THE NARRATOR’S MOTHER appears on just two occasions in Dominique Goblet’s astonishing, newly translated graphic memoir Pretending is Lying. She makes her first appearance in the book’s four-page introduction, which reconstructs a bright and distinct memory from Goblet’s childhood. Here, omniscient, loving, looming over, she pulls her daughter from the ground after a bad scrape. The daughter’s tights have been torn, and she is in distress. “Holes here! HERE! holes! holes! holes, oohohhh!” The little girl cries dejectedly. Unfazed, her mother takes the tights off, bundles them up into a ball, and promises to make everything better. She pulls the same tights on backward over her daughter’s legs, and the girl is calmed, then amazed. “She can do magic,” Dominique, the daughter, thinks, her eyes wide, her arms splayed at her sides. The tears, as far as she can tell, have been repaired. Mother and daughter leave the scene quietly, hand in hand, though the holes in the tights, now at the back of the girl’s legs, are visible to the reader.
On this occasion, the mother has been everything she could be, a comforting sorceress. The next time we set eyes on her, the scene starts off just as promisingly, but does not end so well. In fact, it becomes a horrifying encounter. But the same enchanting mother can be glimpsed, if barely, somewhere even in the midst of the violent and abusive interactions: that long, straight hair; the tall, commanding pose; those clear, square-shaped glasses.
In the present tense of the book’s unfolding narration, moreover, there are words, gestures too, that connect this twice-glimpsed mother to the many scenes in which she does not appear. Dominique is an adult when the book opens, with a four-year-old daughter of her own. She has not seen her alcoholic father since she herself became a mother. “Hello Nikske,” he says when she finally visits, putting his arm around her. This is the same nickname (“In Brussels dialect […] [the] diminutive of Dominique,” a small note in the book tells the readers) that the mother called her daughter in the introductory scene. Later, alone in his living room, father and daughter discuss the absent mother. “You made a good team with her,” he accuses, expressing his injuries. “But no papa …” she corrects him, though it takes her until the very end of a long scene to gain such courage. In the interim, their overwhelming feelings of distress fill page after page of tortured, unpredictably rendered words and images, squeezed into variously sized panels. The faces of the characters, their postures too, shift shape and even occasionally come alive with tints of color. The prose, sometimes shaky and childish, sometimes tight and neat, overwhelms the illustrations more frequently than not. There are word bubbles, at times, but more often language simply appears, uncontained — as when, in response to her father’s accusation that mother and daughter had abandoned him, Dominique softly intones, her body language resigned, “It’s you who abandoned us.”
Pretending is Lying was first published, in its original French, 10 years ago by the renowned French publisher L’Association. L’Association is known for releasing experimental, quality comics — in the English-speaking world, some of the best-known translated works that originated with them include Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and David B’s Epileptic. This is Belgian cartoonist and visual artist Goblet’s first English translation (done in collaboration with cartoonist Sophie Yanow), though she is already known in the Franco-Belgian comics world for her many experimental publications, including a number of collaborations. In a brief preface to the book, Jean-Christophe Menu, one of the founders of L’Association and the editor of the original addition, as well as an “exceptional friend” to the author (as she puts it in her acknowledgments), describes how the book took Goblet 12 years to write: “There were other books, expositions, trips; the autobiography returned, left again, returned.” Traces of this postponement appear in the book itself, most notably in the yellowed pages of the scenes composed early on.
Interestingly, Menu, perhaps rightfully so, omits mothering from his list of the reasons that delayed the book. Of course, one cannot assume that becoming a new parent had anything to do with the delay. And yet, regardless of the particular circumstances of the book’s timing, motherhood is certainly its central subject. This is true despite the continued, domineering presence of two men throughout its pages: her father, whose death is announced halfway through the narrative in a bold, epitaphic image; and her partner, whose presence waxes and wanes, tormenting both himself and our narrator as he grapples with his attachment to an ex-lover. These story lines are, in the context of the grander scheme of the book, mere diversions. The true focus here, as in other groundbreaking graphic memoirs like Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, is on how our childhoods remain perpetually alive and visible to us, and how in adulthood we continue to navigate the past in the present — sometimes more self-consciously than others.
At times, being with her child effectively returns Goblet’s narrator to her childhood self, as when her father’s new girlfriend, Blandine, shrieks at Dominique’s daughter, “Pretending is Lying it’s Lying! Pretending is Lying!” This outburst occurs in response to the girl’s casual comment about a picture she has just drawn, and suddenly the page itself transforms into what looks like a child’s drawing, the mother’s point of view merging with that of her child. Blandine is a stick figure with a skeletal head, hovering over a small, frightened child with wide eyes and pointed hands spread apart. The figures of mother and daughter, here as elsewhere, blur the borders between past and present, childhood and adulthood. Elsewhere, when Dominique tucks her daughter in at her boyfriend’s apartment, she assures the girl that she should not be frightened by the menacing illustration of a man’s face looming over her bed while she sleeps. “You have to laugh at the things that scare you,” Dominique says pointedly — trying, one gathers, to reassure them both of the limitations of drawings, of images that overwhelm and trespass whatever boundaries exist between what is real and what is not real.
As the story arrives at its gracious, lyrical conclusion, the narrator comes to a kind of truce with her haunted past. For now, the drama is contained: her mother — like the scrawny, sprawling handwriting reflective of her emotional imprint — is no longer visibly in the picture. Instead, the final pages include a series of watercolor-filled scenes reflecting an endless sky, lone sentences and words depicting a conversation of potential reconciliation with her lover. “I really want to see you!” one of them says, though the pleasantly scripted words seem to belong to no one, dangling in the distant sky without a clear source. “When?” one of them asks, and the future looms as broad and full of possibility as the carefully shaded final pages of the book, rendered in neutral color schemes.
Even as other visions linger in the not-too-distant past, threatening to intrude, the memoir seems at its close to reveal how you can create your own background, your own fresh and almost unspoiled, if colored over, canvas — at least temporarily. For the artist and writer tracing the past with an attentive grasp on the present and as-yet-unscripted future, images can transiently override images.