Your next favorite comic.
It’s hard to talk about Tillie Walden’s work without getting personal. Her work, fiction or not, revolves around people and intimacy. I’ve talked about her ability to render space and intimacy before, specifically in her sci-fi love story On a Sunbeam. While her latest graphic novel, Are You Listening?, is arguably smaller in both scale and scope, the ways Walden explores intimacy, psyche, relationships, and self-perception are complex, grasping at more existential concepts than in her previous work.
Are You Listening? opens with Bea, an 18 year old, waiting at a bus stop. The scenery is messy and claustrophobic, despite the fact that the stop is in an open, outdoor space. The bus arrives, and Bea cannot seem to get on. The bus leaves, and Bea is immediately frustrated with herself.
Details come slow in Are You Listening?. We eventually find out that Bea is running away from home, attempting to escape from something deeply painful. She quickly runs into a neighbor, Lou, a 27 year old genius mechanic. It just so happens that Lou is also getting out of town, on a road trip to visit her grandmother in rural Texas. Desperate, Bea asks Lou for a lift, and Lou, picking up on the signals (lone teenager, outskirts of town, travel suitcase), offers her passenger seat.
Are You Listening?, maybe even more so than Walden’s On a Sunbeam, is an exploration of distance, both physical and emotional. Most of the novel is spent inside of Lou’s car, the reader a third passenger on Bea and Lou’s road trip. Lou’s car is a tiny red Fiat-esk affair, towing a small camper trailer, but it provides Bea with something she desperately needs: safety. Bea views the changing weather, the loud, fast trucks, the dark, imposing landscapes, and the road itself from within Lou’s car, safe behind its barriers. This small, quiet space, as so often happens during road trips, gives Bea distance, from the outside world, her hometown, her responsibilities, and her painful past. It’s this physical and mental distance that allows both Bea and Lou, initially tense and defensive, to open up.
At its core, Are You Listening? is a story about two young, queer women running away from painful pasts, who finally find the space to start healing. Like in Walden’s other work, her visuals go on an arc of their own, and tend to steal the show. Again, her control of space is masterful, particularly her use of negative space as Lou’s car rolls through vast, sparse, nighttime Texas.
The story, while very grounded and character driven, bleeds into magical realism in the second half. While a bit unexpected, the more surreal elements elevate Bea and Lou’s story, and allow the road trip setting to even further coalesce with Bea and Lou’s stories.
In the end, Are you Listening? is perhaps best described by the quote that opens the book. It’s a quote from the poem “Itinerary” by Adrienne Rich. It reads:
The guidebooks play deception; oceans are
A property of mind. All maps are fiction,
All travelers come to separate frontiers.
In a road trip, and in Are You Listening?, the “frontiers” are less about physical locations and more about us. The road maps in our glove box may be simple, but our travels are not. If your life was a road, the road would bend and break, twist and loop. Most importantly, the road of your life would change. It would look different every time you look back on it. Walden reveals and explores this idea beautifully, and by the end of the novel, asks us to turn around and accept our own roads.
Harry Recommends: Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden.
Genre: Drama, Road Trip, LGBT, Coming of Age.
Rating: Young Adult
Harry Rabinowitz is a writer and editor focused on entertainment and technology. You can find him on Twitter, probably talking about Dungeons & Dragons, @harryrabinowitz.