Kristen Wiig plays a recurring character on Saturday Night Live named Judy Grimes, whose schtick is that she’s a travel expert, but gets much too nervous on air to give any travel tips. Instead, she just keeps negating herself, making a statement and then saying, “just kidding.” As the sketch winds up, she eventually dives into some rapid-fire, bravura, all-in-one-breath monologue along these lines:
I’m fine. Besides, I… can’t come back another time because I’m too busy — just kidding, I’m not busy — just kidding, I am but I don’t have any time for you — just kidding, I don’t know how to make time — just kidding, but I know how to make pies — just kidding, I don’t — just kidding, I do, and I’ll make one right now — just kidding, I can’t, because I don’t have a pan — just kidding, I do, but I gotta buy sugar — just kidding, I have what I need, but I don’t have a stove — just kidding, there’s a stove under here, it’s hot — ouch! — just kidding, there’s no stove under here, there’s one at my house, let’s go there right now — just kidding, we can’t all go together, it’s hard to travel in a group — just kidding, we can’t do it because my car’s not big enough — just kidding, we’re in right now, this whole studio’s my car — just kidding, it isn’t — just kidding, it is — beep, beep! Get out of my way! — just kidding, we’re not in my car — just kidding, I wrecked my car — just kidding, I ran into a tree — just kidding, it was a bush — just kidding, it was a man, he was very upset — just kidding, he laughed — just kidding, he died — just kidding, it was a dream — just kidding, it wasn’t a dream, it was a movie I rented — just kidding, I bought it, and now I regret it, it wasn’t very good — just kidding, it was okay — just kidding!
This is exactly the narrative structure of David Lapham’s Young Liars. Oh, it starts out coherent enough. There’s a great premise — a guy in love with a girl who has a bullet in her brain, which makes her utterly fearless, obedient but unpredictable, and constantly in danger of death. There’s a bevy of fun supporting characters. There’s a breathless, rock & roll aesthetic, which veers from extremes of violence to heartbreaking tenderness. There’s a bunch of compelling, plotty twists and turns, intriguing flashbacks, and dark foreshadowing, with a killer climax at the end of issue #6.
Unfortunately, it then goes on for 12 more issues.
In those issues, Lapham breaks down everything he’s built up over the first six to replace it with something else. And then he does it again. And again. And again. Oh, the next part of the story is Sadie’s coma dream. Just kidding, it’s real and she’s an alien from Mars. Just kidding, a different character is the alien. Just kidding, the narrator is a schizophrenic. Just kidding, he’s sane but he’s being manipulated by a conspiracy. Just kidding, the conspiracy is the aliens. Just kidding, the aliens are taking over the conspiracy. Just kidding, the aliens are just a metaphor for corporate takeover. Just kidding, the narrator is a liar. Just kidding, everybody’s a liar. Just kidding, this is all stories told by a psychotic washed-up rock star. Just kidding. Just kidding. Just kidding. The first time one of these shifts happens, it’s intriguing. Then it’s shocking and enthralling. Then it’s confusing. Then irritating. Then maddening. Then really, really boring.
I read all 18 issues of Young Liars in one day. Stray Bullets made me a fan of Lapham, so I decided to subscribe to YL, but my time is highly circumscribed, so the series started and ended before I began reading it. What this experience crystallized for me is that I deeply dislike this narrative structure. Don’t get me wrong — I dig some reality-bending in a story. It’s a great spice. What I do not dig is when the story’s basic reality gets fractured so often or so severely that I no longer know what the story’s basic reality even is anymore. If I go long enough with no idea what is real, it turns out I really no longer care what is real, and the whole thing gets much less interesting. Plus, I completely lose faith that interesting plot danglers from early on are going to be paid off in any coherent way.
I read a great dissection of Heroes, which very accurately described it as a narrative Ponzi scheme, constantly borrowing from the future to disguise the fact that it’s actually based on nothing. This is Young Liars‘ problem as well. Between this, the disappointing run on Detective Comics, and the indefinite cessation of Stray Bullets (along with my vanished faith that that series will ever draw its strands together), I think I’m done with David Lapham now. He’s a fantastic stylist, but it turns out I’m only impressed by that when it’s paired with good storytelling.
Narrative Ponzi scheme.
Wow, that’s the perfect description of Heroes.