Books

If Only 'Everything Is Teeth' Had Been Content to Remain a Mood Piece

It's as though Wyld is, ironically, scared of writing a story willing to give fear its due.


Everything Is Teeth

Publisher: Pantheon
Illustrator: Joe Sumner
Format: Hardcover
Price: $24.95
Author: Evie Wyld
Length: 128 pages
Publication date: 2016-05
Amazon

Everything is Teeth is a memoir so placid, so idyllic that it begs to be disrupted by the shock of some violence. An episodic exploration of author Evie Wyld’s youthful fascination with and fear of sharks, there are no major narrative arcs or sensational events to propel the tale forward. It's a subdued affair told in a fittingly subdued manner.

The yellows and blues that make up the palette of the world are so muted they leave the environments looking as washed out and as still as photographs from two centuries back. Artist Joe Sumner may use sharp whites to color the skins of his characters and bold blacks to outline them, but they have about them the look of classic cartoons from the '20s; bulbous heads stuffed with caricatured features stacked atop willowy bodies. They look as if they’re afraid to move for fear of their heads rolling off their necks of their limbs snapping, so they tend to stand or sit still; motion is at a premium.

Not that one might notice any: Sumner’s panels -- even his smallest one -- are so large and wide that even up-close the people seem lost within them. The panels swallow up everything within them, from the Rorschach-blot ripples in the water to Wyld’s narration.

Short and declarative, her sentences end just as they’ve begun. Details are observed, emotions noted, commented on, but never more fully explored; Wyld might tell us she was once embarrassed or scared, but she will neither tell us what it was like to suffer those emotions nor what they felt like. There is an impersonal quality to these observations that suggests she regards this “bug-eyed” six-year-old not so much as her own childhood self, but as somebody else entirely, a distance that only reinforces the book’s languid atmosphere. Indeed, everything seems remote, even the promises of some tragedy. Moments when Wyld’s older brother pauses in doorways, staring into space, or drags himself in bloodied and bruised late at night suggest a story that immediately fades into the background, is but one more particle in the atmosphere of dread or drop of blood in the ocean.

A scene where Wyld’s uncle gifts her one of the many shark pups he just removed from their beached mother’s belly leaves her feeling “worse than when, in order to accommodate the new microwave, the pet goldfish were poured into Peckham Rye pond. Along with crisp packets, cans of Rio, the odd pair of trousers.” That last set of details, replete with associations of a more trivial kind of violence, the violence of discarding, is carefully suggestive and just as carefully unexamined. These moments are like ripples on top of the book’s placid surface, portending the presence of some terrible “weight beneath the water” that only threatens to emerge. The full body of causes and emotions are suggested, felt, but never seen. Only sharks are immediate.

Vivid blue and sharp, represented not by illustrations but by painfully realistic models and expert photographs that have been photoshopped into the panels, their appearance slices right through the stillness of the memoir in the same way the sight of their fins might turn a lazy afternoon beach party into a panicked rout. They hover just behind Wyld and her father as they drive down the road, or stalk her as she comes home from school. All lines and angles as sharp as their teeth, the antithesis of the wobbly, round forms of Sumner’s bobble-headed caricatures, these photo perfect sharks seem far more real than the cartoon people they would prey on. Their teeth leave behind gouges that look like some kind of unholy cherry cobbler, the deep red so unlike any other color in the book that its presence alone seems a kind of attack.

Though these wounds eventually heal into scars forming a “cartoon apple bites”, as one of Wyld’s perfect turns of phrase has it, the scars are permanent. Sharks, so physical, are undeniable. So, too, is their violence. It's easy to understand why a young Evie Wyld would be so scared of them when listening to her uncle and grandfather’s stories about “being alone in the water at dusk with something that lurks beneath the surface” or flipping through a book about shark attack survivors. It's just as easy to see why she would be so fascinated.

For as a mood piece, all atmosphere and suggestion, Everything is Teeth is excellent. Wyld and Sumner understand perfectly how to pace their story, know as well the ideal line and the ideal composition to evoke the air of charged stillness that is everywhere present in this memoir. They know the elemental appeal of their subject lies in suggestion, know as well that this same air of suggestion is the very thing that drives the fascination that is so essential a part of childhood fears.

Finally, they understand what many others miss about children. That they do not fear as adults do. Wyld and Sumner know that what horrifies us in our infancy attracts rather than repulses children of a certain age. When kids, we want, like Wyld’s younger self at an exhibit with a full-scale shark suspended in formaldehyde, to walk up to whatever it is that terrifies us, “look (it) in the eye and ask (it) what (it) wants.” We spend countless hours in front of the television rewatching Jaws, peeking through the gaps in our fingers for those gory glimpses of “great hunks of raw meat, bellowing gops of blood”, inserting ourselves and our family members into the roles of Brody, Hooper and Michael just as Wyld does. Our sleepovers find us in unlit bathrooms at two in the morning, whispering “Blood Mary” in a hush to a mirror that may, if the legend is true, reveal something too terrifying to describe.

If only Everything is Teeth had been content to remain a mood piece. But Wyld and Sumner have an ambition that compels them to explore the theme of fear more fully, yet at the same time they have little enough to actually say about it. They betray the fundamental appeal of the unspoken, the menacing by offering us hoary cliches and dime-store thoughts on how to confront these things when they finally come to pass. As Wylde has it, the horrors that lurk just out of sight -- sharks, like the unexplained beatings her brother endures and which her family is unable to protect him from, the threat of death -- can be addressed if one has the knowledge and resolve to fight them.

Wylde’s fear of sharks dissipates at the climax of the story when she watches her brother and mother swim right by a fin unscathed, despite her own visions of brutal massacre. It's a similarly cathartic experience for her brother, who walks away from his brush with the fin full of renewed vigor; in the mere time between heading out to the water and swimming back in he has become “a head taller” than his mother, as if in conquering his fear he has come of age and transcended the bullying that made his life so hellish. It is not, however, cathartic for the reader. How could it be, when Wyld’s brother and his torments became background details only four pages after their introduction?

Similarly frustrating, the epilogue celebrates Wyld’s father as he passes for “(fighting death) on his own terms" without ever once earning the appreciation it expects. “(He) gouged at her eye... bought himself some time… an inhalation of breath”, we are told, but it's impossible to feel some vicarious pride for a man we never knew to be in mortal danger. While her father is certainly more prevalent a character than her brother, no mention is ever made of a wasting disease or life-long illness over the 100 pages of this story. He evinces slight cowardice in the way he slathers himself in sunscreen and avoids swimming because of “some leftover phobia from an English public boarding school”, yes. But these fussy cautions are played up much more as mild eccentricities than they are as major elements of his personality or neurotic tics born of a deeper struggle with some mortal affliction.

For him to die suddenly, in a matter of panels, feels too much like a last minute addition meant to lend the story a pathos it has not rightly earned. Worse still, it trades away all that is best in the story for a resolution too quick and tidy to feel anything but tacked on.

To dismiss fear as just an obstacle to be conquered by dent of knowledge is not simply to adopt a platitude and present it as real knowledge -- a sin bad enough because it's so lazy. It's like jumping back in horror before a monster only to watch it remove its head and reveal your kindly grandfather inside, whose only reason for constructing so painstaking and realistic a thing was to teach you that there are, in fact, no such monsters at all. It's as though Wyld is, ironically, scared of writing a story willing to give fear its due. Of writing a story that is, ultimately, pessimistic or even simply without a comforting moral.

But this is not just a betrayal of her audience, it's a betrayal of her own story. Everything Is Teeth, in those earlier moments when it emphasizes tone to the exclusion of all else, is a beautiful palliative to the milieu of hysterical navel-gazing so popular in comic memoirs like Craig Thompson's Blankets and the dead-pan, matter-of-fact journaling championed by Harvey Pekar and his imitators. Maybe there was nothing that deserved our fear in the first place, after all, but the creeping dread, the eerie stasis, the perfectly calibrated tension and the shivers of joyous terror we felt -- the same shivers that turned us into children just like the young Wyld again, fear and curiosity mixing in irresistible blend -- were far more valuable than the parental pat on the head they were sacrificed for.

5

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