PRINT October 2017


Dominique Goblet’s Pretending Is Lying

Page detail from Dominique Goblet’s Pretending Is Lying (New York Review Comics, 2017).

Pretending Is Lying, by Dominique Goblet; translated by Sophie Yanow. New York: New York Review Comics, 2017. 149 pages.

THE RAW EMOTION of Pretending Is Lying, a memoir by the Belgian cartoonist Dominique Goblet, is already hinted at in the book’s introductory story. A child—the author as a young girl—is injured in a tumble on the sidewalk and tended to in a moment of parental magic: Goblet’s mother instantly repairs the torn knees of her daughter’s stockings by having Goblet simply put them on backward. The winsome anecdote ends brightly, but the strip is rendered in sharp red lines that resemble the hot marks of a recent scar. If the mother’s sleight of hand qualifies as an act of pretending, then, given the title’s declaration, it’s also an act of deceit. This scene, the reader discovers, is the only happy interaction in the book.

The equivalence of fanciful and false at play here is curious: It is the accusation made, for instance, by a woman toward Goblet’s own child when the girl invents a friend in a drawing and initially passes it off as a real person; the woman’s denunciation renders an act of make-believe commensurate with intentional dishonesty. That precarious logic courses through each of the book’s four chapters—whether characters are lying to themselves, to others, or to both.

The first chapter relates Goblet’s reunion, as an adult and a mother, with her father, who left the family sometime during the author’s childhood. He is gruff, loud, and belligerent, quick to argue with his daughter and to blame her for perceived slights; each accuses the other of having done the abandoning. This chapter was created in 1995, and Goblet’s visual language here is riskier than elsewhere in the book—to greater effect, as the visual richness and tactility complement the intricacy of the scene. Goblet used patches of oil paint, now diffuse and sepia toned, with pencil in various weights and shades: thick, permeable gray lines; sharp, strong ones in black; fuzzy ones in blue-gray. The drawings are often layered, with occasional marks and scribbles etched into the surfaces and pieces of yellowed tape visible along the edges. They are waxy palimpsests of emotion and memory.

Goblet renders each character’s speech in a unique handwritten font: her own in a thin sans serif; her daughter’s in a careful cursive; her father’s—depending on the intensity of his mood—variously in a bumptious longhand, all caps, a large unruly scrawl, or an elaborate, sarcastic script. As he pontificates about the sacrifices he made for his wife and daughter, Goblet mimes a page from an illuminated manuscript on what appears to be collaged paper of various textures and yellow tints. She has drawn her father in the guise of the Madonna and renders his complaints in ornate medieval lettering. Like the individuated typefaces, this panel does more to illustrate the father’s tone and Goblet’s view of him than any text could.

After this initial work, Goblet shelved the project for more than a decade. When she returned to it, her medium and style had changed. Gone are the individuated dialogue types, the layering and textures, the sepia oils. The remainder of the book, with a handful of exceptions, is done solely in pencil. Her variegated line work and shading are nuanced and impressive—her panels swell with detail and dramatic flourishes—but the narrative is too frequently underwhelming; the two elements never quite come together to invigorate the story as keenly as they do in the first chapter. Goblet’s subject shifts as well. In the second and fourth chapters, she recounts a predictably plotted story of the rise and fall of her romance with a man who is haunted—literally, on the page—by a recent relationship with another woman. The third chapter describes a shocking tale of parental abuse from Goblet’s childhood that perhaps should have been more central to the book: Interpolating it into the tale of a man who is emotionally unfaithful diminishes its impact, and the muted impressions of the various chapters never quite reach the amplitude of a compelling memoir.

Pretending Is Lying was originally published by the storied French press L’Association in 2007. Its editor, Jean-Christophe Menu, identifies, in his foreword to this new volume, the first chapter’s “pungent” quality, the smell it signals of “oil, grease pencil, humid wood, the disorder of the street market.” This complexity—of a multitude of scents producing a unified aroma—is mirrored in the afterword by Goblet’s partner, Guy-Marc Hinant, who describes the book’s approach to memory as a perceptual experience: “The past is fiction, re-memorization, re-interpretation, fleeting obsession . . . projection, hypothesis, and opacity.” In other words, a memoir comprises a collage of highly subjective sensations. To look on it any other way would be a lie.

Nicole Rudick is Managing Editor of the Paris Review.