By Rhys Tarling
“There is no comic book industry. There is the superhero industry, and the rest of us out here alone” – Bryan Lee O’Malley
Released in 2003, Lost At Sea is a graphic novel written by Canadian cartoonist and writer Bryan Lee O’Malley (of Scott Pilgrim fame). It’s a coming of age story about shy 18 year old Raleigh, who is convinced that her mother placed her soul inside of a cat when she was 14. Reeling from a recent breakup, she begins to suffer an existential crisis and hitches a ride with three fellow classmates she barely knows – who are embarking on a road trip across California.
Being 18 is a strange time: you’ve been in the world long enough to have a healthy amount of cynicism and scepticism about it, but it’s difficult to coherently put these feelings into action because you lack a certain kind of experience of the world outside of familiar classmates, and set recesses and lunch times. There’s an amount of aimlessness and incompleteness necessary to wallow in before you gain a clear direction. Put simply, you’re in between places, and this graphic novel captures that perspective with painful clarity: “What a weird set of memories to have. What a stupid bunch of garbage in my head, completely inapplicable to the current situation, to the rest of my life, to anything that might happen except turning around and heading backwards through time.” The novel uses the narrative device of stream of consciousness, more often used by literary figures such Sylvia Plath and James Joyce than by graphic novelist.
The stream of consciousness style is used to brilliant effect – much of the text consists of the inner monologues of Raleigh; what she thinks about herself, the people around her, her past, and it’s clear that she’s an articulate, thoughtful and intelligent person – but when other characters directly engage her in conversation she’s a limp noodle of inarticulate statements, or phrasing obvious statements as a question.
In fact, Raleigh spends much of the novel in a state of paralysis and indecision, her intelligence and thoughtfulness isn’t something that can serve her yet due to her inexperience, and so it only tortures her by hacking away at any kernel of certainty she has about reality. It’s interesting to note the gap between Raleigh’s melodramatic poetry fuelled interior monologues, and her three new friends’ trading hilariously crude verbal barbs or randomly erupting into a profanity laced tirades, most likely in an effort to stave off boredom.
Graphic novelist Brian Michael Bendis recently answered a question concerning how to effectively write a main character who suffers, he responds with “Humour. Don’t just do one note, or one emotion, or one tone. Juxtapose the scenes, tones, feelings, characters. But dear god don’t belittle the character’s struggles with gags.” It’s a tricky balancing act and a testament to O’Malley’s talent that he pulls it off in his first graphic novel.
The lack of a specific setting and sense of place serves the core theme of this comic – feeling incomplete and lost, being stuck on a seemingly endless parade of in between kind of places, such as gas stations, open roads, and cheap motels.
And then there’re the cats, who play an important symbolic role in the narrative. Cats seem to be drawn to Raleigh (whether they be real or imaginary), and she is convinced her soul is in a cat. What’s with all the cats? Marie Louise von Franz, a Jungian psychologist, writes that “cats are often seen in dreams by women…who are too doggishly attached.” In this case, Raleigh is attached to the spectre of her ex-boyfriend and her troubled past. Raleigh supposition that her mother placed her soul in a cat is a way to cocoon herself from properly confronting the realities of her sadness – if she has no soul then she must be separate from people who have souls, and thus cementing a certain comfortable numbness that comes with keeping people at a distance.
A convoluted conclusion to reach, but in that limbo of aimlessness, O’Malley captures a truth that is not spelled out to the reader; Raleigh spends too much time in her own head. Who hasn’t, particularly in that somewhat formless period between childhood and adulthood?
Lost at Sea is a strange, confronting and ultimately hopeful story if you’ve ever been 18 and confused.