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Virtual Book Club III

15 April 2014

A graphic novel is an unusual medium for an autobiography. Rendering memories visually from a third person perspective doesn’t allow for the intimacy and trust that more traditional memoirs strive to achieve. But, then again, Andrew Voyce’s Side Effects can hardly be called a traditional memoir. Set in a dialectic two-tonal colour scheme, it explores the dichotomy in identity that pervades an inpatient’s life as he is constantly split between two forms of existence: unmedicated and unchecked delusions outside of inpatient care on one side, and humiliating and degrading treatment inside of psychiatric hospitals on the other.

So it is unsurprising that the novel doesn’t instil the same intimacy and familiarity most autobiographies try to inspire. It is a story of metaphor and hyperbole, of delusion and anxiety. It is a story of the insurmountable walls between expression and reality, nervously challenged by the palimpsest layering of narrative onto memory. The deadpan narration, plotted around punctiform moments of distress, dislocates itself from the emotional eruptions of panic and delusion depicted in the cartoons through its distant, matter-of-fact tone. The storyboards are linked through an ambiguous time-frame which constantly changes in mitre. Time itself feels like it contracts and dilates around crystallised episodes of trauma, breaking down identity to a series of fragmented events which are thematically repeated in the humiliation and torture of involuntary injections.

In this sense, the novel explores and evaluates the fractured nature of identity. The protagonist wanders a world of shapeless and nameless silhouettes: outside consecrations of his personal alienation, a cast from which he hardly differentiates himself. In hospital, his Kafkaesque industrial therapy oppresses his desire from intellectual stimulus, further belittling his sense of individuality and identity. His invisibility becomes a matter of social oppression, until his only distinction from the rest of the ward is his striped shirt. His treatment robs him of his identity until, like the lobotomised patient in the canteen, we see him sprawled cadaver-like in a surgery, awaiting the torture of his injections. The lifelessness of inpatient life is counterpoised with the turbulence of the delusions he suffers outside of psychiatric care. We are presented with has two identities and wants neither, whose self-perception is deformed and contorted either by over-medication or untreated delusions.

Overall then, Side Effects is a story about how we are forced to perceive ourselves; it is about how we diagnose and overcome turbulence in our own self-perceptions. Ending with a celebration of artistic expression for self-acceptance may seem an awkward and unfitting idea for a novel so suggestive of the disjuncture between narrative and identity, but here it really works. Advocating artistic creation as both cathartic and therapeutic, Andrew Voyce's autobiography has become something of a case study, illustrating the need to develop more humane effective practices for the treatment of mental health. The cure suggested is not to change the person, but to change the picture in which he is presented.

Andrew Voyce’s graphic novel ‘Side Effects’ can be purchased directly from Andrew by emailing: [email protected].  Next month volunteer Kirsten Tambling will be reviewing Janet Frame's 'Faces in the Water'

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