Comics, Critique

[TW, NSFW] Spontaneous, Inevitable, Habitual, by Rachel Masilamani

Content Warning for miscarriage.

NON PARTUM, a fictionalized memoir of the cartoonist’s journey with fertility is nicely complex–it spans decades of Rachel Masilamani’s life, and complicates narratives of middle class motherhood. In “Plan B-200,” Masilamani looked back at her high school years in order to juxtapose teen pregnancy and adult fertility difficulties. In “The Subject,” Masilamani looked back at her grad school years, a time when she paid the bills by participating in research studies, in order to talk about access to care and the unequal value we place on patients. Throughout NON PARTUM we’ve had hints that contemporary Rachel has been trying, without success, to have a baby. In part three, “Spontaneous, Inevitable, Habitual,” the focus is on that struggle.

Motherhood is what ties these chapters together, and Rachel’s own desire for a baby is the narrative and thematic thread that carries through, but NON PARTUM is as much about politics, culture, and equality, as it is about motherhood. Rachel-and-motherhood is the glue of the comic, the occasion for which she recalls the events of “Plan B-200,” “The Subject,” and now “Spontaneous, Inevitable, Habitual,” but it’s not the comic’s singular or most important focus: Rachel is at the centre of this story, but she is not always centred. This is both narrative strategy and political statement: motherhood is personal, political, social, constructed. Motherhood, and all your associated choices, are a conversation piece and a problem. Was it your fault?

“Spontaneous, Inevitable, Habitual” starts with a dream; it’s the first dream in NON PARTUM, which alone makes it something worth remarking on, but there’s also a lot going on in this first page. Rachel is wearing a pink coat and rowing a boat, pacing a swimmer named Danny. He can’t keep up and he drowns without much fanfare. Rachel keeps rowing. The landscape is uninviting but not just through NON PARTUM‘s usual cold blues. In this page, it’s about scale: the height of the trees, the distance of the shore, Rachel’s position relative to Danny.

Spontaneous, Inevitable, Habitual (1), Rachel Masilimani

The Rachel who rows isn’t her dreaming self floating off to the next REM cycle, but Rachel’s embodied fears and self-commentary. But so is Danny. “Don’t give up.” “I’ll get my second wind.” She rows on.

The bulk of “Spontaneous, Inevitable, Habitual” finds Rachel and her husband fixing up their new home. The house is older, though, and in order to repaint it, Rachel has to to steam off the ancient lead-based paint preferred by its previous owners. She’s incredibly handy, a point she takes some pride in, and something she compares obliquely to her coping skills. We do that too, don’t we? Handiness confers a sense of practicality, maturity, and sensibility. As Rachel says, “I can figure most things out. All I have to do is measure and count.” But as with the previous chapters of NON PARTUM, there are a few things going on here. Rachel is fixing up the house and trying to have a baby, and above all, thinking, remembering, and considering. You’d think reno-and-baby would be a heavy-handed combination of all things grown up and life-building, but Masilamani packs in layers of foreboding, still effective no matter that we know from go, thanks to the comic’s featured image (I’ve used the same one), what’s coming: a miscarriage.

sih7

Let’s talk about this page for a second. Those last two panels are literally darker than the ones above. Rachel is taking out the trash and looking in on her brightly lit home. It’s got a bit of cliche horror movie shot to it, but inside is where the horror is, and Masilamani makes this clear both through the subject of each panel (Rachel coughing, things a home can’t contain if it’s to welcome a baby, Rachel meticulously doing labour) and the pacing.

The title gives us our beat:

sih5This chapter is slow and steady It’s a measured examination of the time in and around her miscarriage that doesn’t leave us with a tidy conclusion as to blame. Chemical fumes, the cats, the birds, labour, or maybe even her coffee–some recommendations for first trimester pregnancies recommend you avoid all of these things. So Rachel measures–steaming off the paint–and counts–doing heavy lifting–and figures–living her ordinary life–it out. Maybe.

“What year were you born in?”

“1977.”

“That’s not so old.”

I wouldn’t call the tone dreamlike, but that measured pace adds distance similar to what we find in the above dream sequence. There’s no flinching from the subject of miscarriage, or Rachel’s emotional or physical experience of it, but this is, quite deliberately, not a purely visceral chapter. Masilamani hints at why in her note on the chapter:

“I’m always falling into that common trap where I think that I can will things into being. But if we believe the mind controls the body, then which one should suffer when something goes wrong?”

Spontaneous, Habitual, Inevitable (8), Rachel MasilamaniMasilamani’s cartooning is, as always, powerful and affecting, but in NON PARTUM, she is always concerned with mind and body; physical and personal “failings;” science and the as-yet-unknown physical truth.

This is the last page of “Spontaneous, Habitual, Inevitable.” In this series I’ve talked a lot about the colour palette of the comic, so we might as well talk about it again. Well, pink and red add intensity to a comic that’s primarily neutrals and muted purple and green. In this last page, we move from the crisp, meticulous fixing up of the house, to Rachel relaxing in a newly warm, orange and pink room. The pink coat of the first page is tidily echoed here by the pink bathrobe. Otherwise, the palette couldn’t be more different from that opening dream sequence, yet they’re wonderful bookends.

What’s interesting to me is again perspective, angles and depth that once again introduce distance and anxiety into the page. Rachel begins the page with a casual posture, comfortably feeding her cats, but panel by panel, she turns and slowly moves away. This time, though, her husband is here to comfort her.

Pink is also a strong presence in the scene above, where Rachel miscarries in the shower. The colour of course ties the three pages together. Let’s go back to the dream: “The water’s colder’n I thought. I got a stomach ach!. Agh, it’s a cramp!” He drowns. Of course, the dream is based on the show Rachel watches in the last page of the comic. The pink coat is lifted from the TV show, but it is also her bathrobe, her shower curtain, her blood, and the boy who drowns, well, we know who he is; both a representation of Rachel’s possible child and Rachel herself; her hopes.  This image, of Rachel showering, her face scrunched up in discomfort but her body otherwise unknowing, is the hinge of the comic. Why pink and not, say, foreboding black? In “Spontaneous, Habitual, Inevitable,” pink is foreboding; in this panel, pink is intense and disturbing, even though Masilamani uses it softly.

Distance through linework and affect through colour–this is how “Spontaneous, Habitual, Inevitable” manages to be both vital, personal, and moving, and also meditative, informative, and thoughtful. This comic left me raw, stunned, but also thinking.  “Which one should suffer when something goes wrong?” Masilamani asks herself. Neither, please. Neither should suffer.

Series Navigation<< [TW] Are You Fearful: The Subject by Rachel MasilamaniWe Conceive: Rachel Masilamani’s NON PARTUM >>
  1. Ginnis Tonik

    March 9, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    I’ve really been enjoying your analysis of this comic, Megan.

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