Book Club in the Time of Trump: Flying Couch by Amy Kurzweil
There are a good many reasons I thought we had to read this book in the context of a Trump Presidency. First, we must value the narratives of women at this time when they’re being consistently devalued; this book is entirely about three women, and the inheritance of a lineage. Specifically, a Jewish lineage and a lineage that involves The Holocaust. Which brings me to the next reason that I picked it: no matter how much folks call it “the alt-right,” it’s still Nazis. And understanding the history of white nationalism is important to contextualizing this administration. What I love about Flying Couch specifically is that, though it certainly helps us do that, it’s not a history book—what it does extremely well is bring the narrative into present day using the through-line of familial lineage. And, as with Persepolis, one of our picks from last year, it allows that history to show up on a body, rendered lovingly in comics. Without further ado, here are some questions you can talk about with your book club—and feel free to tweet at me or comment here, as well! I’d love to chat via the internet about this wonderful book by Amy Kurzweil.
1. What does Flying Couch teach a reader about dealing with truth in fragments?
One of the things I love desperately about this book is how inextricably linked the medium is with the content of the piece—the use of liminal space inherent to comics builds the environment for fragmented truth and making leaps between what is known to discover what is not known. The idea of fragmented truth appears on page 32 in the text, where narrator Amy tells the reader about conversations with her bubbe: “Our conversations are always in fragments, like my knowledge of her life.” But it roots deeper than the text. On the next page, even, we are introduced to fragments of a home explored through the window panes of a rental car. In fact, the use of the space between things has been on the page from the very beginning, when in chapter one we experience Amy and her mother in different areas of a house, represented by a map meant to accentuate that actual physical space between them. This use of space makes the reader ready to make leaps in a fragmented story, and prepares the reader for finding a sense of truth in the process of exploration and research. In an age where intellectual curiosity is stigmatized by the United States government so that they may keep the fragments of our present reality from being seen and the dots connected, this skill is invaluable. The journey of curiosity that Kurzweil so graciously takes us on encourages readers to dig into their own stories, to critically examine aspects of their identity that they have not cast their eyes to before.
2. How does memory appear on the page?
Memoir is all about how we remember things, not the concrete facts of what actually happened. Memory, in this instance, doesn’t make appearances as either linear or rooted in realism. A great example of this is the sequence of illustrations from pages 108 to 119, where Amy begins to interrogate, via the words and works of others, what her very personal Jewish identity means to her outside the prescribed boxings she saw at her college fair. We see the actual folks whose creative work she’s engaging with pop to life and speak to her. And afterward, when she can’t sleep, we see college-Amy transform into child-Amy, and ask her parents for comfort that she fails to receive. Another way we see memory popping up in a nonlinear way is by repeating image-motifs in circles to signify the vignettes taking place in narrator-Amy’s head. An excellent example is on page 150, where an image we’ve seen earlier in the book makes a reappearance as a memory—an image of her grandmother singing about how one always must clean off the feet is associated with dirty shoes taken off at the door while visiting distant family. It’s these leaps and connections (associated with those fragmented truths above) that help us sit in Amy’s mind with her, even as her body is rendered separate from us on the page. I’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t experience memory in this way; brains so rarely focus on lines. Using these fragments and spaces in the context of memory serves two purposes, I think: it points to a truth in lived experiences because it’s associated with a search for truth in fact finding, and it also keeps people complicated.
3. What stance does the book take on the commonalities of violence?
Okay, this question is simply here for me to talk about a spread I can’t stop thinking about: pages 138 and 139, where narrator-Amy dreams about her experience hearing an American-born Israeli deepen the divide between Palestinians and Israelis with shouts of “fuck them.” The American-born Israeli man is wearing a Cleveland Indians baseball cap, complete with the very racist Cleveland Indians mascot. In her dream, everyone’s experience of violence is woven together in a gorgeous and terrible tableau that manages to keep everyone’s experience unique and complex while highlighting the common thread of violence. By including the hat, the perpetrators and the perpetrated against become one in the same, an intersection that is often ignored in favor of the often-easier mutual-exclusivity. The image seems to be able to hold two truths together in a way that I see a load of people struggle with: that there is no comparing the violence that different marginalized groups experience and that violence is violence is violence. I have no idea how this particular set of images is going to affect me in the long term, but since reading the book for the first time, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. For this alone, I will recommend it forever.
Thank you so much for reading Flying Couch with me! Up next month is a longer one, so get started right away! Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones won the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction and whooooo boy, there’s a reason it did. See you next month for our discussion of that—it promises to be a doozy
A.E. Osworth is Geekery Editor at Autostraddle, Managing Editor at Barnard Center for Research On Women’s Scholar and Feminist Online, and Part-Time Faculty at The New School, where they teach digital storytelling. They're writing a novel about GamerGate, which is really depressing. Follow them on Twitter or on Instagram.