Displacement: A Travelogue
Displacement is a followup to Lucy Knisley’s previous travelogue, An Age of License, but this time, instead of portraying a young woman starting her life, she tackles the end. She describes the difference like this: “That trip was about independence, sex, youth, and adventure. This trip is about patience, care, mortality, respect, sympathy, and love.”
Knisley accompanies her grandparents on a cruise for the elderly, and Displacement is her journal about taking care of them while they travel. In her introduction, she describes her feeling “loneliness … at hiding my own terror and heartbreak at my grandparents’ decline in health”. It’s something that will or is challenging many of us, and while the details can be scary, it’s reassuring to see others going through a similar struggle.
It’s a topic that more of us will have to deal with in coming years — one that Roz Chast addressed in the deservedly well-regarded Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? — how to deal with aging loved ones. It’s not a topic previously tackled much in comics, and I’m glad, as the medium has expanded over the past few decades, to see it covered.
Knisley is in her late 20s, while her grandparents Phyllis and Allen are in their early 90s. They have issues with hearing and mobility, so she has mixed emotions about the trip — joy at the chance to spend more time with them, fear and frustration at what the details of taking care of them might involve. They’re both struggling with memory issues as well (the scariest aspect of getting older). Although Knisley has plenty of her own uncertainties, she feels driven to be the organized one in the face of her grands’ confusion at travel.
Like many adults, she doesn’t see them often enough to keep up with the details of their health. Instead, visiting every few years means they seem to have declined rapidly, since she’s comparing them with memories. At one point, she draws a looming monster labeled “the horror of age, infirmity, and death in a young person’s mind”, a perfect summation.
Knisley is extraordinarily talented at journal comics, with clean-line, attractive figures and a good eye for summing up moments in scattered illustrations. Her graphic novels avoid the paneled grid of standard comics for a more open page that I find welcoming and insightful, particularly when it comes to the variety of feelings involved.
Knisley’s grandfather previously wrote a memoir of his time in World War II as a pilot, and she interweaves excerpts of that document, with her own illustrations, as a counterpoint to their current journey. The incidents are familiar to anyone who’s heard soldiers’ stories, but she selects them well to balance the modern-day events. Although she’s there to help her confused grands, the situation itself is confusing to anyone, with a giant cruise ship effectively being a floating city holding 4,700 people.
The overall message, that caretaking for others is an incredibly difficult, exhausting task, should not be surprising, but Knisley’s well-selected details brings it home in sympathetic pain, fatigue, and loneliness. It’s horrific but important.
Displacement: A Travelogue can be preordered from your local comic shop with Diamond code DEC14 1508. It’s due out in February. There’s a preview at the publisher’s website. (The publisher provided an advance review copy.)