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Books always tell me to find “solitude,” but I’ve Googled their authors, and they all have spouses and kids and grandkids, as well as fraternity and sorority memberships. The universally patronizing message of the authors is “Okay, I got lucky and found someone to be with, but if I’d hung in there just a wee bit longer, I’d have achieved the blissful solitude you find me writing about in this book.”

Ever since Liz Dunn was a child she knew she was the loneliest girl in the world. Having grown into a 42 year old office worker, she has found herself stuck in the role of a spinster, harangued by her disappointed mother and pitied by her older and more successful siblings. Liz has taken to writing a record of her life after seeing a meteor shower while standing in the carpark of a video store. We learn about her childhood discovery of a dead body, a fateful encounter in Rome when she was on a school trip aged sixteen and the arrival of a handsome and  bewitching young man named Jeremy seven years ago – her twenty year old son.

Liz gave her baby up for adoption when he was born. The first she hears of him is when she is a late night phone call from hospital admissions saying she is listed as his emergency contact. Jeremy is recovering from a drug overdose and Liz agrees to take him in. In a single evening she has become a mother to a child she never thought she would see again. Jeremy is a charismatic, funny young man, who has his own little eccentricities. Including convincing Liz to crawl along a freeway in the middle of the afternoon. Having been bounced around adoption services his whole life, she discovers her son is a capable and independent young man, with a wicked sense of humour. They both get along incredibly well and Liz for the first time in her life no longer feels lonely. She refuses to reveal who Jeremy’s father is though and through her journal we learn more about the circumstances of her son’s conception during the school trip to Rome. Unfortunately having spent her life alone obsessed with death, Liz’s happiness is tragically cut short.

All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?

Coupland writes stories about real people who endure lives of fantastical extremes. All Families Are Psychotic begins as a story about a mother and son who have contracted HIV, yet evolves into a gentle comedy about dysfunction, with a miraculous third act. This book continues Coupland’s themes of feuding families, mortality, owing to his own childhood as an army brat whose parents came strong religious backgrounds. His writing contains a lot of dry wit and low-key eccentrics lost in life’s twists and turns. This is tragedy on novacane, a numbed, weary response to the pain of loss, that gives way to a bleary kind of hope.

Each of Coupland’s novels are self-contained meditations on life and death, a formula he has perfected since his trope defining debut Generation X (despite his objections to being seen as a kind of spokesperson for shiftless slackers and baby boomer offspring).

Oh and the title? It’s Liz’s email address.

What’s this!?  A comic strip! Pish, posh, we’ll have not of that vulgar fare here. This is a literary blog, not playtime at kindergarten… Well sorry  to disappoint you folks, but I reads what I wants and seeing as my local library happened to have a copy of Matt Groening’s classic strip, I felt I had to have a go. Anyone looking for a debate as to the comparative merits of the ‘fourth art’ versus literature, you’re in the wrong gaff.

So a quick history lesson. The legend goes that Groening was to attend a meeting with James L. Brooks in 1985, who wanted to develop his underground comic Life in Hell into a cartoon and include it as a recurring feature in The Tracey Ullman Show for the Fox Network. Instead, when Groening arrived, he pitched The Simpsons, which he had furiously scribbled down in order to avoid losing creative control over his strip. Life in Hell had been running in one form or another since 1977 and had become something of a shibboleth for cool connoisseurs of underground culture. Brooks had been gunning for it since he received a copy of the comic in 1982. Groening’s desire to protect the strip has since been described as another example of his rebellious nature and need to buck authority.

Your mileage may vary on this point and if you’re curious to hear more about the origins of The Simpsons and Groening’s rise to cultural icon, I would recommend John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Uncensored , Unauthorised History.

Love is Hell is a collection of individual ‘Hell’, strips relating to relationships, marriage and childbirth. Its central character is a rabbit named Binky, who stands, lives and dies from one strip to the next. There is no ongoing storyline, this is more a series of comedic sketches, notable for their sarcastic humour and careful insistence on liberal values. Any sexism is self-aware, ironic sexism, which is ok! I took the book to be a more cuddly, American take on the ‘alternative comedy’ trend that was all the rage in the UK during the same period.

The art is simplistic and sketchy, but the Groening blueprint that would later be seen in shows like The Simpsons and Futurama is present and accounted for. Female characters are denoted by bows in their hair and pearl necklaces. Large male characters have a simian lower jaw, while everyone has bauble-like eyes. There’s even a one-eared rabbit character who may have inspired Bart Simpson (I swear to god I didn’t do it). However, the comic’s success is down to Groening’s sly wit. Scribbled into the margins are knowing comments and asides. Binky’s dour, grumpy nature is depicted with a winning degree of self-awareness. Popular notions of love and marital bliss are tackled to the ground before getting a firm kicking. The sarcasm does not overwhelm the material and Groening’s cute drawings sweeten the acidity of his barbs.

In short, it’s pretty damn funny. The Simpsons has moved on from these simple origins and largely abandoned the broad strokes and quixotic realism of Groening for more timely satire (which as the years pass, becomes more dated). Life in Hell may not be as memorable as Calvin and Hobbes, but deserves attention for being more than just a footnote in the development of The Simpsons media behemoth.

Just remember –

Love is a perky elf dancing a merry little jig and then suddenly he turns on you with a miniature machine – gun.

Kierkegaard

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