April 15, 2015

I Was a Child: The Infectious Nostalgia in Cartoonist BEK’s New Memoir


The dedication page from I Was a Child, the memoir from New Yorker cartoonist and “Girls”writer Bruce Eric Kaplan, reads: “This book is for my parents, who tried.” This is striking because much of the memoir itself is dedicated to the ways in which his parents did not try. “My parents believed in just living with things,” he writes at one point, filling his book with references to and drawings of objects around his childhood home that were never fixed, or that were simply left somewhere and forgotten. “There was a bookcase in their bedroom that was set at an angle for no real reason,” he writes. “It was just floating.” Beneath this he draws the bookcase in the spare, off-kilter, forlorn style that will be familiar to fans of his New Yorker work.

“Everything in our house was held together with Scotch tape,” he writes. “If a paint chip was coming off, it was taped down. If there was a tear in a lampshade, a piece of tape was put on it. I felt held together with Scotch tape, and still do.”

Not trying appears to have been a major theme of his father’s life in particular:

“We were always told that my father wanted to be a short story writer or a novelist or a TV writer, but he had to give up his writing career for something more stable once he had a family. There was a box of his old writing in the attic.”

In turn, Kaplan’s parents encourage him not to try, telling him, when he goes off to college in the early 1980s, to take a computer course so that he will acquire practical skills. He enrolls in the course, hates it, drops it, and enrolls in French surrealism instead. He gets into fights with them over whether it’s possible to get what you want in life; he asks why, if there is only one person in the world doing a particular job, he can’t be that person. (Of course, we know that this struggle has a happy ending, as Kaplan holds multiple dream careers.)

And yet the childhood that emerges from his parents’ tendency not to try is a very happy one, and the book is infused with infectious nostalgia, often embodied in objects from his childhood (a grandparent’s dentures floating in blue Efferdent, another one’s Uneeda biscuits, an ashtray he associates with the only times his mother seemed relaxed and happy and that he says he would “do anything” to have now).

The greatest amount of nostalgia is reserved for television. Kaplan describes the ways in which movies were shown on television with a charming overabundance of precision, schooling us on the density of commercials in the 4:30 Movie, and the movies that would play all night long on “the Late Show, the Late, Late Show, and even I think the Late, Late, Late show.” (I can provide second-hand corroboration for the existence of the LateLateLate show, having heard about it many times from my own mother, who also often talks about having stayed up to watch many of the same movies Kaplan describes having stayed up to watch, including the Cary Grant ghost comedy Topper and the Rex Harrison/Doris Day domestic thriller Midnight Lace. It is possible I am almost too perfect a reader for this book.)

At the book’s wrenching end, as he recounts the deaths of both of his parents, he writes that they both fought mightily for life. “It was horrible to watch,” he writes, “yet in a way, it was amazing. I had never seen either of them fight for anything before.” Of course, he knows that just because he hadn’t seen them fight for anything before doesn’t mean that that fighting never took place.  No matter how much we know about our parents we still know very little; they occasionally strike us the way that the people in Kaplan’s cartoons strike us, hollow-eyed, misshapen, and saying obscurely infuriating things like “I’ve decided to start groaning every time I move my body a little bit.” But his images stick with us in ways that other caricatures don’t because those hollow-eyed, misshapen figures suggest complex inner lives that are trying to push through their strange, socially mandated facades. Without resorting to flattery or platitudes, Kaplan produces a moving portrait of two people who may not have fought for everything they wanted, but who did in fact try.