By Joe Ollmann
Drawn & Quarterly
Midlife is a sort of, maybe, possibly kind of autobiography by Ollmann. He says it himself – “This is largely a work of fiction. Except where it isn’t”
How much is autobiog and how much fiction he leaves open to us. But it certainly feels like the sort of ridiculous midlife behaviour we’ve all seen in others (but never in ourselves, oh no, never in ourselves. We’re far too smart to fall into those cliches).
Whatever the proportion though, this is Ollmann’s story, with the central character of John Olsen taking Ollmann’s role. Here he is, on the first page, dealing (not too well) with all the shit life is throwing at him:
(…. but hands up those of you who don’t think he had all that much of a “text book hipster life” to start with.)
And that’s the basis for everything that happens in the subsequent 172 pages of Midlife; Olsen’s spent far too much time imagining a life he’s lost that he never truly had. Married at 17, dad twice over soon after that, and now, after a nasty divorce, married and a dad all over again at 40, his daughters from his first marriage now 19 and 23…. the hipster life he angrily looks back on only really ever existed in his mind.
Meanwhile, he’s hit 40 hard. The continual, multiple assaults of new baby, sleep deprivation, energetic young wife, stressful design job all take their toll.
A look in the mirror shows a man he doesn’t recognise, and he’s falling headlong into the classic mid-life crisis, complete with that stereotypical, ridiculous infatiation…. a popular, attractive childrens entertainer from his son’s video shelf triggers a silly flight of fancy, a stupid infatuation becomes something potentially far more damaging and dangerous.
Sherri Smalls is the other strand of Ollmann’s story. Her life has taken a strange, financially rewarding turn, her rock star dreams have crashed and burned and now she finds herself a successful childrens performer, star of “Sherri Smalls and her Big Band” on the brink of a major TV deal.
But her life is spinning out of control just like Olsens; her on again off again boyfriend / bandmate / costar in a monkey suit needs firing, the religious right TV network is promising complete creative control but seem to have funny ideas of what that really means, and most of all Sherri’s own feelings of being a complete sell-out could be the thing that sabotages her life.
On top of all that, she’s got a heap of issues around her love-life, and a habit for preferring older men leaves her wide open to doing something really stupid. In this, she’s the perfect foil for Olsen’s mid-life crisis. Olsen develops a spectacularly rapid obsession with the singer, and she starts imagining that there’s something going on, something more than simple email flirting. These are not two rational, right thinking people.
One thing leads to another, circumstances conspire to bring about a potential meeting in New York when Olsen finds himself on a salvage mission for a photo-shoot he screwed up for the magazine. And off he goes, with the chance to fix his screw-up at the magazine and royally screw-up his marriage and life.
The main storylines keep Olsen and Sherri apart for just under three-quarters of the book, and concentrate on building up a picture of two people unhappy with their lives. Of course, the sensible conclusion would be that both realise before something stupid happens that what they actually have isn’t all that bad, what they actually have is worth working at, worth perservering with. But that would be the course of action for two far more settled, secure, reasonable people.
And all it takes to trigger something potentially really, really stupid is one email from Olsen to Sherri:
The biggest problem here is Ollmann’s pacing – it’s three quarters over by the time Olsen and Sherri meet up, and that final quarter races by far too quickly, Ollmann far too interested in getting to a resolution much too quickly.
The thing is, Ollmann could have easily told this perfectly in 150 pages, if he’d haave been a little more judicious with his editing. There are far too many repeated ideas and moments in the book – we get that Olsen’s life is a mess, we got it the first time, and the second, and the third. The fourth, fifth and sixth times really overdo it. And with Sherri it’s just the same.
And that’s a shame as Ollmann’s cartooning, all tightly sticking to the 9 panel grid format he’s obviously a is a devotee of, is tight, controlled and funny. His characters come across as sympathetic and realised, until he gets to Olsen himself. Then he really goes for an over the top grotesque – the lines on his face, the bad posture, the mid-life spread, the liver-spots, the unkempt hair, the perpetually stressed look on his face – this isn’t a man accostomed to being kind to himself. In his story, in words and art, he’s never more damning than when looking at his own failings. But his continual self-flagellation does mean we spend most of the story just about coming down on his side in things. Sure, we know he’s being an impossible dick, we know he’s being an idiot, we know he’s being cruel and taking out all his stresses and neuroses on those closest to him…. but we know that he knows it as well, and that’s just about enough to keep us on his side in all this.
So it’s a funny, involving book, but it could have been so much more. The problem of pacing, and the overemphasis on the whining doesn’t ruin the book, but it does limit your enjoyment of it. What had great potential to be very funny, very revealing, and very true to life becomes overwrought, overly long, and eventually, just a little too much.