Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
I try to post here every week, but the week before last this happened:
And last week this happened:
And now I’m…free? So I wanted to write about one of the few books I’ve made time to read in the last month and a half: Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems.
If you’ve never read Brosh’s excellent and madcap webcomic/personal blog Hyberbole and a Half (look, I’m linking it here so you can fix that), Wikipedia describes it as using “an exaggeratedly simple drawing style as an artistic device.” Since I’m no longer writing for class and since I agree with Wikipedia, I’m using that quote here. Brosh’s stories deal with a wide range of subjects, from bananas retellings of childhood adventures to struggles with mental illness to the overwhelming emptiness of grief.
Brosh’s first book, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, came out in 2013. A seven-year-long internet hiatus followed before the publication of Solutions and Other Problems on September 22 of this year. I read it in one sitting, and I’d like to talk about the way Brosh does endings.
Stories end–it’s actually one of the things that they’re well-known for doing. In Solutions and Other Problems and Brosh’s work in general, these endings are often abrupt, without much follow-up to create a comfortable denouement.
In “Menace,” which you can and should read here because technically I’m spoiling it, four-year-old Brosh gains and loses the power of a dinosaur Halloween costume. The final line, placed just above a picture of Brosh staring at her reflection, reads simply: “And so my reign of power came to an end, and I slowly learned to live as a person again.” Is there a moral here about power or about humanity? Yes, kind of, especially about what power looks and feels like when we’re kids. But the brevity of the ending implies that this was, to borrow a phrase from the 2013 subtitle, a “thing that happened” that has now stopped happening.
The second chapter of Solutions and Other Problems, “Richard,” is about toddler Brosh breaking into her neighbor’s house and stealing small things (and, finally, something not so small). We don’t see the aftermath of this adventure; instead, we get a moment of silence as Brosh stares at her parents and they stare at her and they all just feel “weird about ourselves and each other.” This is another thing that happened that has now stopped happening.
Except…it doesn’t. As Brosh tells us in an interlude called “Karma,” she believes that “there are things that can happen that very specifically force you to understand what an asshole you were.” In Brosh’s case, this is a toddler who is as obsessed with Brosh as Brosh was with Richard. There’s continuity.
And I mean, like, obviously there’s continuity, this is a memoir. But Brosh could have chosen to make these chapters completely episodic or only loosely connected by similar themes, and she didn’t make that choice. The neighbor kid shows up again.
Is there a reason? Sure. The neighbor kid wants Brosh to see her room. But does the reason explain anything meaningful? No, not unless you believe in karma.
Reasons are not the same things as explanations. This is something Brosh makes really clear to us in the chapter about her life during her internet hiatus, which was, to borrow a comparison she makes in the book, “difficult” in the same way that the sun is large. Reasons don’t provide comfort or reassurance or explanations for medical emergencies or relationships breaking apart or losing a family member. As Brosh puts it, we just have to keep going and hope we figure something out that makes sense.
I think this is why I like the endings in Brosh’s stories–because they don’t really feel like endings at all, despite their abruptness. They matter in ways that reverberate throughout the book in both plot and theme.
Like, okay, she tells a story about a dog she knew that she calls the pile dog. The second sentence about the pile dog is, “Before you get all attached to the pile dog, you should know that the pile dog is dead.” The fourth and fifth sentences about the pile dog are, “However, we–all of us–should not just allow this to prevent us from making fun of her. Dead dogs used to be just as ridiculous as alive dogs, and the pile dog leveraged our sympathy to get away with some particularly bogus shit.”
This is an argument against endings as final, for the value of telling stories (particularly ridiculous ones) and I love that. In Brosh’s work, the things that happened–good and bad and nuts–are still happening, or, to use the fancy version from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Some things persist, whether we want them to or not. And other things that could end completely–well, we can make them persist, if we choose to.
That’s why I like Solutions and Other Problems.
One last thing: I found Hyperbole and a Half shortly before my own problems with anxiety started, and it helped. So thanks, Allie Brosh, for making comics that were my piece of corn under the fridge.