September 11th, 2018
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.
On October 5, Quimby’s Bookstore hosted Keiler Roberts and Jessica Campbell for a reading of their newest books, respectively – Chlorine Gardens and XTC69. Both creators made us laugh with their unique styles of dark, dry humor, and read comics about religion, family and illness. I reviewed Campbell’s comic previously, but hadn’t yet read Roberts’ when I attended the reading, and had a fantastic time laughing at uncomfortable situations Roberts has lived, which she’s chronicled in her previous comics, Powdered Milk and last year’s Eisner-nominated Sunburning. Her real-life dry wit comes across perfectly in her comics, even when she’s describing the emotionally fraught process of being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Chlorine Gardens isn’t strictly about MS. Comics directly addressing the illness don’t appear until about halfway through the book, and afterward the possibility of diagnosis hangs over each comic like a mildly threatening specter. In contrast, humor is ever-present. Roberts’ pacing follows the pattern of a comedian delivering one-liners and transitioning between stories by picking up themes; the collection truly feels like experiencing stand-up comedy drawn onto a page.
At first glance, Chlorine Gardens doesn’t appear to have a specific structure. Roberts does split the book into sections, and bookends each with a small illustration related to some piece of the story — her dog, a collection of dinner leftovers, or the family of three drawing together in their home. However, the comic flows with an intriguing effortlessness despite the lack of linear narrative. It’s not just that I was laughing — I felt that I was following a specifically charted path, albeit an unconventional one.
On my second read-through I got a little… red-string conspiracy theory. Chlorine Gardens might be more than perfectly, comedically paced — it might have a hidden, meticulously crafted structure. Hear me out (as I put on a tin foil hat that is totally just a Halloween costume).
The first section of the book is populated by comic strips about Roberts giving birth to her daughter, Xia. Each comic balances hilarious moments with painful ones; she explains that when getting an epidural, “every pregnant woman learns if you move during an epidural you’ll be paralyzed forever and probably go to hell.” The second section moves on from birth to death by recounting stories of the dog Roberts had before Crooky, the current family dog. Swiftly after, Roberts begins to discuss memory — first through the guise of people’s favorite things, and later by describing all the losses created by MS as her favorite things: feeling “normal” in lieu of mood swings, feeling alert instead of fatigued, and, of course, remembering, instead of forgetting.
During the reading, Roberts explained that she has never been able to handle memory from a linear perspective, but all of her autobiographical work engages in the process of remembering. This perhaps explains why Roberts moves so naturally from topic to topic, pulling themes together rather than telling a straightforward story. However, while her concerns come across as funny initially, the later comics about Xia being her absurd, spunky self feel like a catalog of moments Roberts is afraid to lose. Birth and death are definite, but memory loss threatens the certainty of living life with a solid identity and a grounded understanding of the world.
Chlorine Gardens feels especially focused on capturing these important moments when Roberts adds extra detail to an illustration or nails a unique facial expression. During the story about losing her previous dog, Roberts gives the reader a lovingly shaded illustration of her pet, visually conveying a sense of love and attachment while she mercilessly critiques the dog’s behavior. Later, she recalls a bizarre middle school contest that Roberts herself instigated, in which students brought in their stuffed animals and voted on which was the weirdest. The stuffed animals also receive a loving amount of attention, especially a rather sweet patchwork cat. One of my favorite strips involves Roberts laughing hysterically at a strangely-worded Thanksgiving sign outside a bar. She’s definitely enjoying the joke more than anyone else, and the intensity of her joy is apparent on her face. None of these memories is stereotypically joyful, but Chlorine Gardens is not a saccharine scrapbook. It’s a snapshot of Roberts’ personality, and it captures her better than a simple photograph possibly could.
Humor, fortunately, is both comforting and healing. If Chlorine Gardens was arranged as a linear narrative it would offer no comfort – she has MS. Human bodies are flawed and full of betrayal. However, Roberts never loses her sense of humor. She’s funny to the end, and there’s a sense that, whatever happens, she’ll have laughter and family to carry her through.
Roberts’ work will delight readers interested in humorous meditations on illness and its effect on everyday life. Pop out to your local bookstore, comic shop, or use Koyama Press’ purchase guide if you’re ready to laugh.