Sex is messy. Even if viewed as a liberating force, its connection to the irrevocable fact of reproduction gives it so much importance that half-understood readings of Freud or Zizek have it believably determining the bulk of our unconscious desires, which are then enacted in ways that essentially determine our civilization. If sex shapes our motivations for most of our adult lives, it becomes us to then look to how youthful experiences might have shaped our sexuality. Trying to trace a narrative back to its originating point quickly becomes complicated. The present provides a vantage point from which to seek out important incidents, but the possibility remains that another peccadillo could emerge out from somewhere inside our selves in the future, prompting us to look at the past again, with an eye to those newer urges' origins, and see other events as more important.
Conor Stechschulte's Generous Bosom, currently being serialized by Breakdown Press, is only obliquely about these important philosophical issues of what determines identity. It is not a political tract or a work of theory, but rather a "psychological thriller" in which character motivations are unclear. Currently at the halfway point, even the relationships between characters still remain deliberately muddled. In some ways, the only certainty is of a single sex act, but only one character's motivation for participating (it had been a while for the man, whose name is Glen), is 100% certain. The first issue primarily concerns itself with the recounting of this encounter, told by one man to another, with certain details left out. Visually, Stechschulte depicts a flashback to things as they actually occurred, a framing device that highlights the embarrassment felt by the protagonist by calling attention to the lies he tells.
The second issue is more opaque. It's a collection of short scenes that collectively seem determined to un-ground the reader. Certain sequences seem to be included specifically because most stories would skip right over them. The section that calls the most attention to its own length -- where characters go first to a big box electronics store, and then to a thrift store, trying to buy a VCR, only to end up needing to go to a smaller electronics store to track down the proper converter -- consists of a series of short scenes, repeating to draw out the joke. The whole quest is undertaken in order to watch a VHS tape, which itself turns out to be a collection of two short scenes, both depicting a subject objecting to being taped. The shaggy-dog nature of getting to the information contained inside a recording points to a larger issue of framing, the characters' attempts to narrativize their lives and make sense of those around them.
The first issue calls the reader's attention to what Glen leaves out of the story he is telling, and this distracts the reader from the possibility that Glen, as a character within his story, might not have been hearing the entire truth from the people he was talking to. The ending of that issue calls attention to how Glen might not have been privy to important knowledge, but the second issue complictes the idea of any certain knowledge.
The story I've described so far is just the book's main narrative thread. A two-page spread interrupts the first issue, announcing itself with a different color scheme, and focusing not on adult men but instead to the world of teenage girls presenting themselves in the wake of their burgeoning sexuality. This thread gains prominence in the second issue. These scenes have an in media res quality, beginning with a daughter, her hair freshly cut, being reminded by her mother of the troubles she had in the last school year. While these scenes read as flashbacks, it is initially unclear how they relate to the larger narrative, as the character these sequences focus on has a different name than the woman in the scenes depicting adults. Eventually it becomes clear the two women were close friends.
In the first issue, when one of these women gives her perspective as a grown adult, the reader assumes her culpability in becoming a part of a marriage that is now in shambles. She married young, and her family won't speak to her, and while we are told this, her resignation to these facts lets the reader accept them also. Seeing flashbacks to her high school years here, where her teacher pursues an inappropriate relationship with her, places him in the role of manipulator.
These scenes are marked by a double exposure effect. While in the first issue Stechschulte deploys his color palette to separate the framing sequence of Glen telling his story from the events he is describing, transitioning between these two sequences by overlaying both colors atop each other, creating an effect much like a dissolve, in the second issue Stechschulte depicts one flashback in a murk of overlapping green and purple color fields, that seem to be presenting, in several of these panels, drawings from the first-person perspective of a character overlaid against portraits of her seeing them. (It is almost like a comic-book equivalent of certain shots in Jean-Luc Godard's 3D film, Goodbye To Language, where the two cameras that composited into a three-dimensional image separated themselves to follow different paths, so that separate shots were then held inside each eye.) This then becomes even more complicated by the fact that at least one figure is drawn without a face, highlighting its erasure, speaking to the idea that the perspective of these flashbacks is one mediated by memory.
The first issue establishes a certain formal language within its drawing; the second issue works deliberately to complicate it. That first issue moves through extended scenes of dialogue quickly with the characters drawn in a cartoony manner, through many-paneled pages, emphasizing the acting of each. When it becomes time for an extended sex scene, the layout shifts into large panels, drawn in a detailed chiaroscuro, highlighting the tactility of the body as it exists inside a darkened room. That such a sequence feels so labored over makes the rest of the comic, its depictions of the comparative civility of interacting through dialogue, feel restrained in comparison. Scenes that take place in the dark are what we as readers want to see. The second issue, while it lacks the large panel's emphasis on situating a reader deeply inside a moment, averages things out: As it keeps the reader in the dark, we're reminded that's where the action is. In the absence of sex, here the darkened room is one teenagers sit around in smoking weed. Meanwhile, the "Generous Bosom" of the book's title might refer to a teenager's bra-stuffing, or to the way pregnancy effects a woman's body.
The first page of the second issue, the only lettering is a sound effect that seems to describe the wind going through the trees, calling to mind an anecdote in which David Lynch, in his pitch meeting with ABC for Twin Peaks, referred to the show as being about, and trying to capture, just that feeling.
The often ambiguous artistic motivation behind some scenes' inclusion, which makes the reader wonder why certain events are depicted, parallel the uncertain motivations behind the characters' actions. In one of the teenage scenes, two girls ask two boys to show them what ejaculate looks like, and the next shows one of those girls getting mad at one of the boys as he talks about how she smells bad; the kids in question might in adulthood recollection wonder why they acted the way they did. Any mysteries behind an artist's choices pale in comparison to questions of why humans in general act the way they do. This is not to say that the characters in this story are unrealistically depicted, but rather the opposite: that they are palpably, painfully realistic.
The degree to which the characters' actions feel believable is heightened for the way the book's narrative techniques implicate the audience. The reader, wanting things to make sense, keeps reading. Events might seem initially inexplicable on, but the reader holds out hope for a governing principle that will be discovered in time. While in story there are recording technologies that allow the characters to re-experience the past and attempt to sort out everything, the comic itself compels the reader to reread the extant issues, in order to keep track of who all the characters we see in various scenes are, and how they relate to each other.
While Stechschulte's previous work The Amateurs took as its subject a hole in memory originating from possibly supernatural origins, the originating corrupting force in Generous Bosom seems to be the human need to understand their memories and frame them in a way that lines up with their present ideals, which unfold at cross purposes to other people's.
There remains an ambiguity of intent, on Stechschulte's part as well, for how deeply the reader will be implicated, and how deep the knife will be twisted. The hand remains unrevealed, the question of how far the narrative is going, and to what end, remains unanswered. While the basis of suspense might find a precedent in Hitchcock, the interest in monitoring and videotape, and the willingness to go darker, and implicate the viewer, calls to mind Brian De Palma, or even Michael Haneke. Meanwhile, a moment in the first issue that seems like a detour from the narrative, in which a moth is chased around a room, reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov, and his artistic gamesmanship full of unreliable narrators and hidden framing conceits.
We have only the beginning of answers. As the plot advances, and leaves us with another cliffhanger, there is a sense that one of the reasons things are so confusing, one of the reasons the people are behaving strangely, is out of their own desire for answers, to make sense of other people by means of control. The characters, having played roles other people designed for them and now unsure in retrospect how much they enjoyed or consciously complied, try to recapitulate their past interactions. Each of these interactions involves another person with his or her own past, and trying to understand their own role at the exclusion of the others just sinks them deeper into the murk. The second issue ends with the sense of a cavernous space, vaster than what has been known before, and the only light by which to see the edges residing in the human urge to explore.