Blue Nude — Hilary Harkness

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Blue Nude, 2014 by Hilary Harkness (b. 1971)

Content — Christian Brandl

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Content, 2018 by Christian Brandl (b. 1970)

Fools Rush In — Scott Greene

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Fools Rush In, 2005 by Scott Greene

Aspects of Suburbia: Golf — Paul Cadmus

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Aspects of Suburbia: Golf, 1036 by Paul Cadmus (1904–1999)

Friday the Thirteenth — Leonora Carrington

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Friday the Thirteenth, 1965 by Leonora Carrington (1917-2011)

The Martyr of the Solway — John Everett Millais

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The Martyr of the Solway, c. 1871 by John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

Hope, Faith, Charity — Jack Beal

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Hope, Faith, Charity, 1978 by Jack Beal (1931–2013)

Judge — Pavel Guliaev

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The Mysterious Water — Ernest Biéler

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L’Eau mystérieuse (The Mysterious Water), 1911 by Ernest Biéler (1863–1948)

Girl in a Blue Dress — Philip Wilson Steer

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Girl in a Blue Dress, c. 1891 by Philip Wilson Steer (1860–1942)

Girl Party — Julie Heffernan

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Girl Party, 2019 by Julie Heffernan (b. 1956)

The Green Hammock — John Lavery

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The Green Hammock, c. 1905 by John Lavery (1856–1941)

Big Mouth — James Rieck 

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Big Mouth, 2018 by James Rieck (b. 1965)

The Single Orange Was the Only Light — Egon Schiele

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The Single Orange Was the Only Light, 1912 by Egon Schiele (1890-1918)

Simulacra — Agostino Arrivabene

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Simulacra, 2015 by Agostino Arrivabene (b. 1967)

A review of Keiler Roberts’ Rat Time

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Let’s start with the title. Rat Time is a great title.

What is Rat TimeRat Time is a graphic novel—or graphic autofiction, or graphic discursive memoir—I’m not really sure what genre it fits into, nor does that matter—Rat Time is a very funny and often moving book by cartoonist Keiler Roberts.

And so what is “rat time”? Rat time is the time that Keiler shares with her daughter Xia and their rats Sammy and Mateo Too. “We eat dinner, then rat time, then bed time,” Xia explains to her classmates during show and tell.

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When poor Sammy dies though, “rat time” takes on a different meaning. “It’s not a time of day,” Xia declares. “It’s the time when had rats.” Keiler optimistically points out that “We still have Mateo Too.” (Care to guess what happened to Mateo One?)

The early vignettes in Rat Time intersplice rat time with riffs from Keiler’s therapy sessions, calls and visits with her parents, and child memories. Although Rat Time’s structure might be at times oblique and discursive, Roberts’ pacing and pages are often surprisingly traditional and darkly comic, as in this little episode, in which Keiler recalls a pet’s death:

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Initially, Rat Time appears to have an elliptical structure. Vignettes and riffs and one-pagers succeed each other without the usual narrative linking devices we might expect from a traditional graphic novel. Roberts’ humor is so dry too that for the first few pages the tone of Rat Time may be difficult to comprehend. The more I read though, the more I laughed, and the more I cared about Keiler and her daughter.

Roberts’ mines her life for material, and the material is often painful, coming out in unexpected ways. We learn that rat time originated as a coping mechanism, a response to a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis:

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Rat Time features scenes of Keiler going to the hospital for blood work, or visiting a chiropractor for treatment, all with a wonderfully droll humanity that resonates with just how damn specific the moments are. We also see Keiler in her therapist’s office, and see how her friends and family react to her bipolar disorder, as well as how she manages it. Making oatmeal seems to provide Keiler a lot of comfort, and while I’m not a fan of oatmeal myself, I deeply relate to her feelings on breakfast:

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Some of my favorite parts of Rat Time hover around Keiler’s experiences as an art instructor. There’s an intense pathos to Keiler-as-teacher, even when she seems mean:

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Keiler’s teaching vignettes are balanced with her own memories of teachers past. Roberts frames these moments with the clarity of detail that telegraphs raw honesty. There’s the gym teacher who humiliated her on the bus to the bowling alley, the art teacher who showed the class a cadaver, and the political science professor who earned Keiler’s admiration for “stating a truth so plainly” (namely, “I know this would be more interesting if I were entertaining, but it’s worse if I try.”)

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Roberts’ spare, plain style is effective in achieving her punchlines, but it can also affect the reader with a strange poignancy:

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At one point, Roberts includes a polished piece in Rat Time, which creates a wonderful moment of narrative dissonance, a strange reverberation between Keiler the hero-narrator of Rat Time and Roberts the author-illustrator of Rat Time.

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Indeed, a major theme of Rat Time is storytelling itself. Keiler wants to be a writer of fiction, but it seems like her own life is far more interesting than the ideas she brainstorms. Rat Time is perhaps Roberts’ way of sussing out why her genre is ultimately autobiographical.

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Rat Time, like any good autobiography, is crammed with life, brimming with vivid moments that feel authentic and real. Often funny and sometimes painful, Roberts’ book is sweet without sentimentality, sour without caustic meanness, and generous to both its subjects and its readers. Highly recommended.

Rat Time is new from Koyama Press.

 

 

Herzeleide — Anselm Kiefer

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Herzeleide,1979 by Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945)