I was first introduced to blogger Allie Brosh’s “Hyperbole and a Half” when I started library school. The illustrations, rendered in a throwback Mac application, were wry and occasionally burst-out-laughing funny. She seemed to have a following among the Dewey Decimal-literate (or anyone in graduate school) because her concept of “doing all the things” as a mantle of adult responsibility was painfully familiar. In her blog-based book, Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened, Brosh creates a diagram by which her attempts to increase the level of responsibility in her life ultimately end in a “system failure.” Despite some amusingly re-created anecdotes, this book tries to do “all the things” with uneven results.
The popularity of the memoir format combined with a cultural insistence on elevating the banal into the sublime often leaves the reader unfulfilled and only mildly interested, as though they just skimmed a series of lunchtime Google chats. WYD? Tuna salad for lunch. The day is going by so fast. I can’t believe I’m so busy. Guess what funny thing just happened? <insert link> LOL! Brosh isn’t always so banal. In two blog entries written in May and October 2011, respectively, she addressed her book deal and gave a sobering explanation of her ongoing experiences with depression.
Half of the book is composed of the most popular blog posts, such as “The God of Cake”—still hilarious after numerous readings—in which Brosh acts a stone-cold fool while scheming to eat her grandmother’s birthday cake, and “Dogs Don’t Understand Basic Concepts Like Moving,” where her anxious canines vomit, cry, and crawl their way into a new house. The other half is made up of new pieces that come off like a co-worker retelling jokes heard the night before at a comedy show. Maybe it was funny, but you probably had to be there to really appreciate it. “Dinosaur (the Goose Story)” is a prime example. In the heat of the moment, a goose walking into the house, running and chasing the inhabitants, probably makes for a bit some excitement. On the page, even with the adorably sad-faced shark that she uses as her alter ego, it is less so. This is despite photographs documenting the event, which she included because she says “While all of this was happening, I knew that it was probably going to be a story I’d write down someday. I also knew that the people reading it would probably feel some doubt to its veracity.”
Hyperbole shares some commonalities with graphic memoirs such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Unlike those memoirs, where government repression (Satrapi) and sexual and gender identity (Bechdel) were the overriding themes that colored the authors’ everyday occurrences, Brosh’s mental illness makes up only two of the 16 chapters. The depth of those two chapters compared with the relatively frivolous narratives in the rest of the book makes them feel as though they came from an entirely different memoir.
The depression entries (“Depression Part One,” “Depression Part Two”) are straightforward and poignant, but Brosh seems to undercut them later in “Identity Part One” and “Identity Part Two,” where she journeys into her subconscious—currently occupied by a muscular security guard named Eric—and reveals she’s “full of shit.” Is it a glib confession? A true analysis of personality? A manifestation of her depression? Or is just what she said it is? Should memoirists be reliable narrators? Or is the lack of reliability what makes them so compelling?
Pieces in Hyperbole evince the complexity of our desires. We want to be seen as good people, but either we lack the motivation to actually do good things or we do it because we desire recognition. Objectively, it makes for an interesting meditation on what has become of social media culture: the constant trumpeting of the latest finished marathon, the newest baby, the night spent in VIP breathing the same air as a celebrity, the afternoon spent baking gourmet cookies or volunteering to feed the homeless. Everyone wants a like or a retweet of actions that are, in the grand scheme of things, pretty basic and just part of life. The documentation of all this unremarkable activity bleeds into an ambient awareness that people are doing things, but all of the events are broadcast with the same level of importance—that is to say, none at all. Brosh’s experiences with depression, which are sincerely touching and present challenges to her life with tangible physical and emotional implications, are placed alongside how she accidentally was introduced to hot sauce, or how she and her sibling tormented their parents with a toy parrot. The depression pieces are worth further exploration because it is the rare topic in the book that is “all the things”: honest, funny, a little sad, hopeful, imperfect, and ultimately unfinished as part of her ongoing lived narrative.