High-Low Reviews Mid-Life

“Developments Arrested” / High-Low / Rob Clough / May 11, 2011

Ollmann's book is rigidly structured and it's obvious that every page and every panel has been labored over intensely. There's an almost tortured quality to his line, as if he's afraid of having much white space poke through. His line is thick, and while his characters are cartoony (with some of them bordering on the grotesque), he fills them with detail. Olsen in particular gets lavished with a sort of self-loathing and self-obsessed detail: liver spots, lines on his forehead, random tufts of hair, a paunchy stomach, etc. That said, one never gets the sense that Ollmann doesn't trust his line enough to really tell his story, as he uses a lot of distracting greyscaling to fil up space. This is unfortunate, because his drawings are funny enough to carry the story on their own.

The book's first page is hilarious, as the Olsen character has to deal with the shit of his three cats and a feces-filled diaper left on the floor; the line "there's more poop in my life than a German porn film" was a laugh-out loud moment for me as a reader. Ollmann proves throughout the book that he's witty writer who can dish out punchlines and shtick. Indeed, Ollmann is as sure-footed a scripter as he is unsteady a draftsman. At times, text overwhelms his panels, either with Olsen's brutally self-deprecating narrative captions or frequently long-winded dialogue. There were times that I wished he used a smaller 2 x 3 or 2 x 2 grid instead of the 3 x 3 grid that Ollmann employs with few exceptions throughout the book in order to let his pages breathe a little. Mid-Life has a cramped, frantic quality as a result of its panel layout that doesn't always seem to be the author's intention.

Indeed, what I like best about the book is the way Ollmann brings the narrative conflict to a slow boil and frequently pauses along the way in order to reflect. The story involves an exhausted Olsen, having passed 40 and in a constant state of exhaustion due to dealing with a young child, desperately wanting to feel young and vital again. The wrinkle here is that he was a young parent and has two adult daughters, meaning that he never did get to have those carefree days of youth. He spends time after he and his wife divorce trying to play catch-up, and there's a sense throughout the Olsen is chasing some idealized state of youth and desirability that is entirely a fantasy.

Olsen develops a remote crush on Sherri Smalls, a children's musician who is on the cusp of a major career decision: should she accept a job as the host of a kid's show on a Disney Channel-type network, even if it means completely selling out? That crisis is punctuated by her inability to find the right kind of relationship, even as she's attracted to older men (in a bit of foreshadowing that is not exactly subtle). Olsen's burgeoning obsession affects his job performance and his relationship with his second wife. It's as much a fantasy about creating an escape hatch from one's current life as it is something centered on someone in particular. Throughout the book, Olsen simultaneously apologizes for and tries to explain his position while letting the reader know his behavior is awful. At 172 pages, there are about fifty pages of exposition that drag the book down and feel ridiculously self-indulgent. Olsen starts to repeat details and feelings that seemed obvious and cliche' the first time around, let alone the second.

That said, once Ollmann gets to Chapter 17 (103 pages into the book), the book picks up in painfully funny fashion. Contacting Smalls to do an interview in New York City as part of a related work assignment, there's an amazing scene the night before he leaves where his wife pours her heart out to him, regretting their recent lack of intimacy and their constant bickering. Olsen doesn't want to hear it, in part because he wishes he could meet Smalls with his marriage in a state of uncertainty, a feeling that immediately produces guilt but doesn't go away. The New York sequences are as sharp as the middle of the book was flat, as Olsen and Smalls meet, he lies to her about being married, they find they have chemistry, and a guilt-ridden Olsen decides not to go through with it. However, a baffled Smalls calls to tell him she's coming over to talk about this, leading to a number of scenes of great physical comedy that climaxes with Olsen hiding behind a plant in the hotel's lobby in an effort to hide from her.

Regrettably, Olsen tries to tie up loose ends into a neat package at the end, as he ponders all of the ways he plans to change, how the trip was an eye-opener for him and he owed his wife honesty. Sure, there's a plot-derailing bit at the end, but it still feels a bit like Ollmann lets his character off the hook more than a little... There's still a lot to like in this book and I admire Ollmann's willingness to flog himself for humor as much as he did, but the book would have benefited from a less-is-more approach.

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