Magical realism is a tricky genre: tricky to describe and tricky to get right. When an author does get it right, as Tillie Walden does with Are You Listening?, pinpointing exactly how they did it can be tricky as well. A whole host of intangibles supports the fragile balance between truth and wonderment in a book like this, and trying to nail them down feels a bit like shouting out the secret at a magic act. Exposing the hidden wires wrecks the trick, and knowledge is no substitute for the joy a well-spun illusion gives.
One thing that's no mystery is the powerful role Walden's art plays in suspending the reader's disbelief. Her narrative and characters are spare, even sparse. Two young women, Bea and Lou, meet on the road somewhere in West Texas. Lou is en route to a vague destination, while the younger Bea is apparently on the run from someone or something. They find a lost cat and resolve to return it to the address on its collar tag, even though that's in a town they've never heard of. As they drive farther west, the cat begins to manifest strange powers. The pair soon realize their new companion is being hunted by some mysterious men, and the only way to protect it is to keep on driving.
They also discover that the land they're driving through has some secrets of its own. "The land, the sky ... it's got its own mind, its own heart," a cryptic new acquaintance tells Bea. "Everyone, everything has the potential for magic. You just gotta be standing somewhere in the world and in the body that lets you see it."
We never learn much about the woman who delivers this pronouncement — or about anyone else Bea and Lou meet on their journey. Walden doesn't build up a thick, realistic magical world, but strips detail away instead. The story has the feel of a dream where everything is both larger-than-life and strangely featureless: "The Road." "The Cat." Lou and Bea, too, are written as sparingly as possible. Lou is an everywoman, kind and straightforward. Bea is a wild child, a mystery — but in no way an idiosyncratic one. When Lou finally finds out what Bea's running from, it turns out to be an all-too-common situation.
Still, the specialness of these two women and their journey suffuses every page thanks to Walden's busy, nervous, versatile pen. Her line is incredibly changeable: Sometimes it feels edgy, other times loose and windswept, other times prosaically down-to-earth. Usually Walden merely gestures at Lou and Bea's surroundings with a stroke or two, but when she does add detail — to a diner counter complete with glass-dome-covered pies or the cozy interior of Lou's little trailer — every element is potent. Once in a while she takes time to pay homage to the beauty of the natural world; these pages have a huge impact. She'll compose an eloquent tableau out of bare tree branches or delineate all the nested striations on an ancient rock formation.
Walden uses panels in a way that may be unique. It's become quite usual for cartoonists to play around with panel sizes and arrangements these days. Fractured, irregular arrays of panels usually convey pretty much the same ideas whenever they appear — that the action is particularly intense, or that something unexpected has happened. But Walden goes further. Sometimes her borders melt away halfway across a panel, or get all zigzaggy and messy when the characters are under stress. At one particularly intense moment of emotional revelation, Walden lets order collapse completely in favor of a stew of vague shapes and small pieces of panel borders scattered here and there. The broken panel lines jostle inharmoniously with scribbled speech bubbles. It's a mesmerizing expression of the characters' turmoil.
Everywhere in Are You Listening?, details seem to manifest and disintegrate according to the characters' states of mind. It's not just a neat effect; it's an expression of Walden's theme. She kicks off the book with a quote from Adrienne Rich: "All maps are fiction/All travelers come to separate frontiers." For Walden, that seems to mean that we all create our own roads to some extent. In her tale of two ordinary women and one magical cat adrift in West Texas, she shows what one such act of creation might look like. Turns out it's both simpler than you'd think, and more intricate than you can imagine. Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.
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