by Craig Thompson (Top Shelf, 2006)
Fundamentalist Christianity is something I edge away from as though it were a cliff. I am uneasy, fearful even, in the presence of a doctrine that so thoroughly condemns nearly everything germane to the human social condition with such disturbing ease. The only thing that's bound to get my fur up more than being exposed to the rawness of rigid, unyielding beliefs are Heartwarming Stories about a Boy's Coming of Age. And they're everywhere, too.
Yes, there are plenty of strong, well-written stories about girls' coming of age (see Ghostworld and Marjane Satrapi's books for some of the best). But it seems to me that for every story about a girl there are a hundred about boys; most of our cultural fascination revolves around the male perspective, which is why most movies and books are male-centric, geared for a male audience. The male existential rite of passage is officially a cliche. What's worse is that there seems to be such a plethora of it these days.
Try as I did to approach Craig Thompson's Blankets with an open mind, I failed. There was a low growl in my throat that was ready to turn into a full-throated snarl from the moment I opened the book. All I needed was one excuse to write it off and I would drop it like the cultural hot potato I was rather hoping it would be. My existence, on a daily basis, is negated both by the religious right, who profess themselves to be instruments of God's love, and by an entertainment industry whose single-minded heterosexual perspective has little or nothing to do with this woman's world. Not to mention the fact that the dust jacket was already telling me how derivative this story was. A young man from a rigidly Christian family comes of age in the Midwest. How trite. I was in the belly of the beast. Just give me one excuse to return fire, and I would in a heartbeat.
It was a different world by the time I got to the last page.
I honestly never thought I'd find myself in a book about a young man many years younger than I was, who was raised in an environment far to the right of my progressive, liberal upbringing. What on earth would a middle-aged gay woman like me have in common with a young graphic artist struggling to find his voice, his path, his sexuality, in a very confusing world? (Even as I wrote those words the irony was just killing me....)
And yet the universality of Blankets shines through. It is indeed a story about a boy coming of age; of finding, and losing, first, true love; and coming through a crisis of belief to a firmer, richer understanding of his soul. Thompson moves gradually from a stark, simplistic world populated by demons and angels to a more colorful, complex world where many contradictory things exist comfortably side-by-side. Fundamentalist belief is a system I have more reacted against than understood, but after reading Thompson's book I have a much better view of that world, or at least his journey through it.
Going for the "boy-aren't-fundamentalist-nuts" routine would have been easy. Thompson doesn't go there but shows us instead what a painful, sometimes hilarious and often uplifting transformation he went through while treating his family's faith with kindness. What do you do when your individuality starts rubbing painfully against the strictures of your upbringing, and no amount of telling your feelings to get in line will erase the awful realization that you are different from your family and everyone around you?
But Thompson doesn't go for easy, nor does he devolve into insipid sentiment, choosing instead to display the humanity of the people in his world with compassion. Thinking about a little boy going to hell just for drawing pictures of naked women is, when you think about it, really kind of funny. This is the tragic absurdity of fundamentalist constrictions on human behavior: the desperation of trying to force people to do specific things and promising incredibly violent punishments for misbehavior.
The book does not push too hard for sympathy. Thompson manages to convey empathy for who he was without ever wallowing in self-pity. There are no preachy monologues or weepy confessionals. The parallels that Thompson draws between the secular and the humane do the work of creating empathy. Blankets is a solid effort, mostly because Thompson tells no one what to think and feel. Although his early life is indeed dominated by restrictive religious beliefs, he does not moralize, nor does he denigrate the world that was his childhood. Thompson's is the least egocentric biography I have read to date. He tells his story honestly, with the gravity of someone who has been there. He deals with contradictions by trying to understand them, instead of pushing away anything that makes him uncomfortable. He doesn't adopt the stance of one who's been betrayed by his personal beliefs; rather, he seems grateful that he is at last able to believe with his whole heart. Thompson is never anything but fair where his family is concerned, and the lack of judgment allows for an unbiased look at the stuff of other people's souls.
Nor is it a lightweight read: there is serious emotional and intellectual heft to Thompson's story, touching on everything from divorce, children with Down's syndrome, and an exploration of Plato's cave vis-a-vis Ecclesiastes, with Thompson interpreting and comparing the differing moral philosophies.
The moody, gorgeous artwork matches the delicacy and tact of the story. In ordinary farm life there is a fascinating juxtaposition of the fantastic and the mundane. Thompson finds both meaning and beauty in everyday life, making analogues between a field of snow and a blank page, between the branches of a tree and the line of life, between the comfort of a shared blanket and the need to create a bulwark against a frightening and alien world.
Although the story goes into some dark places, dealing with issues of childhood sexual abuse and the sometimes terrible acts that parents unknowingly commit against their children, Thompson softens the edges with an open-minded understanding of human nature that belies his rigid upbringing. Blankets made me painfully, embarrassingly aware of how I myself tend delineate the good guys from bad, sometimes ignoring the shades of gray, and how anything can do that, not just fundamentalism but neoliberalism, pop culture, or any system of belief.
This book, more than any other, reminded me of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, a biographical coming of age about her secular girlhood in Iran. Thompson and Satrapi could have been spiritual twins. Like Satrapi, Thompson eventually sees religious literalism for what it is -- an attempt to control behavior that's deemed threatening -- and discovers what his real power has been all along: not his art, but what his art shows him about the world, and how it is essentially as truthful as anything found in the Bible. Warmly humane in a way that will resonate with anyone, the story has a fluid, intimate feel that avoids delving into romanticism. It's a very moving and worthwhile read.
10 November 2007