who the heck knows anything, anyway

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Book Review: The Nao of Brown

Glyn Dillon’s The Nao of Brown (SelfMadeHero, 2012)

The Nao of Brown is so close to being good.

Dillon’s art is phenomenal. It carries the story. The prose is occasionally stilted, very ellipses-heavy in both dialogue and narration, which draws away from the story more than once. However, that art!--absolutely beautiful. And Dillon’s illustrative skills are no one-trick pony; the story takes place in both the real world (narrated by protagonist, Nao Brown) and in the pages of a fictional Manga series--Ichi--by a fictional author by a similar name. A comic within a comic: very meta. Both sections are illustrated in separate, distinct styles. Both are beautiful.

image from The Guardian's review

The exciting part of Nao is that the protagonist has obsessive-compulsive disorder. As far as most people understand, OCD is an excessive hand-washing and organizational problem. It’s disheartening that, even now, most mental disorders are still commonly viewed as one or two stereotypes that can be dismissed as “quirks”. So this is what made Nao promising. Nao Brown, a young Japanese-English woman, suffers from OCD that manifests in violent intrusive thoughts. Her coping mechanisms are realistic, her self-blame is realistic, it’s all incredibly realistic. Only, sigh, there’s a big problem:

The moral. The big reveal at the end of the story. This is not really a plot spoiler, but it does come at the end of the book, so only continue reading if you want, but it’s too important to not be addressed in a review. Essentially, during the tidy-bow-wrapping of an ending, the takeaway is that Nao discovers that her OCD is her “fault” and that practicing meditation made her realize that she was making a bigger deal out of it than it was.

No. Incorrect. This is terrible. First, people who do not have OCD (and possess the most basic knowledge of it) will think it can be fixed by pure willpower, that it’s not a “real problem.” Second, people with OCD could come to the conclusion that they are bad people for not being able to handle their problem, or that they are bad people because they have intrusive thoughts, etc.

“You’re overreacting,” you say. “One sentence can’t have that kind of effect on a person.”

I have OCD. The truth comes out. That is why I was excited to read this book, and why I was so disappointed by it. Many people do not understand what OCD is or how it affects a person’s life. This is resoundingly evident in the media treatment (Monk, for example, in which all of the supporting characters treat Adrian like an incompetent dummy instead of a human being with a medical issue) and in the common/slang use of the term “OCD” (meaning “I like to alphabetize my bookshelf” or “I like to eat all the green Skittles first”). If you felt that you had to order your books in ascending order by height, otherwise your mother would die in a car crash, then you might have OCD (and should ask a counselor to lend you a hand, because you should not have to deal with those feelings alone). People have very little real concept of the term.

But why is this a big deal? Well, self-blame is already one of the issues that can plague an individual with OCD. There are plenty of mental disorders that can have self-harming side-effects, and that definitely goes for anxiety disorders. If a person with OCD thought that their intrusive thoughts were their own fault--not the fault of a chemical imbalance that can often be treated with counseling and/or medication--there would be high risk for self-harm, not to mention a deepening of depression (often comorbid with anxiety disorders). If family members or friends were under the impression that it was just a matter of self-control, they would not be able to provide the kind of support (emotional or medical) needed to actually deal with the issue.

But, back to the work itself. There is a lot of perceived violence in this book. That’s an important factor, a good and necessary factor. Dillon allows readers a glimpse of what it’s like to live with intrusive thoughts and the coping behaviors used to counter them.

If it weren’t for that one sentence, that one completely counter-productive realization of Nao’s at the end, it would be an invaluable tool for understanding OCD, akin to Ellen Forney’s exceptional graphic memoir, Marbles, and manic depression. As it is, The Nao of Brown is a beautifully illustrated work that is an interesting read up until around page 191/the questionable resolution.

It’s difficult to assign a book like this a rating, since 95% of it is lovely. I can’t help but wonder what kind of reaction it would have received if it had said that depression--or, hell, cancer--was the fault of the person who had it. OCD is a medical issue. That one writing mistake renders the whole book glib, and makes for a crude understanding of what was otherwise so deliberately well-depicted.

Instead of a star-based or grade rating, I’ll suggest you read it, but that you ignore page 199.

Suggested reading:
Alison Bechdel’s  Are You My Mother