Where is the line between pretending and lying?
When does the multifaceted gaze of subjectivity turn the haze of memory into a shimmer of deceit? When does self-doubt morph into self-deception, and when two people are involved, how do differing subjectivities align their understanding of events which may both be as true as they are starkly divergent?
Lofty themes punctuate Dominique Goblet’s work, but she often treats them with the simplest of sketch illustrations. The award-winning Belgian comics artist has treated autobiographical material before, and her work is most striking for its ability to pair a profound complexity of subject matter with compellingly simple artwork. There’s a temptation to call the simple pencil line drawings ‘childlike’, but they control and compel the reader with a subtlety that reminds us surface simplicity is not an end in itself but an invitation to plumb the greater and more elusive depths which it masks.
Pretending Is Lying spills a variety of such autobiographic profundities from the lives of its protagonists onto the pages of its narrative. The failed father figure, whose alcoholism and lofty self-image inure him to the sufferings of those around him, yet whose frail humanity, in the end, leaves him hard to blame. The abusive mother figure, loved by the author despite it all. The two-timing, weak-willed boyfriend who in fact collaborated with Goblet on the chapters outlining their painful relationship. The daughter Nikita who remains a spark of light through it all, and whom Goblet thanks movingly in her acknowledgements.
Pretending Is Lying, originally published in French in 2007, weaves together narratives from Goblet’s childhood and adulthood; narratives which Goblet spent 12 years struggling to frame together and wring from memory to paper. The story is framed around Goblet’s efforts, as a grown-up adult with a four-year-old daughter, to come to terms with her relationship with her father, a blustery and alcoholic firefighter.
This is interwoven with the story of a romantic relationship between Goblet and her lover, Guy Marc Hinant (who co-authored these segments); what emerges is a portrayal of the indifferent cruelties of weak-willed men and the self-deceptions they weave about themselves and which inevitably affect the lives of those around them. The narratives possess a self-revealing coherence, but they jump back and forth through time in a manner that underscores the recurring personal failures of the men in her life. There are no neat answers here; no pat conclusion to tie the book together with a satisfactory sigh; but then art echoes life echoes art, does it not?
Goblet’s skill lies in helping to convey this sense of complexity in human relationships. The artistic style of the work varies, which is apt, given the leaps in time between chapters. Her simpler sketch work may be difficult for some readers at first, but it quickly grows on the reader who allows themselves to be absorbed by the deeply human story it tells. In other segments, simplistic line drawings merge into lush, painted streetscapes almost imperceptibly. The artwork deserves aesthetic appreciation but serves more to accentuate the powerful human story told by this painfully beautiful book.
The over-arching quality of this work is one of poignancy. The nostalgic self-reflection is painfully honest but verges on the bittersweet without falling into its enervating trap. No one is really bad; no one is ultimately redeemed; the reader is enveloped in a poignant air which is rescued from becoming truly depressing through its simple narrative honesty. To the reader, the men in Goblet’s life appear as misogynistic failures; but it’s harder to see someone that way when you’ve loved them; harder yet when a part of you still does.
Goblet communicates this painfully and effectively. Her ability to do so—even if it took her 12 years to get this story right—underscores her talent as a comics artist, which has been widely recognized in Europe yet remains less known to North American audiences. Goblet won the Topffer Prize for the French publication of Pretending Is Lying and has also been awarded the EESI Prize at the Angouleme Comics Festival. Her work received acclaim of a different sort when an exhibition she’d been invited to do with German artist Kai Pfeiffer was censored and shut down in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2015. For Pretending Is Lying’s English language edition she collaborated with talented North American comics artist Sophie Yanow, who translated the work.
Pretending Is Lying is a perceptive and poignant contribution to the fields of both experimental comics and graphic autobiography, and well worth the read.
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