Today has been a rotten day, to be honest. When the metaphorical whistle blew on my day job, I waded across the sludgy campus to spend the afternoon in the library, where long-suffering library users like me who actually want to Do Some Work huddle hopelessly in the silent study rooms on level five, desperately wishing that other less considerate library users could at least make some effort to grasp the idea of silent study. ‘Silent’ means ‘shut up’. Whispered conversations are not okay, because we can all hear you, and if two people are whispering in an otherwise silent room, it’s very distracting. Shut. Up. No giggling, no whispering, no eating crisps or other noisy and/or smelly snacks, no noisy breathing, no listening to some ghastly whining female vocalist at full volume on your iNoisyToy, and if you must type rather than use a pen, please try to Do It Quietly. No need to hammer at the keyboard. You’re not using an Underwood.
The loud stage-whispered conversations in the library this afternoon would not be swayed by any amount of shushing from myself, so I moved to the other ‘silent’ study room where unfortunately everyone seemed to be suffering from pleurisy. At this point I gave up and came home, and now I’m in the mood to be spiteful so it’s the perfect time to write a blog post about this book which, quite frankly, was never going to make it into the magical Top Five.
To be fair, I should make it clear at the outset that, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m not much of a one for biography. It’s just not my cup of tea. I simply find it rather dull, and biography in graphic novel form is for some reason even more dull. It just seems to go nowhere. David B’s Epileptic is a valuable exception, but Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter bored me rigid. Anyhoo, there was a bit of a to-do about Dotter because it was shortlisted for the 2012 Costa Biography Award, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. In a nutshell, Dotter is written by husband and wife team Mary and Bryan Talbot: she did the words, he did the pictures. The book tells of two dysfunctional father-daughter relationships: the story of the author Mary and her ‘cold mad feary father’, an eminent Joycean scholar, is told alongside that of Lucia Joyce, daughter of the famous James, whose promising career as a dancer is cut tragically short, with her parents being in no small way to blame for this.
At first it seemed as if all my preconceptions and worst imaginings concerning graphic biographies were going to be confirmed. The first 25 pages of Dotter are pretty awful: the exposition necessary to orientate the reader is, on the whole, clumsily executed, but I quite like the ‘typed’ narrative voice – it has an appropriate kind of nineteen-fifties feel to it. However, I hate the wifely interjections: ‘NB: My mother wouldn’t have been seen dead in a frilly apron’, and again on page 18, ‘NB: Bryan’s wrong again. In my school boys were seated on one side of the classroom, the girls on the other’. Well, why didn’t you tell Bryan this before the book went to press, Mary? You’re married, aren’t you? I assume this means you live in the same house and spend a fair bit of time together, so you could have told him, couldn’t you, instead of inflicting this rubbish on us? And if the cutesey interjections aren’t bad enough, the clunky dialogue on page 15 is just excruciating:
(Scene: university canteen)
MARY: Yeah, well, when I discovered Joyce had a daughter, I was curious. My parents were named Nora and Jim too!
RANDOM COLLEAGUE 1: No way!
RANDOM COLLEAGUE 2: So you’re finding parallels?
MARY: I bloody hope not! She spent most of her life in mental institutions.
RANDOM COLLEAGUE 2: Just like this place, then!
RANDOM COLLEAGUE 1: And you fit in so well!
Please, by all the gods, spare me. Spare me from other people’s wackiness.
The book takes off though, once Lucia’s narrative begins. Three different colour schemes help keep the reader grounded: full colour for the present day, sepia for Mary’s childhood, and muted blues for Lucia’s story, which, chronologically-speaking, is the oldest narrative; so we move therefore from a sort of black and white into sepia and finally into full colour, as if looking at a century’s worth of old photographs. Splashes of colour dribble into the sepia colour-scheme, and these splashes become increasingly dominant as Mary and Bryan’s history begins to catch up with the present time. This method of selective colouring is also employed to achieve other, striking effects: for example, the streaks of red blood following the birth of Mary and Bryan’s first son are foregrounded against the still predominantly sepia background.
The two storylines share similar themes of parental abuse and neglect, but it seems to me self-indulgent to parallel Mary Talbot’s sufferings with those of Lucia Joyce. After all, Mary had raised two children and gained a PhD by the time she was thirty and it is difficult to believe this would have been possible without some measure of parental support. Poor Lucia Joyce had made a promising beginning as a dancer, but was denied every opportunity to further this career and was eventually committed to a mental institution by her own brother after a nasty fight with her appallingly vicious mother. In the parallel narrative, Mary Talbot’s father seems to have been a nasty piece of work in some respects, yes, but Mary isn’t seen to end her days in the loony bin.
In fact, I think on the whole I’d have preferred to read the biography of Lucia that we see Mary reading at the beginning of Dotter.
Just two more points before I wrap this one up. The artwork is lovely and I’ve always liked Bryan Talbot’s stuff – his style is clear and clean, but astonishingly expressive nonetheless. He’s also the author of another very successful comic book, Alice in Sunderland. Finally, it’s interesting to compare the depiction of riot scenes caused by the Paris debut of George Antheil with the rendering of the same scenes in Catel & Bocquet’s Kiki de Montparnasse. Yes, I know the latter is biography and I’m not supposed to like it, but it’s also a rollicking story with boobs, bums and plenty of dancing and drinking, so it’s alright with me.