Swallow Me Whole – tales of extraordinary madness
by Nate Powell
In Swallow Me Whole Nate Powell tells us a story of mental illness and family life through the eyes and experiences of two step-sibling teenagers in the American south. But this isn’t anything like the usual tales of madness and dysfunctional families. This is a gentle, almost hypnotically dark tale that slowly, quietly and masterfully tells a story that will demand multiple readings. All the way through Swallow Me Whole there’s a desperate sense of lives spiralling out of control. And anyone who’s ever struggled with any mental health issues will find something they can empathise with. We may not suffer anything as severe as the two main characters in Nate Powell’s graphic novel, but there’s enough there to both enthrall and unnerve us.
Ruth and Perry seem, at first glance, to be the same introverted, above average intelligence outsiders that you find in any community; the slightly weird and quiet kids that rarely get noticed as they progress through school getting good grades and little else. But Ruth and Perry are both suffering inside, both struggling to cope with their worlds that they realised from a young age aren’t quite the same as the other “normal” kid’s worlds. Perry finds himself talking more and more to a little pencil top Wizard who’s beginning to control not just Perry’s drawing but Perry’s life, giving him things to do, things to draw and talks about his great plan:
“I hate him, and I hate he’s not even there but somehow he still makes me draw all that shit for him”
“… It doesn’t even work to say “you’re not real” anymore.”
“Because I know he is. Sometimes I’m afraid he’s, like, God.”
(Our first look at the obsessions that are beginning to control Ruth’s life. From Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole.)
Ruth spends her time desperately trying to get some control over her life, collecting, arranging, rearranging and sorting the insect collection that she’s amassed. It’s her way to control at least a very small part of her world, but even early on it’s obvious that this control she feels is merely a futile and desperate bit of distraction, merely delaying her eventual spiral downward. She gave up trying to tell anybody about her problems a long time ago, she knows the flies she sees everywhere aren’t seen by the other people, but that doesn’t make them any less real or terrifying:
“They don’t see the things I do. or hear. Or smell.”
“So I stopped telling them,”
“But that doesn’t make them any less scary”
(Ruth’s terrifying visions that seek to overwhelm her. Nate Powell’s dark and disturbing art from Swallow Me Whole.)
But although the mental illness is everywhere, percolating through every action these two teens take, it’s never the sole focus of the book, Powell’s writing is far too clever for that. We’re presented instead with a family tale, starting when Grandma moves in, obviously ill herself, struggling with dementia and old age yet still managing to be a defining point in the family’s lives.
It’s increasingly obvious that Grandma had her own mental health problems but managed to channel her obsessions into her artwork, just like Perry has. It kept Grandma sane enough to live to old age, which bodes well for Perry. But what can Ruth cling to to save her from the increasingly disturbing episodes?
We follow the family over the years as both Ruth and Perry struggle to come to terms with their illnesses, both knowing they’re getting worse as they get older. Ruth’s OCD is starting to control her and her visions are getting worse. Perry’s hallucinations of talking wizards are really starting to affect his life. Both are taken to doctors, both find nothing of particular value there. Medication helps for a little while, but the illness is never far from the surface. In fact, in one very telling scene, Ruth and Perry discuss their problems with Ruth coming to a conclusion that is both heartbreaking and honest:
“Have you thought about, like, a plan to help you cope?”
“Who wants to cope?”
Because throughout their lives, the thing that defines them both, the constant, the thing they understand the most is the illness. And once you accept this, once you understand this, Nate Powell’s ending, full of symbolism and potential, makes absolute sense. This isn’t a story that could end in any other way. But before the end, before the story loops off into a surreal and disturbing place, it seems that everything may just be getting a little better for the teenagers. They go through a time when they’ve got friends, relationships and seem relatively happy. Ruth gets herself a job in the local museum, working in the insect wing. And that’s where it all goes wrong. Her obsessional behaviour gets worse and she takes one of the exhibits from the museum, seeing it as a totem, a culmination of her collection. After this things quickly spiral out of her control; at the museum, at home, at school; there’s nowhere she can seek refuge from her problems anymore and Powell mirrors this by taking his story in a surreal, hallucinatory direction, the tightness of his early narrative breaks down as Ruth’s grip on her reality slips and fails towards an ending that will leave you drained.
(The moment it all goes very wrong for Ruth. Nate Powell’s use of negative space and the sheer disturbing menace of his art comes out so well here.)
And a mention here for the art. Nate Powell’s work is all spider-like inks and deep blacks. At times it’s as eerie and unnerving as the story, capturing the essential darkness and sense of loss of control of the madness as it overtakes the characters. Moments early on when we first see Ruth’s flies pouring from the ceiling as genuinely disturbing and brilliantly done. And it’s all accentuated with Nate Powell’s lettering style; full of quiet panels, in tiny lowercase font that at times is deliberately difficult to read. It conveys that sense of being lost inside our own heads, being unable to properly verbalise what’s going on. A small thing, but so very effective.
Swallow Me Whole is a beautiful book; haunting, affecting, disturbing, disorientating yet ultimately rather life affirming in it’s honest and down to earth portrayal of mental illness and how it permeates the everyday lives of the sufferers. This is one that will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book.