Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Persona, Tone, and Genre in Persepolis

In both volumes of her graphic novel, Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi accomplishes something revolutionary by way of tone and authorial agency. The experience of reading this memoir is akin to sitting down with Satrapi herself to smoke a cigarette and enjoy a glass of tea while she flips through photo albums. The narration is that frank, that conversational, that raw. To be sure, at first, I viewed this work as a piece meant for children, a sophisticated lens through which a young audience might be able to grasp heady concepts -- revolution, violence, social stratification, Marx. As a didactic device, it is priceless. However, once Satrapi herself is no longer a child, then neither is the narrative persona. She swears, smokes, trips on drugs, and has sex in the second volume, and her drawings work as memorabilia of these acts, each frame a metaphorical snapshot of her life incarnate. What is the effect of her tone, then? What do we make of this brave feminine voice that matures before our eyes?

This breed of honesty, of unabashed explicitness, may in fact be the direct result of the chosen genre -- graphic novel. I noticed, especially in the childhood portions, a common image -- that of young Marji engaging the viewer through a direct gaze from the frame, holding one finger up in an "aha!" or "now listen, here" gesture -- that effectively allowed her to speak in direct address without risking vulgarity. She bothered not with prosaic gymnastics, but instead capitalized upon the fullest potential of her genre. If I am drawing myself, speaking directly to a reader, then why not etch into the speech bubble what I would actually say? The result of this inversion of literary nuance -- what we in the biz call "writing with a light hand," or "show, don't tell" -- is a refreshingly frank, even experiemental perspective that one doesn't often see in literary writing. To be sure, the only other graphic novel that I have studied extensively is Alan Moore's masterpiece, Watchmen, which is anything but straightforward, so please correct me if I'm wrong in my analysis of this particular genre.

From an ethical perspective, which is also a craft perspective in this case, this graphic novel calls into question the issue of a memoirist's persona. Because we are experiencing Marjane's life through the filters of her recollection and process of composition, it is not ostensibly authentic. Marjane is a character in her own memoir and is selective about which pictures from her scrapbook she is wiling to post on Flickr, if you will. We do not witness her taking a shit or having chicken pox or telling her mother that she needs Kotex. For that matter, we don't ever see her saying something that is anything other than insightful, articulate, and poignant. Because the narration is so earnest, it seems natural to take this work at face value. However, in our academic consideration of the memoir, we must remember that there is posturing involved, as well as the setting forth of an agenda. I am not saying that anything about Persepolis is false or disengenuous, quite the contrary in fact, but that when assessing the general condition of any group of people, we have to be careful of privileging certain perspectives.


  1. Great commentary on the book. I LOVED it so much. I thought it was priceless!

  2. I find it interesting in this memoir that each section is titled. As if her life can be broken up into little events that are defined by objects, like a cigarette for example. These little events remind me simultaneously of a historical artifact and a chapter in a novel and just goes to show the fluid relationship between narrative, history, and fiction.