Reviews: Hoax – Psychosis Blues
Hoax Psychosis Blues
Ravi Thornton, Illustrated by Bryan Talbot, Rian Hughes, Julian Hanshaw, Karrie Fransman, Mark Stafford, Hannah
Berry, Rhiana Jade, Ian Jones, Leonardo M. Giron, Rozi Hathaway
When I reviewed Ravi Thornton’s intriguing previous graphic novel (with Andy Hixon) The Tale of Brin & Bent & Minno Marylebone a couple of years ago (see here) I said that in some ways it was difficult to do justice to it in a review, because it was such a lyrical, dream-like travel through metaphors and symbols, something to be experienced, that a simple review just wouldn’t really capture properly. That’s even more true of this new work, a deeply personal, intensely emotional piece. Or I should say piece – there is this graphic work Ravi has created, with the collaboration of a brilliant and diverse series of artists (including Bryan Talbot, Hannah Berry, Rian Hughes, Karrie Fransman and more – see above), but there is also a musical production. Both stage and book draw on the never published poetry of her late brother, Rob.
I could tell you it follows Rob as he struggles with mental illness, from the worrying signs of something being wrong but Ravi and others not being sure what it is, through diagnosis, treatments, the alternating tides of recovery and the troughs of mental anguish, and how it affects him, his family, everyone around him. And that would be a true statement, as far as it goes, of what we read here, but as I indicated, this is not a simple, linear narrative, it’s more like a series of experiences, different chapters with different artists adding to the kaliedoscope sensation offering different perspectives into Rob’s mental state and how he is seeing the world, sometimes with pleasure or hope, sometimes with dreadful, heart-rending anguish.
Some segments are like being on the ocean at night, a dark mirror, seemingly calm, reflecting silvery moonlight, beautiful – but you don’t know what lies under that dark mirror. There are depths, deep, lightless, with currents that can grab us, move us, we swim but those currents will carry us anyway, sometimes to wash up upon golden sands, other times to dash us on rocks between our own personal Scylla and Charybdis and it feels like we are at their mercy, and, just as horrific, our loved ones around us desperate to help, to soothe and feeling helpless, seeing us struggle, trying, oh trying so hard to help and despairing that it’s never enough. I’m sure those are familiar sensations and feelings to anyone who has dealt with mental health problems (or indeed serious physical health problems) or tried to take care of someone enduring them. In one of the more traditionally linear segments Rob tells her she can’t understand, can’t imagine. I can a little, she tells him. No, you can’t he replies. That horrible lurching sensation, you so desperately want to reach out, to be their strength and help them up, and you can’t and no matter how you try you don’t really know what they are going through, because you are not them and sometimes all the love and best intentions in the world won’t make any difference. Doesn’t mean we stop trying though. How could we?
The individual sections illustrated by different artists are often highly symbolic, drawing, literally, on the imagery of Rob’s own poetry. Between the art and the verse we’re in the world of symbols and metaphors as much as words (and we should never forget even then that words are metaphors themselves). In my years as a bookseller I’ve often heard people – shamefully including other booksellers – say “I don’t like poetry.” As if you can dismiss a vast and endlessly variable form of writing. Personally I’ve always loved poetry; much as I adore a beautifully crafted paragraph of prose, there are some things which verse is simply superior for articulating, and cries from the heart and soul are among those.
Good poetry doesn’t simply deal with the logic and structure of the narrative prose, it’s like music, it darts and moves and touches and stimulates, eliciting emotional responses and evoking imagery in the reader’s mind. To me that means every single person who reads these pages will form different takes on them, and that’s as it should be – this is a deeply, intensely personal work, both Rob’s beautiful, heart-felt poetry and Ravi’s crafting of her beloved brother’s words into a new artistic form, and of course it will stimulate different imagery and emotions in the minds and hearts of each reader. For instance, for me Mark Stafford’s art reminded me very much of Pink Floyd’s The Wall (the animation and the music and the film) and that feeling of loss of control, of others running your life, ostensibly for your own good and yet it felt like powerlessness and being dominated, unwillingly.
Sometimes the simplest touch can be deeply affecting – admiring Rhiana Jade’s beautiful art for the chapter “Of Zeus and Leda” the poetry dances and curves around and across the pages until just the final few words appear, just slightly outside the artwork, all alone on their blank, white margin, on the outside, looking in. “For in solitude I learned to repent the glory of stolen pleasure, and realise your happiness was all I needed to fill the emptiness” then the final part of the line “is it too late now?” on the margin. Such a simple technique but it spoke volumes of that desperate, urgent need to connect, love, share, and the awful abyss we feel opening as we fear that we simply will not have that, that there’s a wall between us and that most wonderful, simple and warm shared sensations with another. Simple and beautiful and moving.
Anchoring these more symbolic chapters by the different artists there is a continuing serial strip going year by year, illustrated by Leonardo M. Giron, interspersed between those chapters visualised by the other artists, documenting Ravi and Rob’s life over a decade of ups and downs in a more traditional comics style. The very first such sequence is quite upsetting, Ravi visiting her brother in an institution, the attempts to be cheery, upbeat, helped by a friendly orderly, but it all falling flat, the condition has him in a trough and the wonderful brother she loves is lost somewhere within, seemingly untouchable. Heart-breaking. Others see Rob striving to find some way to deal with his condition, to understand it and move through it, some show those simple, silly little moments between loved ones, the little nothing moments that really mean everything in the world to us.
Of course there can be no happy ending here – this whole work exists because of a life lived in struggle and ended before its time. But that’s not to say this work is a work full of endless despair, far, far from it. Ravi crafts a way to bring it to a conclusion which I won’t ruin here, save to say it has a certain bittersweet, happy-sad beauty to it that anyone who has endured lost will empathise with and quite possibly smile at (I did). And there is a certain joy, despite the subject matter, in both the art and in Rob’s poetry, not to mention the pleasure taken by a sister finally making her brother’s verse come to life in print, to be shared with other readers, released into the world as poetry should be (for poetry needs to be free range and roam among readers). It’s a beautiful, extremely personal, emotional, touching work, coursing through the contrasting tides of a troubled soul and can take it’s place on your shelf next to Darryl Cunningham’s Psychiatric Tales or Al Davison’s Spiral Cage.
Hoax, Psychosis Blue is available to order from Ravi via her Ziggy’s Wish site, set up for books that can support charities, while the stage production of Hoax, My Lonely Heart is showing from 4th to 7th June 2014, at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.