Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell

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Swallow Me Whole
By Nate Powell
Top Shelf

Growing up, of course, is never simple. But for the bright kids—the artists, the thinkers, the introverts, the social outcasts—said complexity is oft times unwittingly compounded, as resistance toward conformity, be it conscious or accidental, does battle with bodies in a state of constant physical, social, and emotional flux.  Tackling the emotional schizophrenia that is growing up in prose is an intensely difficult task. Coupling that with a visual representation can prove even more complex.

Joshua Cotter’s Skyscrapers of the Midwest, arguably the most affecting and affective coming of age story that the medium has been offered up this year thus far, addressed the topic powerfully by means of fantasy, blurring the lines between the real and the imagined through his protagonist’s frequent flights into visual escapism. That same tool is employed by Nate Powell with more troubling results in Swallow Me Whole. The book lives on the thin line that separates healthy childhood escapism from serious emotional disorder.

After a senile grandmother is moved into their home, the delusions begin simply enough, as daydreams, perhaps, or manifestations of stress. Powell’s young protagonist, Ruthy, is visited in her room by a cloud of cicadas, the American South variation on locusts, those Old Testament harbingers of plague.

Powell plays his characters’ neuroses close to the vest. They manifest themselves slowly and sparsely in the beginning of his book in the grandmother, Ruthy, and her younger brother, Perry. In the case of the former, the loss of mental faculties seems almost a given, with the faded lucidity of old age further inflamed by cocktails of medication. In the case of Ruthy and Perry, such lapses can largely be explained away as symptomatic of bright social outcasts deflecting the rigors of growing up in a society outwardly aggressive toward free-thinkers.

Powell’s art further complicates the division between the imagined, flowing freely between the two without the slightest hint of a shifts in consciousness. If, indeed, our two leads are independently crazy, the artist never really presents us the distance with which to witness their descent. Instead, madness swirls in and out, between the artificial constraints of panels, in a manner not unlike the artist’s visual representations of music and steam and whispered secrets.

It isn’t until the siblings are taken on separate doctor visits that it becomes really clear that such imagined asides are symptomatic of larger problems. Even here however, the matter is not so simply resolved, as Ruth’s doctor diagnoses her with a form of childhood schizophrenia (which, she adds, off-handedly, may not even exist) and Perry’s physician simply writes off his problems as the products of an overly creative mind. “A few problems are always normally,” he adds laughingly, as he ushers the patient and his father to the door. “Where would be without them?”

Ruthy’s own issues manifest themselves more dangerously, through aggression, stealing, violence (sometimes more justified than others), and delusions of grandeur—all of this in spite her diagnosis and subsequent medication. In Swallow Me Whole, such medication is potentially troublesome in and of itself, having, to some degree, taken the blame for the grandmother’s senility. As the book comes to a close, Ruthy seems awakened to this conundrum—whether or not we choose to ingest what we are given, one thing or another will eventually end up swallowing us, in the end.

–Brian Heater

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