comparison, is very slight. It is a brief read, less a graphic novel than a hodgepodge of odds and ends, short stories and snippets of sketchbooks from a year in the life of the author. But the specifics of the why of that year and the why of the work itself are important - it chronicles, in words and images, the author's attempts at processing the slow and painful death of his fiancee. This isn't a non-fictional description of grief written after the fact, this is grief, unfiltered and complete.

There are stretches of material where Nilsen talks to the ghost of the deceased, or at least some mirror of his lost love locked in his own psyche ("I don't know, I'm dead, I'm just saying what you're thinking" 'She' says). There are stark almost gag-illustrations of the author struggling to get through the mundanities of life only to repeatedly break down. There are airy explorations of life beyond grief bounded by unflinching textual portrayals of a human life ending, withering away in a mess of tubes and disease and torment. Nilsen presents it all in his distinct, minimalist style, with almost no use of visual literalism, instead almost entirely relying on empty, indistinct humanoid figures interacting in spare, empty environments.

But despite the artifice of the artistry, the grief and pain and despair on display is simply too real. Such undiluted human emotion is difficult to process; reading The End is like seeing someone wail in grief. Whether you like it or not you are being confronted by an intractable pain you cannot hope to assuage. It's almost uncomfortable. The End is remarkable in the way the emotions are so fiercely on display that Nilsen's completely nonliteral cartooning may as well be photographs of the deceased on her death bed. It succeeds so wildly in translating the all-encompassing pain of grief, in a way that audiovisual documentary or prose memoir cannot. But there is decided discomfort in reading the comics, discomfort compounded by the fact that it is about a very, very real person.

Talking to the memory-fragment of his love, Nilsen asks "Do you wish I would stop doing all this work about you dying?" 'She' answers, "It's not about me dying. It's about you." Which is of course completely razor-sharp accurate. Funerals are for the living, not the dead, and The End is Nilsen using his art and the language of comics to come to terms with his grief. And we are exploring his open wound with him.

The acuteness of the despair make the more artistic, more interpretable sections stand out, and maybe I would have preferred more of them. The best sequences are where Nilsen breaks away from the heartbreaking emotional literalism and opens out into almost abstract expressions of the nature of grief. Here we see the human figure devolved by their grief and broken math, splitting out into fractals of loss that form into unsolvable mazes. The abstract imagery allows the reader to think about and mull and contemplate loss itself. But when presented with the specificity of Nilsen's loss, it takes you out of the work, from the realm of intellectual participant to uncomfortable observer.

But my views and yours really don't matter. The End is a vehicle for Nilsen to come to terms with his grief, and in that it succeeds (we just get to watch - I still don't know if that's a good thing or not). Grief and despair never really goes away, you just get to a point where it doesn't take over your life any more. And by the end of The End that happens, the abstract image of the lost disappearing along with the navel-gazing image of the author. The End ends and you are happy, because Nilsen doesn't have to go through this anymore, and thankfully neither do you.

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