#IMWAYR: Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden
***Important notice for email subscribers***
Blogger continues to get more and more aggravating for me (and I'm sure for everyone else as well). This time, it's because most people on Blogger use a system from Blogger's owner, Google, called FeedBurner to run email subscriptions. Unfortunately, Google has decided to make a gigantic mess for basically everyone on Blogger by discontinuing FeedBurner's email subscription system in July of this year. Because I had some spare time this week, I have migrated my email subscription system from FeedBurner to a new system called Mailchimp. So what does this mean for you?
- Well, first off, you do NOT need to resubscribe to keep receiving my emails—I exported all of my subscribers from FeedBurner and imported them into Mailchimp, so if you have been receiving emails in the past, you will continue receiving them now.
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- Since I will disable FeedBurner, you do NOT need to unsubscribe from FeedBurner yourself—I will do that for you.
***End of notice***
(Oh, and while we're on the topic—if you want to subscribe by email [which I suspect only masochists will want to do after reading the above, but whatever], the subscription widget has been moved to the sidebar, because my precious little widget under the blog name only worked for FeedBurner, not Mailchimp. Sigh. Even better was that Blogger totally screwed up the way to actually remove that widget in the first place, especially if you have one of Blogger's newer templates like I do. Some advice for actual bloggers on Blogger having this problem—go into your blog theme's HTML code, click the Jump to Widget button and then the Follow by Email widget, and change the option for visible from "true" to "false". As always, Blogger makes things so user-friendly for everyone—not. I'm so jealous of all of you WordPress.com users.)
On with the actual post! First of all, in light of this last week's cornucopia of trauma, I'd just like to say that (a) Black Lives Matter, (b) donating to organizations on this list is never a bad idea, and (c) we need better gun control laws ASAP.
It's been a crazy week, but luckily, I've had a lot of things to geek out about—my family and I have been watching the brand-new final season of my current cartoon TV show of choice, Infinity Train, which has been even more off-the-rails (pardon the train pun), layered, terrifying, and phantasmagoric than it has always been. While we're on the topic of dealing with past trauma and being newly retraumatized by terrifying creatures while aboard a mode of transportation, let's take a look at the incredible graphic novel I am reviewing today: Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden.
This is a YA (young adult) book, not an MG (middle grade) book, and it is not appropriate for young readers. Also, TRIGGER WARNING for discussion of sexual assault.
FYI, Bea is the one on the left
and Lou is the one on the right.
As an enormous graphic novel lover, I do try to pay some attention to the graphic novelists who keep getting brought up again and again. And one name I keep seeing is Tillie Walden, a graphic novelist who, if Wikipedia is correct, is around 25 years old, yet has already published a shockingly long list of works, including graphic novels like On a Sunbeam (which I actually own, yet decided to read after this one) and Spinning. (I've also noticed blurbs from Walden on the backs of several books, like The Magic Fish and Mooncakes.) I saw Are You Listening? on Amazon and decided to buy a copy, thinking it would be good in that way many books that other people love are. I was not thinking it would be this absolutely, almost-objectively, jaw-droppingly stunning! Let's see why.
Bea is 18 years old and knows one thing: she needs to run away from home. What she doesn't know is where she is running to, or how she'll get there. Yet she runs anyway, trying to put as much space between her home in Houston, Texas and herself. Her need for space aligns well with the needs of Lou, who is 27 years old and who Bea meets in a convenience store. Lou's mother has passed away, and in her grief, she has set aside her career of being a mechanic to make a long road trip in her red car and tiny blue trailer. Bea and Lou don't mesh well at first, yet Bea ends up in the passenger seat of Lou's car on a trek out to San Angelo in West Texas. There's silence at first, and bickering, but slowly and surely, memories start to drip out, and Bea and Lou find solace in each other's company. And that's pretty much all they have on this surreal, terrifying road trip. Bea finds a cat whose tag lists a home address in a town called West not on any maps. Mysterious men cloaked in shadows follow Bea and Lou, claiming to be from an "Office of Road Inquiry." And the world outside the windows of Lou's car begins to transform as they drive through Texas, with broken bridges, repeating and disappearing buildings, and bizarre landscapes. Something is clearly wrong, and it isn't just the trauma of sexual assault that hangs over parts of the story like a cloud: strange magic is at play here. And when things go as wrong as they could possibly manage to, it becomes clear just how much Bea and Lou need each other.
"Gorgeous," "insightful," "heartbreaking," "hopeful," "cozy," and "terrifying" are all adjectives that one could use to describe Are You Listening? And yet none of them really capture the full story of this one-of-a-kind book. (Wait—you mean I can't summarize a book in one word? Huh. Weird.) I honestly don't really know how to write this review, but I'm going to just put stuff on the digital page and we'll see what happens. One of the things that struck me about Are You Listening? is Tillie Walden's ability to thread plotlines, words, emotions, art, and all sorts of stuff in such a discreet, flawless manner that you don't even see it happening. I know that, when I write book reviews, I have an idea of what I want to say, and then what comes out on the page is totally not that. And I can imagine that, for authors, that challenge may be even larger—you can write yourself into a corner, you can outline and suck the emotion right out of everything, you can take a break and come back having zero clue what you wanted to say when you started. What is so surprising to me about this book is that, perhaps because Walden wrote it so quickly, it really does seem like she reached into her brain, pulled the vision for this story right out, and slapped it onto the page, without anything getting lost in translation from mind's eye to words to hands to editors to the printed copy. It's like we're reading a story straight out of Walden's brain, and it is as awe-inspiring as it is inexplicable and (I won't lie) mildly jealousy-inducing—if I end up as an author, I pretty much know I won't have this kind of skill! (Although maybe it's one of those things we all have within us if we know to look for it. Yeah—I think I'll tell myself that instead. ;) )
One place where this skill of Walden's is evident is Bea, Lou, and their relationship. When I saw this book's synopsis, which describes Bea and Lou's relationship as "an exquisite example of human connection," I was like, "Yeah, yeah"—as fun as it can be to read two characters of different ages getting to know each other, I feel like most of those stories end up as idealistic plotlines utterly disconnected from real human beings' experiences (and, as we know from the gluttony of dead-parent MG books, idealistic plotlines utterly disconnected from real human beings' experiences do tend to come up from time to time in the sort of books I sort through when searching for what to read). Ranting aside (so more ranting can take the stage), it really is shocking how utterly believable it was that a 27-year-old woman would let an almost-stranger who is just 18 ride along with her on a trip across Texas and then form such a strong connection with her that, even though it is 100% platonic (which is good, because one of them is literally 18), it really cannot be called anything except "love," it is so strong and pure and utterly accepting of the other's true self. Bea and Lou (Lou in particular until the last chunk of the book) feel so utterly real that they practically Krazy Glue themselves to your heart—whether it's Lou's Southern twang and weirdly endearing road rage, Bea's volatile disposition mixed in with plenty of compassion (and an affinity for cat-snuggling), or the two of them trading memories or debating whether certain flavor palates are genius or disgusting, you really cannot help but utterly love these two. Bea and Lou become as familiar and comforting as the bubbly little red car with its column-mounted manual shifter and front bench seat, the cramped blue trailer that Bea and Lou cram themselves into every night to get some sleep, or the delightful white cat that becomes a companion throughout the travels. There's a reason the word "cozy" came to mind earlier.
There's also a reason the words "heartbreaking" and "terrifying" came to mind, to be sure. So let's get started with that. Bea and Lou grapple with quite a bit throughout this story—they are both gay, which is obviously not something terribly acceptable in Texas from several decades ago. (I do appreciate this book's implicit point that gay people, like straight people, are perfectly capable of having a platonic and non-predatory relationship with people of the gender they prefer romantically.) Other baggage: Bea is easily panicked around strangers, Lou is claustrophobic and grieving for her mother, and of course there's the aforementioned elephant in the room: sexual assault. Without giving too much away (which I always feel weird saying, as if sexual assault is some fun twist in the story to look forward to), I do want to say that Walden gives readers a quick slash-of-the-knife run-through of the horrors of such an experience, from the awful moment right after it happens, to the guilt survivors feel as if it was their fault (particularly when it happens more than once), to the survivor's fear that anyone with any sense would be disgusted with them and run far away. This run-through is all a memory, with no illustrations and a few short sentences, but that doesn't mean it doesn't feel like a blade driven through your heart. And yet, Walden shows readers how, with the help of someone else's empathy and love, even someone who has experienced something as awful as this can rise from the ashes, strong, calm, and ready to love. It's a beautiful depiction of something this awful, and it's no surprise that Walden pulls it off with aplomb.
And then there's the "terrifying." Truly, this book is one of the scariest that I have ever read. To be fair, I don't read horror books, so it's not like the bar is that high, but still, I was not anticipating the level of fear that was packed into this book. First of all, this book dials up the rural small-town/ghost-town weirdness to 11, with strange shadows in a convenience store, ominous sayings from local residents, and of course the men from the Office of Road Inquiry who want something from Bea and Lou and are prepared to follow them far for it. Combined with Bea and Lou's own internal struggles and the unnerving transformations of the world around them (there's an indoor pool in an abandoned hall where an important scene takes place that will most likely haunt my memories forever), it really is impressive how well Walden flips from comfort read to sheer terror and back (or not back, as the case may be). And then there's the place where things utterly spiral out of control, or, as I'll nickname it in this review, The Occurrence. The Occurrence is basically a terrifying and ghoulish nightmare-fuel adrenaline-filled chase scene that ends with a gasp-inducing, time-freezing tragedy where it seems like all hope might be lost. Of course, I wouldn't recommend any book where literally all hope was lost, and Walden's truly cinematic scenes that follow this event are truly incredible—emotions come to a head, memories are relived (not the sexual assault memory, thank goodness), aforementioned human connections are solidified, and the magical terrors of the story are explained so brilliantly and so abstractly that I absolutely loved it and pretty much anyone who likes an actual explanation will hate it. But it's genius, believe me.
Between small-town road-trip delights, tragic real-world issues, and creepy magic culminating in The Occurrence (which could literally be a book [or movie] in and of itself, outside of the rest of the story), there is really quite a bit packed into Are You Listening? But whether it's Walden's gorgeous artwork (with abstract landscapes, vivid facial expressions, brilliantly simple/simply brilliant page layouts, and moody color schemes), her genius dialogue (as realistic as it is impactful), or her general talent with literally all things, everything comes together in one of the most impressive stories I have ever seen. If you're not a graphic novel fan, the abstract art and general reliance on visuals for storytelling may not make this book your cup of tea. But if you love graphic novels, I cannot tell you how much of a shame it would be to miss out on this story. With its visceral impact, incredible range of emotion, and depiction of two people who truly bring out the best in each other, Are You Listening? is a book I am utterly thrilled to recommend—and a book you should be utterly thrilled to read too.
My rating is: Stunning!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 2!