Tommi Parrish’s Men I Trust is less a narrative than an illustrated dialogue between two women recovering from bad relationships—with ex-partners, with alcohol, with codependency. There is Eliza, a poet trying to raise her young son on her own and Sasha, a fan who attempts to befriend her. Though only a few years apart in age, the two occupy entirely different worlds as a result of their contrasting priorities and responsibilities.
Parrish’s subjects have large, bulbous bodies with few hard lines—that modern blobbiness that’s so en vogue now. Their heads sit, miniature, atop large round shoulders, reminiscent of the shrunken heads of Beetlejuice. Without context, it can be hard to tell one character from the next, their forms so indistinct not just from each other but from the shapes around them. It’s their speech that shapes them. As we get to know them, as Eliza and Sasha get to know each other, we start to distinguish them, develop an ability to try to read a subtle expression on their soft faces. Their similarities begin and end in the superficial.
Both Eliza and the reader experience a very brief honeymoon with Sasha before we see her uglier side. Sasha presents herself as beat down by life, a victim of the circumstance of her unfeeling parents, the grind of capitalism, and the brutality of mental illness. But the more clearly she is rendered, the more we see her hand in all of this. Her parents are out of touch but love her unconditionally and provide not just shelter but rides to and from her social events. They place no limits on her, remaining unwilling to throw her out even after she lies and steals from them (for what we can assume is the umpteenth time). Sasha is the manipulator. The bond she believes she shares with Eliza is not a recognition of a lonely, kindred spirit. It’s a clocking of someone equally vulnerable.
It’s fitting that Eliza assumes she’s far older than Sasha when they first meet. Sasha embodies a youthful carelessness combined with a self-aware, woe-is-me narcissism that Eliza recognizes and likely once indulged in. But whereas Eliza has taken clear, if non-linear steps, towards growth, Sasha is wallowing. When their already-faint relationship dissolves, Eliza seems primed to finally accept what she has been hesitant to openly long for: a chosen community built of love and support. Sasha, alternatively, seems stuck in a familiar loop. She’s alone again, lying again, having lost the gamble of an unconscionable attempt to manipulate Eliza into physical closeness.
Throughout we see not just the characters engaged in long conversation but what their eyes drift to as they chatter: a man mowing a lawn through a window, the bright logo painted on the side of a pizza delivery truck. In this gaze, we see characters observing the world outside themselves and their less than desirable circumstances, which are rendered in six identical square boxes.
Ironically, Men I Trust has few male characters. Though we see the lingering presence of significant men (Sasha’s client for her sex work, the abusive fathers discussed in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings) few men appear as much more than afterimages. The most prominent male character is Eliza’s son, the man she is doing all of this—the AA, the thankless deli job, the continued communication with her awful ex—for. He appears like the adults in the same wonky proportions, just miniaturized. One can easily imagine him as an adult, eventually giving his own morose speech to a room of strangers about a mother who worked too much and still never had any money. The difference is Eliza’s son will never have to fight to know his mother’s love. It’s in every corner of the book.