Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: Marbles by Ellen Forney

All of us who have suffered from, or who have loved someone who suffered from a mood disorder can related to Ellen Forney's struggle to cope with bipolar disorder. With brutal honesty and just as much humor and grace, Marbles documents Forney's entire two steps forward, one step back history.

Forney's pages have a rich variety. When framed, her pages are regularly three row, usually two column but occasionally mixing in a page-width row. When unframed, her images and words spill over each other. The more manic the scene, the more disordered the framing. My favorite image comes at the end of the third chapter- a sideview of a black drain, with an image sliding down one side. Is it water, or is it a three part liquified stick figure melting away? On one side of the drain is a long list of the negative side effects and risks of lithium use. On the other side is the sober reality that lithium wasn't the best drug for her at that moment. As a story teller, Forney balances her text-heavy tale with great, often brilliant black and white art.

But her story telling so long on expository and rabbit holes that the entire book can feel a little like watching a flashback. We're rarely there with Forney living a scene; instead, the scene has happened, and much like Forney's psychiatrist, all we can do is let her recount the tale.

Where Alison Bechdel has built a career on illuminating the supporting cast (first in Dykes to Watch Out For, and then in her two pieces of memoir, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?), Forney keeps the focus squarely on herself. Her few friends offer little more than cameos, accessories to the action Forney pursues rather than characters inhabiting a shared space in her world. And Forney's mother! She helped cover Forney's rent and other expenses, provides constant emotional support, and carries some level of guilt since mood disorders run through Forney's mother's family. That's the character I want to hear more from.

What is most disappointing about this sprawling novel is its conclusion. Forney keeps trying to refocus her struggle with bipolar disorder as a struggle not to allow the illness to sap her creativity. She frequently makes reference to famous "crazy" artists: Plath, Van Gogh, O'Keefe and more.

But the real story, the story that goes largely untold her, is how a pot addict kicked her habit. After years of smoking daily or nearly every day, Forney finally confesses the extent of her addiction to her psychiatrist. I'm not clear that she sees the possibility that her "self-medication" might have actually prolonged her struggle to find a balance of life and meds that (once she found it) allows her to live a more productive life. On page 194, at what is otherwise the climax of Forney's struggle, the story literally stops beside a sketch of a heeled, knee-high boot (she's putting her foot down) to say that people can smoke pot "wisely & beneficially."

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