This small, landscape-format book contains a lot of landscape, and a lot of episodes in which people engage with landscape. Its cover shows the narrator, closely aligned to, but clearly non-identical with the author, Jen Lee, who is not a bipedal cow; she is sitting alone and contemplating a rural prospect. This does not show a scene from the narrative it encloses; but for me it stands for the moment of the book as a whole. Lee has stepped back, and if we open the book out flat, we see that she situates herself in twice as much uninhabited topography as is initially apparent – here is the distance from which she is able to articulate this story, and here is the site in which she finds that distance: At the edge of the stream at dusk. A site external to the narrative, but clearly one central to it, given the title.
Lee is known for her webcomic, Dear Korea, which ran from 2011 until 2016 (roughly), so she’s no stranger to observational memoir. This longer form story takes a larger chunk of raw experience as its basic material than those three- or four-panel funnies, however. Here she relates a major and relatively painful change in her personal circumstances, outlining quite economically a shift from rural cohabitation in Idaho to single life in Los Angeles – a city she had not visited before moving there. This is not a story that could be told briefly in prose, but comics afford a much greater density of affective incident: the basic facts can be expressed in a short sentence, and the experience they represent can be fully and movingly represented in a small number of images – assuming an artist or cartoonist with the requisite storytelling abilities, of course.
Lee’s style in At the edge of the stream at dusk is simplified and naive, relative to her more polished work in Garbage Night (2017), an approach which is perhaps appropriate to this more introspective and exploratory book. She retains the most significant formal device of the earlier piece, however, in drawing her characters as anthropomorphic animals. This is a choice which impacts the surface of the narrative in a variety of ways. It speaks to a history of anthropomorphism in American comics and animation, one which includes, at its extremes, Mickey Mouse and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. In this book it opens a field of relations, and sets a limit at its perimeter: although anything might be represented here, Lee implicitly pledges to represent it with gentleness, self-deprecation and generosity. It inserts a kind of affective buffer, an affection – these characters are people you should want to hug. We aren’t shielded from the narrator’s pain, so much as reassured that sharing in it won’t traumatise us. But ultimately, this is a choice that Lee made because she likes comics with anthropomorphic animals in them, and that’s a sufficiently well-established genre of cartooning to require no explanation.
The book is not the story of what happened, which is insubstantially straightforward, but of what happened to her – which, like everything that happens to everybody, is unknowably and ineffably complex. The exigency of memoir and biography, then, is to simplify. Very often, the creative decision is made to simplify towards an entertaining narrative, either by constructing one from biographical details, or by cutting facts away until that is all that’s left. Equally common, and often found in tandem with such an approach to storytelling, is the attempt to produce a thesis, usually couched as an ‘insight’, from the same materials. The usual consequence, given that such storytelling radically dissembles the character of lived experience, and that writers are no more prone to wisdom than anyone else, is a text that attempts to rhetorically persuade the reader of a falsehood. Lee avoids these pitfalls, by eschewing the temptation to generalise from her experience to yours. She does not seek to share an insight with the reader, but simply to share her experience, generously, in the hope that it will be of use to readers that feel, as she has at times, alone, isolated, and uncertain of the next steps she should take.
Simplicity, then, rather than simplification, is the key to Lee’s methodology. She tells her story with simple language, and with accessible images, framing it very briefly with a scene in which the narrator denies that this will be a typical ‘going to LA to make it’ story, before beginning at the beginning, and ending at the… well, at the middle – as Lee is hardly geriatric. She takes a short piece of her life, bounded by a traumatic change in circumstances, and at the other end, by her eventual accommodation to that change, and she does not offer to tell us what she learned from it. She just tells it how it was for her, and offers us the same opportunity to parse her experience that she had.
Of course we can’t be sure she isn’t dissembling her experience, and we can be even less sure that her own memories aren’t shaped by the story she has told herself of this episode. In fact, I’m fairly sure that we all do both of those things whenever we think about or describe any aspect of our biography, but I am equally sure that Lee’s tale is told in good faith. There is great skill in her storytelling, both verbal and visual, but there is little or no effort to persuade the reader – except inasmuch as she knows there is an audience for this kind of straight-talking, unaffected affirmation of the value of friendship. The only overt way in which Lee mediates the experience she relates is to step back, and to contemplate it from a distance, At the edge of the stream at dusk. I found it a very charming book.