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Love, interrupted

Don't Go Where I Can't Follow Anders Nilsen, with Cheryl Weaver Drawn & Quarterly: 86 pp., $17.95 paper

February 25, 2007|Glen David Gold | Glen David Gold is the author of the novel "Carter Beats the Devil." His new novel will look at Hollywood during World War I.

THE new graphic memoir, "Don't Go Where I Can't Follow," breaks a great many rules of form, concluding with what might be the most devastating 16 panels of artwork in Anders Nilsen's career. His previous comics -- the "Big Questions" series and "Dogs and Water," enigmatic, desolate and dreamlike works -- in no way prepare us for the emotional wallop he delivers here.

This book subverts what we think a "graphic narrative" is: We were just getting used to the idea of autobiographical comic strips, drawings on paper. But there is very little cartooning at first in "Don't Go Where I Can't Follow"; instead we begin in September 2000, when Nilsen's girlfriend, Cheryl Weaver, writes her "artist statement," which reads, in full, "I know this boy named anders. He makes my heart ache and my stomach flutter." It's followed by reproductions of typed postcards she wrote to him, inside-joke art projects from one lover to another, a little like Griffin and Sabine, only their mysteries remain private.

Next comes a scan of a 21-page letter from Nilsen to his sister about a disastrous camping trip, through which we get clues about the lovers' personalities (him, distracted; Weaver, tolerant; them together, amusingly in sync). A cloudburst of information follows: photographs, ticket stubs, journal entries, all accumulating evidence that they are young, happy and soon to be married. Although there are interesting moments, at this point, a reader could be forgiven for thinking most of it could have stayed in Nilsen's scrapbooks.

Then the first body blow: Weaver has cancer. At first, her illness seems manageable, but it rapidly becomes apparent that it's going to be fatal. In four sketches accompanying his depressed journal entries from the hospital, Nilsen shows Weaver's decline. He despairs: "Fairness is a human delusion. What do you say to someone when they ask you 'Am I going to die?' and you kind of think they might, but there's no way to know, and you don't want to upset them."

His attention to detail, down to the pulsing artery in her neck, leads to an astonishing full-page image of her body from overhead, with medical implements invading her, each of them labeled with care. I don't know if he drew this to explain it to himself or if he still thought he might show it to her later, to see (among other things) a blood pressure cuff, three IVs, a feeding tube, an oxygen tube, a "bag to collect aceites fluid, leaking from drainage site on abdomen."

The speed of her end is shocking: diagnosed in March 2005, dead in November of that year. Next come excerpts from the Tao Te Ching, read aloud at her funeral, then the stunning conclusion: Nilsen, with friends and relatives, takes her ashes to Lake Michigan and turns them loose in the water at the spot where they had planned to get married. This is the only part done in traditional comic narrative. There are two panels per page with strips of text below them: a letter from Nilsen to Weaver, explaining what is happening at her service. "Paul kept telling me not to be disappointed.... The wind will shift, the ashes will blow in your face. But it didn't. It went perfectly. Your ashes scattered perfectly."

Nilsen is an exquisite draftsman with incredible patience for textures. A crowd of people crossing a park has stippling, cross-hatching and meticulous line work for wool, asphalt, grass and so on. This slows the eye down, makes every moment distinct and calm and somehow forces us, the viewers, to participate. By the time he is climbing down the rocks to the water and letting go a small puff of dust, then collapsing, the effect of words and images together is as poetic and crushing as any elegy for a loved one could be. These are 16 panels of beauty and grace, a fully formed exploration of terrible grief.

The last chapter contains Nilsen's postcards to Weaver, finishing with a note he wrote her at the beginning of the relationship on a 3-by-5 card that vibrates with naivete and tragic irony. And that's it, the end.

In an author's note, Nilsen tries to make sense not of the events but of his desire to spill them this way. "It feels incredibly particular to me, still, but it's just love and loss. And everyone, for better or worse, can relate to that."

True, but this book could have been a mess. It's a brave and risky attempt at communication. In some ways, it's obviously too early for Nilsen to express himself in public. Rather than taking time to process this into a more-constructed form of art, it seems much like dumping out your pockets of personal icons (bits of masonry, corn chips and jade plants) in the hope that people will understand what those things mean to you. Honestly, no, not really, we can't. And yet somehow, mysteriously, the effect is thrilling, an overheard conversation that lingers with you or a glance down the hall at strangers in love. What are we anyway after death but the scattershot evidence we've left behind?

But those last pages, the scattering ashes! It's an interesting choice -- if choice is the right word -- that Nilsen withholds his full palette of artistic skills until this point. It suggests that he is just now making the first steps to control the story and incorporate it into his work and that there is probably more to come. "Don't Go Where I Can't Follow" is both a tribute by a good artist to the life and death of a woman he loved and to the redemptive power of art. *

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