IN TODD HAYNES’S 1995 film Safe, privileged upper-middle-class housewife Carol White (played consummately by Julianne Moore) lives a vapid, meaningless existence in Southern California until one day her body starts to inexplicably rebel. She experiences a series of odd, idiopathic symptoms: a coughing fit on the expressway, hyperventilation at a friend’s baby shower, a bloody nose and seizures at the dry cleaner’s. When Carol sees a flyer at her health club advertising a lecture on “environmental illness” — “Do you smell fumes? Are you allergic to the twentieth century?” — she decides she has found the root cause of her problems and eventually moves to a spiritual retreat in order to heal.
Except, of course, that Carol’s troubles are more metaphysical than that. As viewers may sense from the ominously lifeless opening frames of the film, Carol’s existence is rather useless. She lacks any and all substantive relationships, occupations, and interests, as she inhabits a sterile, fume-filled world like a wandering ghost. Like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s depressed housewife, staring at yellow wallpaper as she slowly loses her mind, Carol is a woman whose privilege shackles her from the inside out, a woman primed to engross herself in daily drudgeries until she has no self left to fret about. Perhaps most crucially and tragically, she is doomed from a spectral vantage point not to see the very people that make her own advantaged, sterile, and lily-white existence possible: the doting but discreet maid, the cheerful housepainters, the polite clerks.
The narrator in Julie Delporte’s beautifully rendered new graphic novel, Everywhere Antennas (Drawn and Quarterly, 2014), is far from a bored, rich, stagnant housewife. But her story does fit into this literary and artistic trajectory — representations of privileged white women fixated on their bodies and environments as they slowly lose hold of their faculties. Like Carol White, Delporte’s unnamed narrator also experiences strange bodily symptoms, including depression, headaches, and nausea, which she associates with a toxic environment. These further isolate her in her solitude as they become her prime and unsolvable obsession.
Delporte’s nameless narrator is a modern, independent, French-speaking woman in her mid-20s, poised, at the beginning of the book, to take her teacher certification exam. Finding herself increasingly troubled, she records her life as it unfolds, through a series of chapters marked by dates (the book spans Spring 2010 through Spring 2011), place-names (France, Baie St. Paul, Magic Hill Farm), and brightly colored, tranquil outdoor scenes (two blue birds; a cottage by a lake; a lone, sleeping woman). Within, each chapter contains diary entries marking the narrator’s mood or depicting a memorable setting.
Delporte’s skilled facility with the graphic diary is apparent from her first book, Journal (Koyama Press, 2013), a work collecting many entries that she first posted on her website as she composed them. As she explains on an early page in Journal, marked February 21st and consisting of a beautiful and brightly colored illustration of a woman, hands poised on her waist, eyes and mouth tilted downward: “This diary forces me to simplify (to condense mountains of thoughts down to just a few words). It’s relaxing.” Inscribing her daily life doesn’t mean just recording what happens, as it happens. For the graphic diarist in particular, it is about capturing scenes and moods and compressing them into a tight combination of word and image (and sometimes wordless image). If the prose diarist is often sprawling, tangential, and comprehensive — think of Virgina Woolf’s or Sylvia Plath’s extensive volumes — the graphic diarist must be more formulaic, selective. One simply can’t draw at the speed with which one writes.
Like Journal, Everywhere Antennas consists of spaced-out diary entries — simple, colored-pencil drawings sketched on white pages and accompanied by swirling cursive, also drawn in full color and often changing in pencil shade and size over the course of the same entry. If you look closely, you can see traces of tape, the diarist’s messy process made manifest. We learn early on that our narrator is having trouble focusing enough to read. She portrays herself with glasses and those same downcast eyes, staring into a tiny, empty book. Drawing is revealed from the start as a kind of antidote to the isolate, written word; it functions as a means of exploration, a way of examining her life and environment when words alone cannot penetrate. In one entry, she depicts herself made up of wispily penciled purple, red, and yellow lines, curled in a shadowy gray fog, feet wrapped around one another and arms curled to support her head. “I’m locked into a negative image of myself — of the ‘sick’ me, the me who gives up too easily,” reads part of the text below the drawing. “(I won’t be taking the exam).” At the very bottom of the page, we see an image of two simply drawn high top black sneakers leaning against one another, the pair contrasting with the narrator’s lone and isolated figure. Without the accompanying images, words won’t capture this exhaustion or solitude, this hopeless depression.
There are many drawings of this self throughout Everywhere Antennas, as though the author recognizes that it’s harder to have a “locked” image of one’s self if that image is constantly being tweaked and modified. Her hair color changes: sometimes it contains combinations of oranges and yellows, sometimes reds and blues, sometimes just a fiery red. Delporte’s use of color is a powerful force throughout the book, as it exhibits the stubborn intensity of a world that the narrator believes has rebelled against her, even as it is always there for the taking. Her eyes are often drawn closed or tilted, like she is trying to shade herself from overwhelming beauty. She decides in time that her cell phone is the cause of her headaches and depression, then her computer, then all the antennas that surround her. The term for this environmental illness that she adopts for herself one day as she listens to a podcast is “electromagnetic radiation sensitivity.” Eventually, like Carol White, and like Gilman’s narrator — other women who possess the privilege to seclude themselves with facility, a privilege they all take for granted — she retreats outside of her regular world in order to figure out if a change in environment can save her. But she brings her colored pencils along with her.
This narrator, then, is a far cry from the lone housewife; she’s a budding artist, though she frustratingly does not realize it. She is young, generally unattached, and chooses how and where she wants to live — a log cabin by the lake, a sparsely furnished apartment. She can pack her bag and leave whenever she wants to. Yet, there is something that still connects her to those other women, and perhaps it’s best understood in an entry she includes after she turns away from the life she is used to. Even as she takes her health into her own hands, selling her computer and venturing outside of her comfort zone into the deep, solitary woods, in a cottage by a lake, she continues to feel a nagging anxiety. “I can’t think of any solitary women — not in my life, and not in the movies, either,” she writes underneath an image depicting her from behind, just a tangle of yellow hair and arms outstretched toward a row of plain tree trunks. There is something strangely static about the images she has been offered and, in turn, the images she is now able to offer.
While this narrator, like Carol White, may have marked her environment as a culprit for her sense of estrangement, this passage suggests that, unlike White, she recognizes something less immediate but perhaps more pervasive and dangerous at stake here. Venturing out into the woods, the narrator turns from the modern world, evoking Thoreau and Perec as she roots for her own story. But she has no suitable guide before her; how often are women discouraged from such lone adventures, warned instead of the hazards of venturing out on their own? How can she fit herself into a story that has for so long been shaped by and for men, excluding her and any others from its inherent risks and deep rewards?
The narrator loses herself to an obsession with technology as a means of explanation, a reason to give for why she feels lost, without footing. In one whimsically beautiful chapter, drawn all in black-and-white pencil sketches, the diary structure is temporarily abandoned for a short narrative in which, like a modern Snow White, she consorts with animals in a cabin out in the woods. They offer her what she doesn’t even know she should dream of: a room of her own, with a typewriter and some peace and quiet. “But work on what?” the narrator blindly asks, unable to imagine herself as an artist. “I’m not studying now … I do nothing now.”
The “nothing,” of course, that the narrator is engaged in is the work of creating and maintaining a diary, a form that has often been disparaged as a mindless activity, lacking in value especially when women are engaged in it. Yet in this venture Delporte’s narrator does indeed have many guides, including the variously talented women cartoonists who have marked the diary as a unique and productive form of artistry. These include Julie Doucet, Vanessa Davis, and Gabrielle Bell, other diarists who have also been published by Drawn and Quarterly. The diary might be considered by some to be a solipsistic, artless venture, it might not often garner these women the attention they deserve, but it is nothing more or less than another way of seeing — of sifting through one’s experiences to make better sense of the world and of the self. To see one’s self through variously colored lenses is to better make out the characters, both central and peripheral, that make up one’s worldview. In this way, composing a diary is a deeply meaningful and evocative activity. Practically speaking too, it is a portal for those who are so often discouraged to seek adventure and solitary pursuits out in the deep woods.
The diary does not always free the diary writer or make visible the ties that bind her — Gilman’s narrator’s diary, for instance, ends with a lost soul no longer even clamoring for a way out. But as it unfolds, the diary nonetheless offers a potential place of solitude and adventure, a space anyone can mark as hers alone. “Maybe one day, soon or in the future, I’ll be able to sleep in the same place every night,” Delporte’s narrator remarks toward the end of Everywhere Antennas. As the book ends, the narrative text breaks down into even shorter fragments, accompanied by dreamy images of a soft moon curled up in deep blue, our narrator sleeping soundly beneath it. Contrary to what she may write, it looks as though the narrator has, at least in the diary, already established this space. “Find a life for myself,” she writes. On the final page, her face and body disappear, and we’re presented with richly drawn blues and grays and blacks — a mass of waves both inviting and potentially treacherous. “A life without waves,” the narrative ends, even as we know, in looking at the image, that such a life will never again be desirable as the artist in her takes over.
Tahneer Oksman is Assistant Professor and Director of the Academic Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College. Her book on Jewish identity in contemporary women’s graphic memoirs is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.