Jeffery Brown is a bit of an enigma. In photos, he looks a big strapping handsome man of Scandinavian descent and he has a MFA from a prominent school. But his fame and stock in trade are crude uncertain drawings depicting a small boyish person consumed by neurosis. A self proclaimed autobiographist, he purports to render a relative truth. I guess he could be lying. Or else, his drawing style, his self personification, and the clipped moments of insecure life he depicts might demonstrate the vulnerability in us all.
I’m a long time fan of brown’s work, and I often have a hard time putting my finger on anything justifiable about it. It’s easier to say it is badly drawn and overly focused on teen-age like melodrama than to argue for it being penetrating, engaging and memorable. For that reason, if I had guilty pleasures, his work would be in that bag.
But for the most part, Brown does remarkable things. He displays great humility in not justifying his protagonist. He also teases out an earnestness, a sincerity that cuts through the distanced hipster stance that might be expected among his peers. He’s never short of a humour with warmth and intimacy, never lowers himself to a cheap or bitter laugh. He allows moments to hang in the air. He allows things to be unsaid. He’ll take a risk trying to convey pages in a single glance. And as portrayed, he’s danmned likable.
All that said, Little Things was tremendously disappointing. I felt I had been conned into purchasing cast off half starts. Meaningful silence was replaced with empty moments. Carefully ugly drawings were replaced with overworked pages depicting nothing. Stories that end hung in a precious moment were replaced with fitful cut offs that made no sense and engendered no feeling. I highly recommend not buying it ever, unless you are a die-hard fan/stalker type. (I’m not that type, I was just ignorant of the book).
Now, all that said, Funny Misshapen Body rolled off the press a year later and delivered not just the Brown I love, but a more mature and reflective Brown. A balance of stories, in his usual anti-chronological way that swirl together to create a full novelistic image of people, places and developments, working with new themes, and yet tied to the old and magnifying the scope of his storytelling.
There’s also a greater range in the artwork, combining the early simple scrawl with the burdened later ink. We see the rest of Brown’s protagonist’s life (I realize that is cumbersome, but I differentiate between an author and his alter ego): his childhood experiences, his life with art, his schooling, a troubled medical history, his jobs, his solo adventures. We see the Brown who isn’t simply hung up on a girl. And it is captivating.
Brown’s “love trilogy” sold because he underlined every unsaid thing that never makes it to relationship stories, but that we all relate to. He could easily keep selling books on this ‘schtick’. But instead there is this incredible expansion.
I don’t know how to reconcile the two books. I suppose one way would be to say I read them both in two days, some 700+ pages of work—the same pace for both the book that made me angry I spent money on, as the one that was warm and alive in my hands. Could be my mood, I am mercurial. Either way, I was compelled to read on.
All of brown’s stories always have to do with a shortlist of topics—loneliness, connection, love affairs, struggle and confusion, strife and understanding. His recent stories paint a vivid portrait of the young man as an artist rather than the artist as a young man and that has added a dimension to the tale.
I hesitate, but will compare his work to the Alec tales of Eddie Campbell, who also utilized a difficult style of drawing and catalogued random, sometimes pointless and often humiliating experiences and worked up an unmatched magnum opus of growth and life. Brown has a long ways to go to reach up to those heights, but then he has a lot of time too. I think Jeffery Brown is still just getting started and still just shaking off the discomfort of youth.