December 20, 2017

Softness and Statement: A Review of WHAT IS LEFT by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell

A ship that runs on the memories of one of its occupants malfunctions and collapses in on itself in the dead of space. One of its engineers survives the wreckage inside the reservoir of memories, alive but trapped, alone and stranded in a patchwork dream of someone else's life.” 

Daniel Elkin: There is a certain softness painted in periwinkle and pink. A wash of almost non-committal colors, neither this nor that, calling forth malleability and tenderness. It's the moment right before dawn. The cheeks of a newborn. All that possibility -- fecund with that which comes next -- suffused with potential. 

Such is the palette from which Rosemary Valero-O’Connell paints her 36-page comic from ShortBox, What is Left, coating it with an emotional tone that would otherwise elude her narrative. This choice is what gives this space-wreckage story its core. Here, the juxtaposition between thought and expression elevates and widens that which she hopes to convey. These colors saturate Valero-O’Connell’s undulating lines, tentacled and sinuous, adding movement and grace. The only straight lines in this book form the panels of her layouts, broken up and through, placed perfectly in a geometric rhythm that dance on the page. 

This is a book that transforms tragedy to beauty, and, by doing so, gives it a fundamental humanity that wraps around the reader with both delicacy and despondency.

Keith Silva: The word you want is "fluid." What is Left -- which is not a question, but a statement -- runs on memory. What you read as tenderness and possibility is a chimera. Possibility infers an as yet untapped potential, an unknown. This is the opposite, a reckoning, an accounting of what is lost and only what remains. Valero-O’Connell’s colors soften harsh realities: space, class, and death. Her choice of colors don’t convey "rosy-fingered Dawn," though, but reflect it. This is the "dying of the light." Same coin, different sides. 

“Slippery,” that’s the other word you want. It’s right there in the scene where Kelo plays with the cat and Isla reminds herself, warns herself, about the fragility of sanity in such situations of survival. She says, “keeping your head straight and your eyes clear is the most important thing,” She’s talking about a default, a preselected option when no other alternatives exist. Endurance means the rejection of sentiment. Kelo is a resource, a path she chose and trained for, yes, but she has become nothing more than the means of production, propulsion. Her existence, perhaps, even edges on the supernatural. She is a series of memories and is therefore no longer corporeal, human. Kelo says to the cat, “Aw sorry, bud. You’re slippery.” It’s true, cats are slippery, fluid and temperamental, like memories. 

What is Left is a cerebral story and not only because almost all of it takes place inside Kelo’s (Isla’s?) brain. What a giddy idea, memory as propulsion. Like all good fiction, What is Left forces the reader to confront the headiest of questions, the questions that matter most: Who are we? and What happens when we die? 

These are questions, What is Left is a statement. Valero-O’Connell chooses not to soften her story by asking a question in the title and therefore opens her story up to interpretation. She’s unsentimental in a story full of sentiment: parties, good food and “every first kiss, every scraped knee … everyone I’ve ever loved pulling us through the stars.” 

Delicacy? Despondency? No. Memories are delicate things and yet they shoulder so much of life’s burden. After death, memory is what is left, memories sustain life, lives, the same way Kelo’s memories sustain Isla. Get all gooey and sentimental if you like, you’d be wrong, but each to his own. 

Elkin: Try this on for size, then. In What is Left, right after things go wrong with The Memory Core on Isla’s Class C space vessel, one of the engineers says, “... but how’s a thing that runs on memories gonna be anything but temperamental?” Clearly, here is a statement of purpose, Silva -- one that reflects back on both of us, seeing as we both have approached What is Left from our own individual prior knowledge. You come at this story with your po-tA-to of darkness and fluidity, I read it with my po-TAT-toe of softness and delicacy. It’s the half-empty/half-full cistern of human experience, isn’t it? The old adage, “while you read a text, the text is reading you.” 

And yet I feel that we can both agree we were affected by the effect of this book. What that results in requires each of us to look to how we make sense of the world while considering what makes ourselves ... ourselves. It’s tricky and temperamental business, yes? Delicate AND fluid, perhaps? 

Still, the line that sticks out the most to me in What is Left is, “You’re all that exists in here. Every bit of it is you.” This is the rumination, the acknowledgment that we stomp and stumble our way through our duration, careening and spearheading, stretching and curling, and all of it is important to the creation of what we conceive ourselves to be. Every skinned knee and gold star, every first kiss and last good-bye, every smile and every tear -- ALL OF IT led to this moment, as much as all of it creates the story of our endurance and continuance, the epic tale of YOU, the epic tale of ME. The heroism and the cowardice of all our small moments coalesce the multitudes into personality, identity. 

You’re right, Silva. What is Left is not a question. What is Left is a statement, a declaration. And it is shouting your name. And in that it is beautiful. And in that it is delicate. And in that it is powerful. And in that it is potential. 

Just as you are. 

And, yes, just as I am, too. 

Silva: So we see this comic in the same way, but different -- two obliques in a room full of right angles -- because, according to you, I’m me and you’re you? 


But doesn’t that speak to what makes What is Left work? What makes it universal? Perhaps -- and I can only speak for myself, you’ll have to tell me if I’m wrong (hint: I’m not) -- what we’ve both been dancing around here is: 1) we both dig this comic, because 2) it provides what, I believe, “the kids” call, “the feels”? 

Memory is all feels, only feels. 

And now you’re probably dead out there,” Isla says to no one besides herself. Kelo is dead (or dying); it’s only her memories that survive. That’s Valero-O’Connell’s conceit, a riff on that old Latin chestnut, media vita in morte sumus, or “in the midst of life we are in death.” What is Left is Isla’s memento mori. Kelo’s memories power that Class C vessel and when it all goes to hell, Kelo’s memories form a life ring carrying Isla to safety. If the Latin is too much for you, how about if What is Left were given a shallow sounding Hollywood-style logline, it might read something like: “The Giving Tree … in space.” 

Talk about your feels. 

Too much? Okay. Here’s something less feels-driven: do you find it curious the worker in this story, Kelo, the human host or “donor” whose Theta waves fire the Core, “a combustion engine [that uses] the brainwave patterns of the host’s memories as fuel,” dies so Isla -- a graduate of the academy who’s, “from the Taino system, two planets past Mero” and says she’s “a biomechanic” (whatever that means) -- can live? Isla says (admits?), “I don’t think I said more than ten words to you when we were on the ship together. Just some hello’s [sic] over breakfast. Polite. Inconsequential.” Isla finds value in Kelo’s life only when it is her life (Isla’s) under threat. 

“Fundamental humanity,” as you say, indeed. What’s the cost of life if it’s paid by memory? What would a Marxist (or an ol’ lefty like you with Marxist tendencies) make of this “condition” in What is Left

Valero-O’Connell’s title states a remainder (reminder?) which presupposes loss. Again, I’m reminded of the scene with the cat. It’s the only time Kelo and Isla share something, a word bubble. “Hah!” they both say. Maybe this gets to the “delicacy and despondency” you feel, Elkin. That color in the rainbow of the human condition, that we are together alone. 

Kelo and Isla share the same space (in space), but they don’t know one another. Isla was “polite” to her, Kelo was “inconsequential.” It’s not until she has to grasp onto Kelo’s memories for dear life that she acknowledges Kelo’s humanity, her existence, another being with a life different from her own. It reads like progress -- maturity maybe? -- perhaps that’s why you were thinking of “newborn cheeks,” Elkin. The birth of a child and the realization that you are now responsible for the care of another life sobers one up quick to the fact there is more to life than oneself -- a new life that will, hopefully, protect, honor and remember you when you are, once again, dust. 

Bring the feels.

Elkin: And in this, again, Silva, there is counterpoint to the palette of softness. Yes, Valero-O’Connell is wagging the finger at our casual, yet callous, self-absorption and the sticky business of mustering “thoughts and prayers” suddenly when another life lurches into our fore. 

We become most compassionate in the midst of tragedy, often through the acknowledgement of “There but for the grace of God go I” (or even, “Better them than me”) -- yet, that compulsion comes not from obligation, but perhaps from the satori of a common sense of condition. Blood and sinew, muscle and bone -- we are all of the same stuff. Truly, we are at our best when we look a stranger in the eye and say, “That could be me.” Sadly, we only tend to see this when we peer through our heart strings. 

And so it is in the wreckage of What is Left

Isla finally acknowledges the richness that was the life of Kelo because she cannot turn away. Her very survival is literally enmeshed in the life of another. Such a thing forces an acknowledgement of “the other” -- and Valero-O’Connell understands the uniqueness of such a thing -- the jarring singularity of such an event -- and her choice to bathe it in periwinkle and pink does more to connect this to the reader than any narrative choice could ever do. 

Yes, it elevates the feels. 

And in doing so, it hoists the key idea behind this throwaway sentimentality (and its untoward narcissism) into something more soft, more fluid, more real. What is Left is comment and precept as much as it is art. What is left in What is Left is the foundational truth of our reciprocal state -- we are all in this together in the end. 

Silva: To borrow from the glover’s son: “Adieu, sweet prince /And flights of class C vessels sing thee to thy rest!―“Do you copy 2679?”

Keith Silva's writing can be found at sites such as Loser City, Comics Bulletin, and especially at Interested in Sophisticated Fun. You can find him on Twitter @Keithpmsilva

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