Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story, by Frederik Peeters, translation by Anjali Singh, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008
A great deal of the graphic novels I read are actually discovered by accident. It's not too often that I set out to track down a specific title anymore, like I did when I was younger. Nowadays I simply browse the shelves at the library and take home whatever looks or sounds interesting. The library is a great liberator in that it frees you to experiment without cost save time.
The description of this particular graphic novel sounded interesting enough to pursue.
One summer night at a house party, Fred met Cati. Though they barely spoke, he vividly remembered her gracefulness and abandon. They meet again years later, and this time their connection is instantaneous. But when things become serious, a nervous Cati tells him that she and her three-year-old son are both HIV positive.
That's the kind of description that should be handed out to people who claim that "comic books" or "graphic novels" are for children. The idea that a reliance on visuals renders all storytelling reductive, immature, and unserious is daily given the lie, though the lie persists. Peeters's work is the kind of growing body of novels with literary merit challenging this assumption.
Like another predecessor, David B.'s Epileptic, Blue Pills is a touching and at times a bit frightening memoir of medical crises and how they change the shape of our lives and our personalities. While I'm not always enamoured of Peeters's drawing style, the jangly lines having an unfinished or sloppy quality that feels more cluttered than expressive, his tenor of writing manages to feel confessional without exhibitionist. We are let in on Fred's feelings, his panic, his anxiety, his frustrations, and most wonderfully of all, we watch him grow through those feelings.
There are, in quite a few memoirs, a kind of look at me, look at me quality (common in just about anything written by a celebrity) or a self-pitying whininess about what a hard row to hoe the author has been give by life (the default position of too many recovering addicts), which is why it's a genre I do my best to avoid. Within the last few years, the tiny genre of memoir comics has produced two undisputed masterworks of it or any genre, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Alison Bechel's Fun Home.
Peeters's work is not quite up to those two in terms of sheer brilliance, but it falls between them in various ways, closer to Persepolis' visual inventiveness while closer to Fun Home's intimate glimpse at the messiness that is loving another person.
Broken into thematic chapters, Blue Pills wonderfully lets the relationship unfold through vignette-pieces recounting moments in Fred and Cati's life. We watch the tender development of their love and even more touching at times is how Fred takes on a parental role with Cati's young son, an enormous headed boy with eyes the size of dinner plates. There are wonderful scenes such as how the two bond at a party for Cati's friends. Neither her son nor her new lover really know these people and find solace in each other's company. Likewise, the boy's cold rejection of Fred after spending a weekend with is father is both touching and amusing, a grown man so stung by infantile rejection.
Peeters doesn't shy away form the realities of their situation. Our first whole chapter featuring "The Little One" takes place in a hospital and we learn of the progress of his virus, see how, like any normal kid, he rejects his nasty tasting medicine (and the desperate need for patience in this instance infinitely more serious situation), and how he adapts to his shifting regiments of treatments.
The couple's own relationship is itself fraught, Peeters' jaggedy lines fitting the terror on both faces the night a condom breaks while in bed and their sleepless night of panic and tears. They are aided in the difficulties of this existence by their philosophical and unflappable physician, who sees them through each successive fright, each new worry, who reminds them of this simple truth: "life before everything...right?"
A short read, Peeters's memoir may have benefited from lengthier treatment, but in many ways its brevity works in its favor. A more expansive storyline might have given rise to more navel-gazing (the book treads dangerously close with an epilogue dream dialogue between Fred and a mammoth, but ultimately manages the trick neatly enough) or might have diffused some of the quick-paced uncertainties of the book. Life comes at your fast and you don't always have pages and pages of time to sort through your options. Fred and Cati's by-necessity adaptability lends the book an energy and, in turn, that energy lends the book a glow of optimism that stays with you long after you finish reading.
There are few enough well told love stories that don't resort to dramatics, even fewer in the field of graphic novels. The magic that Peeters pulls off here is taking something inherently dramatic, something a writer of fiction may have used as narrative device, and turning it into something that feels commonplace and natural – two people in love, making it work, despite their troubles. In that sense, the book's subtitle is perfectly apt, perfectly fitting without sap or sentimentality.