Silence in the Suburbs of Montreal

I Never Liked You by Chester Brown

In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby,” years spent working in a dead letter office haunt the title character. The world is forever poisoned by his realization that human communication is ultimately deficient. Bartleby is destroyed by the countless love letters, telegrams and hastily scrawled notes–all misdirected words that never reach their destination. It is this imperfection of language that forms the core of Chester Brown’s new graphic novel, I Never Liked You.

I Never Liked You chronicles the life of pubescent Chester as he comes of age in Chateauguay, a Montreal suburb. Brown, known for his books Ed the Happy Clown and The Playboy, mines well-excavated territory in this new book, which is largely taken from issues 26-30 of his autobiographical comic book, Yummy Fur. Here his ideas are more precise, and his art more thoughtfully placed. I Never Liked You is a masterful collage of skinny legs, clawed hands and sudden rages. Most of all, it is about the inability of people to get inside the souls of one another.

Silence is a frequent refuge for Chester. When his neighbor Connie berates him for his bad language, Chester walks silently, hands in pockets. Later, Chester’s mother announces during a car trip that “People expect a woman’s breasts to be a certain size and mine aren’t that size. They’re smaller. So I wear a padded brassiere.” Here Chester’s silence protects him from her bizarre monologue and hammers home Brown’s obsession–the tenuous connection between word and action.

What makes this story memorable is its exquisite art. Brown uses the space between the panels to great effect; ink drenches each page, and the square panels seem to float against a night sky. His style is reminiscent of American colonial art, with its hallmark large, adult heads precariously balanced on the bodies of children. Chester’s fully formed head rests uneasily on his skinny shoulders. This style reflects the inherent conflicts between the body and mind of a sensitive soul, and it perfectly captures Chester’s teen-age confusion.

Unlike too many avant garde cartoonists, Brown does not simply illustrate a story that is primarily conveyed through words. Here, the words and pictures weave their power separately and Brown knows just when to skew lines to evoke emotion when words falter. In one dramatic scene, Chester learns of an accident his mother has had in the psychiatric hospital where she is staying. Immediately Brown cuts to Connie and Chester discussing it in a tree, the strong branches and youthful bodies in stark contrast to the image of disease.

Another scene pictures Carrie, sister of Connie and enamored of Chester, as she fumes when she realizes that Chester does not return her affection. She screams at the never-profane Chester, “Skinny four-eyed cocksucker!” and the panel shows her arms stretched wide, her sharp fingers expressing her fury. One reader complained in Yummy Fur #31 that Brown had lost his sense of perspective; indeed, it is this intentionally skewed perspective that gives the panel its power. These drawings allow the reader to understand fully the depth of feeling being expressed. So when Chester later gives a highly symbolic drawing to the girl he does love, her failure to understand it is tragic.

The title I Never Liked You is itself a failed connection, as it is the last defense of the unloved Carrie, who screams it in frustration. This beautiful book ensnares the agony of youth, the awkwardness of the body and the burden of knowing that you are alone in your skin. The skinny characters of I Never Liked You, like Bartleby, cannot deliver their feelings where they belong.

I Never Liked You by Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly Press, $12.95, 183 pages)

Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of the Globe suite of sites. He is also the founder of Green Magazine and greenmagazine.com and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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