What initially struck me about Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole were the categories listed in the publishing information:
1. Family Drama
2. Schizophrenia / Hallucination
3. Graphic Novels
While it clearly falls into category three, the first two are what really caught my attention.
Powell’s story examines family life, focusing on Ruth and Perry, the two children of an unnamed family. What really strikes me is the bond between these two, formed over all the social and hormonal awkwardness that exists within the world of Swallow Me Whole. The story is set nowhere in particular but it really does capture an atmosphere of suburban drab that can be found anywhere from Toronto to Austin. The family that exists within this particular suburb is like any family imaginable: they have problems and they deal with them.
The bond that exists between brother and sister is at the heart of this book. It’s a very unique bond and here it culminates when both Ruth and Perry tell each other “I love you” as they sneak back into their rooms from a night of hanging out. It is glorious. It is not incestuous, quite simply it is family. Those who have struggled and survived the best and worst with their families will understand this.
The other major aspect of the book is Ruth’s schizophrenia. While the schizophrenia and hallucinations that Ruth has to deal with are a strong presence in the story, the illness is a vehicle to explore being a teenager. The hallucinations provide Powell with a very interesting canvas to work into the story. The bugs that invade Ruth’s mind or the little white blob creature that spawns from her grandmother’s head provide a fantastic eeriness to compliment the drab suburban setting where the novel takes place.
Also explored in the book is the common bond that Ruth and her “Memaw” (grandmother) share with their schizophrenia. While the grandmother-granddaughter connection can often be an unoriginal and artificial device, the way Powell uses it really strikes me. In order to illustrate their bond, he utilizes artistic narrative as opposed to dialogue. There are some short scenes where Ruth and her grandmother talk, but the real bond is illustrated when the little white blob creature comes out of the grandmother’s eye while she sleeps and flies out into the night, devouring all of the bugs that are associated with Ruth’s hallucinations. These types of scenes make Swallow Me Whole really great to read.
The book’s characters are not necessarily attractive, yet they’re not meant to be hideously grotesque; they just are. They become part of the everyday world that we all live and exist in. As a dweller of suburbia, I feel like this book has the ability to highlight the small struggles that families go through. Ruth is no champion for child schizophrenia. She exists because Powell wants her to exist. The victories that we celebrate in Swallow Me Whole are the small things: the unconditional bonds of family, the never-ending imbalance of chaos and order, the joys and frustrations of growing up. While it doesn’t strike the “epic of the mundane” territory, it emerges as a portrait of the normal world we all know and are always trying to escape from.