Review: "My Life in Fish: One Scientist's Journey"
Gary D. Grossman’s My Life in Fish: One Scientist’s Journey, illustrated by Ryan Tavarez, is an excellent model of a hybrid form. (We all know my love of all things hybrid and writing that breaks the rules). Grossman uses the graphic novel, manga-esque form, to write his autobiography from childhood until his status as Professor Emeritus of Animal Ecology at University of Georgia. Contrary to the title, the book does not focus in-depth on fish but uses Grossman’s love of fish as an avenue to explain how his life twists and turns in both the average ways and in ways rarely achieved.
Grossman boldly speaks of his mother, along with drawings, about her mental illness and how it affected him. It speaks of the need for support and conquering his own fears of both having mental illness and passing on those genes to his children. Having these fears illustrates the magnitude of moments that could be glossed over in basic prose. Nightmares suddenly have the portrayal of the thoughts and fears that accompany them. We are given both an interior and exterior monologue. The narration in the text succinctly explains what is occurring during the scene and the drawing deepens the story with the mood.
I was taught narrator, mood, and tone extensively in The Writers Studio and I must give them credit for this analysis. The narrator could be considered bland. Instead, I perceive the narrator as telling the story as the straight man, deadpanned—the professor that lectures and explains precisely and intelligently so that the reader can quickly understand from their limited perspective. The mood changes, as this this is a 139-page graphic novel. As such, the straightforward narrator explains one half—the how and why—and the visual presentations explain the feelings and emotion, as well as the importance of the moment.
In the autobiographical graphic novel, antisemitism, mental illness, abuse, changes in university culture and funding, academic and professional success, as well as family difficulties and family blessings are covered as we march through history and the life of a driven scientist. Tone, never to be left out, pairs well with the mood. The tone is laced within the hybrid function of book. There is a classic lecturer that does not have elevated diction—although someone might correct me when they read the Latin fish names. The illustrations one would call simple on the surface. Certainly, they are not comic Batman style or the traditional manga style. They too are a hybrid of cartoon strip and high art with blended shadow and a tremendous amount of skill. “Simple” in both narrative and art takes the most effort and skill to create.
I would be remiss to not discuss the insertion of scientific papers, or at least scaled down versions. This is another hybridization that is skillful and one that is rarely, if ever done. Having the documents provided within the context of personal life allows for the continuation of the career without narration. The combination of narration, graphics, and the ability to allow fear and doubt into the book, helps Grossman not only documents his life, but also makes a realistic example of how his academic career differed from society’s expectations of the stereotypical science professor and the reality of what life situations twist it into a unique tale.
I recommend an open mind when reading this hybrid. It is not traditional, and it will take you on unexpected rollercoaster rides. I was left with the idea of how “simple” the book was and at the same time—how “profound” showing life in this format is complex. Simple is relative and means easy to read. What is behind the text, is not always “easy”—instead it is painful and shows how trauma is passed down through generations and how inner demons even years later come back. It is honest and unassuming. Mental illness is discussed in “tell it how it is” narration. Nothing is glossed over as I feared. Every battle depicted is analyzed either through the drawings or through the narrator. I have never caught a fish, but I am bipolar and suffer from self-doubt. For that reason alone, I recommend it to everyone that loves fish and I certainly recommend it to anyone that wants to see how inner demons can be conquered in a gentle, unassuming way. The scenes are visceral but adapt to any reader’s psyche. Grossman achieved a life dream in the creation of this graphic novel. I must admit, I now have a new one as well. Now, I just need an artist.