NOTE: This article was originally published on Infinite Earths on January 25, 2013. Here’s an internet archive that includes my post
They say that old houses have character, but in Karrie Fransman’s The House That Groaned, the old Victorian where this story is set might as well be a character itself. Built in 1865, it seems to have been left on its own to rot and break apart from the inside out, much like many of its current occupants. Yet, if the building was properly maintained, the lives of those inside would not be compelled to intersect in such a dramatic way. Pipes slip apart allowing conversations to drift down from the upper floors, the boiler bangs with such ferocity it sounds like angry knocking, and stairs buckle under foot, landing one tenant at another’s front door. Fransman allows the rooms’ walls to act as panel borders, and the gutters are filled with the house itself; its machinations evident, bridging the gaps between people’s lives.
The story beings in a fairly straightforward manner; a young woman named Barbara is starting fresh in a new city, and as she moves into her flat, the reader is introduced to the eccentric occupants of her building. By utilizing a structure that the reader feels comfortable with, Fransman is able to challenge our expectations of these characters and pose some complicated questions. It is obvious from the outset that each occupant is emotionally damaged in some way. Over the course of the book we find that every one of them has been abandoned or let down in some traumatic way that has left a hole inside them. It is the divergent way that they satisfy their loneliness that sets up the reader’s judgements about them.
There’s the insensitive cad Brian, who lives on the ground floor, and only dates women who are terminally ill or disfigured. He must be preying on vulnerable women. Janet, who lives across from him, gives weight loss classes and eats a meager salad at her computer each night. Upstairs, a corpulent neighbor Marion tries to convince her to give up her masochistic self deprivation and enjoy the sensuality of food again. Marion must be trying to liberate Janet from her strict notions of self-worth being tied to waist size. Similar assumptions can be made about the touch-up artist who wears gloves when interacting with others, the old lady upstairs who literally blends into the background and the seemingly ditzy Barbara who wants to be a model.
Just as the reader feels comfortable with their relationship with the characters, Fransman begins to pepper in flashbacks. As the past of each character is revealed, our notions about their moral character shifts and the reader is left in doubt of their own assumptions. In a way, the author seems to be pitting existentialism against moral relativism. Is it what we do or why we do it that’s important in the end? Not that she’s willing to give us any easy answers to this question.
As a boy, Brian had a prolonged hospital stay that left him fixated on death. He truly finds the women he dates beautiful for their pain. The real predator in the house is Marion, who is not preaching self-acceptance but rather a destructive form of hedonistic self-satisfaction. Her wealthy alcoholic parents emotionally abandoned her to fulfill their own desires, and she sees no reason not to recruit others to help her similarly destroy herself. Meanwhile Janet lost weight not in an effort to punish herself, but instead had devoted herself to becoming healthy in order to have a family, which turned out to be unachievable.
Along with confounding the reader’s moral expectations, Fransman makes the reader grapple with their views towards body images. Throughout the book, she depicts her characters in ways that could be considered explicit or gratuitous, but her abstracted style de-sensualizes them. Rather, by unabashedly showing a variety of bodies without shame, the reader’s perceptions of normative body views is foregrounded. The reader must come to terms with how each character’s relationship to body image shapes our feelings towards them. Does the reader admire the dieter for her commitment to a healthy life, or the sensualists unashamed love of her curves, or both? Are we repulsed by the anorexic, obese and disfigured women Brian chooses as his sexual partners? Does his ability to lust after what disgusts us make us uncomfortable about our views of beauty? Then we come to Barbara, who seems superficially “perfect”, at least according to Matt across the hall, who has a phobia of physical imperfection. Her story of coming to terms with a body she is deeply unhappy with leads to the most significant change in appearance of everyone in the house. The casual way that Fransman relates her past makes you realize that transformation is part of everyone’s life, and a dramatic shift in outward appearance should perhaps not be so startling as the transformations that occur within us.
Meanwhile, the house, in the throws of death, shudders and convulses, bringing the occupants together for a few final dramatic moments. In the end, it is Brian’s honest love of the disfigured that saves him and while Janet has a brush with death, they both emerge relatively unscathed and walk away into the sunset together. Other tenants don’t get such happy endings, but in life, few truly do. Fransman tale serves as a reminder that we have only been allowed a few glimpses into the lives of others and real life is not as clear cut as we might expect a story-book to be.
The House that Groaned is published by Square Peg rrp £14.99.
Available on Amazon for £9.59: http://www.amazon.co.uk/House-that-Groaned-Karrie-Fransman/dp/0224086812/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359118461&sr=8-1
Kat Sicard recently completed a Masters’ at the Glasgow School of Art, where she explored definitions of “the book” and how interaction can shape understanding. During her time there, Kat became interested in the structuralist constructs that are inherent in how we understand comic books and created work around manipulating and subverting these constructs to challenge the reader. Currently, she is researching how comic books can be used to interrogate and analyze narrative structure. Kat is working on a practice-based PhD and will be making work that questions the form and format of the comic book and encourages the reader to engage with the work in non-traditional ways.