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The Ride Together: A Brother and Sister's Memoir of Autism in the Family
posted October 6, 2003
Paul Karasik and Judy Karasik
Washington Square Press, $20
Paul Karasik has one of the more interesting resumes in recent comics history. He served as an associate editor on RAW. His work has appeared in The New Yorker and Nickelodeon, twin poles of mainstream magazine achievement for many in the comics community. Karasik may be best known for providing breakdowns, essentially the first step of adaptation, on the highly regarded City of Glass project for which his co-creator David Mazzucchelli was justly lauded. Currently a member of the steering committee for the National Association of Comics Art Educators, Karasik is a founder of and development director at the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School. In January of 2003 Paul and his sister Judy Karasik published through Washington Square Press a memoir of autism in their family, The Ride Together. Karasik has become a considerable, thoughtful artist underneath our collective nose, and it's time we all started paying closer attention to him.
The Ride Together is a family history that revolves around, but is not strictly limited to, Judy and Paul's autistic older brother David. The Karasiks present their saga through a mix of written prose and comics narrative. Judy's writing might appear for several pages and then a story in comics form by Paul might make up the chapter that follows. There are seven self-contained comics shorts and the last chapter is split equally between the two forms, moving seamlessly from Judy's writing to Paul comics. Although the narrative is roughly chronological and each chapter builds on what came before, there are slight overlaps and distinct changes in points of view. The through-line in The Ride Together feels like snapshots from different cameras dropped across a tabletop in a ragged procession, some corners barely touching while others lie on top of each other. Judy's voice proves to be the more consistent of the two; she writes from her own perspective first and spirals outward into describing the various connections and changes in sentiment she feels building around her. Paul shifts around a bit more, and seems generally less interested in detailing explicitly how he's processed various important events. At times such as the first chapter, Paul is making straight-ahead documentary, depicting events that took place before he was born. In another chapter he appears as a character referenced in a phone conversation.
Paul is also more formally ambitious, and it's in these touches that most comics fans will be interested. In "The Stooges," Paul lets various fictional characters bleed off of the movie screen and into the audience in which he and his brother sit. This reflects how one can become immersed in film and provides commentary as to the emotional state of those present. A fictional character named Gorilla Monson hijacks Chapter 14, "Memory Believes," and changes the title to "The Adventures of Superman." A minor character from the George Reeves' Superman television show, Monsoon plays a surprisingly large role in David Karasik's life. According to the book's explanation of how his mind works, David struggles to find order despite the chaotic way in which his autism allows him to process information. One end result is that the eldest Karasik sibling performs through speech and suggested actions entire episodes of various television shows that he has memorized. Paul's comics provide a smart visual accompaniment that communicates how David builds his episodes while suggesting the blend of interior living and exterior insight he brings to the performances. And by having Monsoon hijack the ostensibly planned narrative, Karasik mirrors the way in which his brother's insistence on performing episodes might have run roughshod over something else his siblings or family would rather have been doing. Karasik may go too far when the fictional icons appear as smiling members of an ensemble. This seem to place them on a higher plane than the historical figures and chat show guests with which David was equally obsessed, and imparts to their use a greater degree of control over his interests than much of the book indicates David held. Karasik's cartooning in general is very clear, the drawing very authoritative, and features a very judicious use of diagrams and cutaways to suggest information. A muted gray shaded quality adds a nice feel to the art that becomes a bit much in some larger, grainier double-page spreads. Karasik has a veteran's confidence in his skill that the reader will find the emotional subtext in the stories, and rarely betrays this conviction. His art humanizes the most difficult characters, particularly the father Monroe and second son Michael, and brings to the work a more physical understanding of what it might be like to interact with David. The book would be much less interesting if Paul were not involved.
That's not meant to be a severe strike against the prose sections. Judy maintains a crucially measured tone and cajoles a great deal of energy out of some very delicate observations. A description of a card game between Michael and Paul and a friend of the family would be a highlight in just about any memoir, and the resigned way in which she participates in activities too-young-for-her as an older child seems spot-on. She follows many of her best passages with an insight into her own state of mind that sometimes feels slightly out of place. Things like why Judy would be the one to spread her father's ashes, or her fear of work greeting people at a funeral hint at a different, slightly broader story than the one that ends up being told. At times the reader might feel that David is somehow keeping us from pursuing these compelling side roads and seeing these larger pictures, but it's the writer's reticence to pursue them that's the real culprit. So why introduce so many fragments of thought in the first place? In addition, neither author gives us a picture of David's life in the various schools and special working communities that take him out of the home. While this may be a reflection of their own lack of knowledge and insight into how David lived, such places are foreign to most readers' experience in a way that hinders us from projecting a complete life onto David. When David's life changes, the reader suffers from the imbalance between what the siblings know by accretion of experience and what we're able to figure out from what they tell us.
The Karasik book may have gone largely unnoticed this year, particularly in the shadow of Phoebe Gloeckner's similarly structured, rip-down-the-sky effort in The Diary of a Teenage Girl. But the charms of The Ride Together are many, and though it's told in a way that may leave the reader curious or wanting more, it's certainly unpacked so that anyone with a similar family story will find much in there to which to relate.