Today the National Book Awards will be announced. Since the shortlist was announced the only finalist I’ve read was a particularly compelling YA finalist called Stitches (2009) (which also made the controversial all-male Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2009 List). I was drawn to Stitches because it is one of those rare graphic novels that gets taken seriously by book awards committees, not that I have any opinion on that — I don’t. But I find it interesting. This is only the second graphic novel to be a finalist in National Book Award history (in 2006, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese was the first, also in the YA category). I have read and do like some comic books, though it has never come close to rising to the level of a guilty pleasure, but Seth’s George Sprott (1895 – 1975), published in the New York Times Magazine‘s “Funny Pages” back in 2006 and now available expanded in book form, was the first time my ignorant self realized that there can be high literary quality in graphic novels. I’ve taken them a bit more seriously since then too, though I’ve still read only Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen (loved the Tales of the Black Freighter substory) and Art Spiegelman’s fantastic Maus, which is the only graphic novel to have won a Pulitzer (albeit as a special citation and not in fiction).
I’m far from qualified to talk about the illustrations in this book. All I really know is that I really liked them, and I think it was primarily for their perspective, their lines, the fluid almost watery shading, and for the excellent way they combined with each other and with the text to convey David Small’s disturbing account of his childhood.
And what a disturbing account! It’s almost hard to believe it’s true, but it is. The central event — though not necessarily even the most disturbing event — in the book, the one where we get the surface meaning of the title Stitches, is when David wakes up one day to find he cannot speak. His throat has been operated on and is now stitched up. As it turns out, and this is only revealed to David little by little later on, he had cancer and wasn’t expected to survive. No one told him.
No one in his family said much of anything, actually. The book opens up with some wonderful renderings of how his family didn’t communicate. His father (a radiologist, by the way, who with his frequent x-rays of Davids sinuses probably caused David’s cancer) went downstairs and worked out with a punching bag. His mother slammed drawers in the kitchen. His brother beat drums. It’s a very violent and palpable depiction of family silence, emphasized by the drawings. This bitter, almost violent silence is a running theme in the book.
David’s own silence is a bit more constructive. To show his silence, Small treats us to wonderful renderings of the young David’s beginning drawings. It is one of the ways we see Small’s versatility as an artist as he goes from one style to another and then to another. Another way we see Small’s versatility is by showing us David’s young dreams (horrifying, with gothic cathedrals and bombed ruins) and his fantasies (cute cartoons David himself, a budding artist, would draw as an escape).
It’s very disturbing to see how the young David is treated by his family, but this is amplified when a growth becomes visible on his neck. It is frequently neglected as his parents squander their money on social positioning. If it weren’t for these social gatherings, however, it’s possible that David’s growth would have killed him since it was his father’s friends who showed the most concern and eventually organized his diagnosis, leading to his night-time emergency surgery. One of the darkest bits of comedy and emotion in the book is when David’s mother comes to ask her son what she can do for him. Bitterly David asks her for the book she took from him recently, a copy of Lolita. She walks away and eventually surprises David by bringing him the book. It’s touching. But all of that is undercut when she takes the book again after she’s found out he’s survived. And now David’s silence continues, but this time not of his own choosing — and he has a lot he wants to shout.
At home, late at night, I began to have the sensation that I was shrinking down . . . and living inside my own mouth . . . a hot, moist cavern, in which everything I thought, every word that came into my brain, was thunderously shouted back at me.
We watch David as he grows older, a slightly bitter, quiet young man who eventually teaches himself to speak with his one vocal cord. We watch as he flirts with the mental instability that we’ve seen in his grandmother and his mother and increasingly in himself.
It’s a wonderful book, and again the YA category proves that young adults should not be talked down to and that there are many writers talented enough to treat them with respect, giving them a compelling story that speaks to them without preaching to them. Indeed, my only problem with this book is that it’s incredibly short. Sure, it’s 336 pages, but because of the cinematic quality (much like The Invention of Hugo Cabret— ah-hah! I have read another graphic novel in the last few years!), you really speed through them. I think anyone could get through it in an hour. But as I hope I’ve shown, it does not lack depth of emotion. It’s just that I felt I was finally settling into it, I was really getting into the form and the substance, and it was over, and that left me feeling somewhat unfulfilled. But there are many well-controlled issues settled into these pages in text and graphic form. It deserves its spot as a finalist and as a Publishers Weekly best book of the year — even if it was written by a man.