Ulli Lust is an Austrian cartoonist who lives and works in Berlin and who published in 2009 a long, thick, graphic novel memoir about hitchhiking through Italy as a teenager in the 1980s. It won awards in Germany, was translated to French, and then won awards in France. Fantagraphics Books has just translated it to English under the title Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, and it’s going to win more awards here, too. It’s a memoir that avoids being self-centered, petty, naïve, or boring, and, like On the Road meets The Diary of Anaïs Nin meets The Innocents Abroad, it’s spontaneous, sexual, and both cynically and internationally adventurous. It’s also further proof that the graphic novel is going to dethrone the novel as the 21st century’s preferred form for telling a story—in print—that’s dense and serious and artful and long.
A good way to think about Today Is the Last Day is as a kind of anti-Eat, Pray, Love. Both books are the confessions of a girl/woman who’s restless and frustrated and looking for life, and who leaves home in order to find it, but whereas Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir is a breezy, yuppie fairy tale told in the service of the ego of its author, Today Is the Last Day is bohemian and brutal and frequently reads like a traveler’s nightmare. The teenaged Ulli, the book’s hero, crosses illegally into Italy, wanders around with just a sleeping bag (no money, no passport, no change of clothes), and is raped by strangers, betrayed by her friend, injected with heroin, harassed by mafiosos, and arrested by the police. But despite and amid all that, she gets to sneak into a Clash concert, camp out on the beach, pick wild strawberries, and sleep for a night in the Fontana del Pincio in Rome. All of which is to say that she gets to experience, for a few months, what it’s like to live outside that protective, pacifying, Matrix-like bubble that an affluent and well-ordered society encases its citizens in, layer by layer, from birth until death—whereas Eat, Pray, Love is basically what it feels like to travel through Italy, India, and Indonesia while deeply, stupidly, ensconced within that bubble.
Whereas Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir is a breezy, yuppie fairy tale told in the service of the ego of its author, Today Is the Last Day is bohemian and brutal and frequently reads like a traveler’s nightmare.
As for the look of the book, illustration isn’t its strong suit. Lust’s drawings and layouts do the job, and don’t get in the way, but nor do they add to the story or put much of a twist on it. With the exception of a few appendix-type add-ons, there’s almost no narration. Just scenes and dialogue and one crazy, dangerous, unforeseen situation after another. And while the visual style does mutate at times in order to show young Ulli’s subjective take on things, in general the book is hesitant to editorialize and criticize either the steady, middle-class existence that Ulli ran way from or the precarious debauchery of her life on the street. But given how outrageous and unbelievable so many of Today Is the Last Day’s scenes are, a simple and unaffected drawing style was probably the most direct way for Lust to convince the reader that she wasn’t making any of this up.
Reading Today Is the Last Day reminded me of a question I asked a little over a year ago, in a review of Guy Delisle’s illustrated travelogue, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City: whether it would be possible for a cartoonist to create, via a tome-like graphic novel, the equivalent of a Huckleberry Finn or a Moby-Dick or a For Whom the Bell Tolls. Well, Lust’s Today Is the Last Day convinces me that it is possible, and that a birthday for this book may soon be approaching.
The difference, however, between a memoir like Today Is the Last Day and a novel like the ones I mentioned above is the digestion of what did happen (i.e., the facts that you can talk about and point to with everyday thinking and everyday language) and the rearrangement of those facts via the imagination into what could’ve happened (i.e., the deep, weird, impenetrable truth that can at best be approached glancingly via the metaphors and allegories and fantasies of fiction). Which means it’s basically going to take a cartoonist who has, let’s say, the experience of an Ulli Lust, the imagination of an Alan Moore, and the intellect of an Alison Bechdel to come up with the historical cartoon equivalent of “Call me Ishmael.” Maybe it’ll take another generation or two of cartoonists before the bulk of such a thing is ready to breach the cultural waters and before some far-seeing critic of comics will cry out to his or her (probably two or three) readers, “There she blows!” But, trust me, it’s coming. That whale is most definitely coming.
Ulli Lust’s Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life was released on June 15 by Fantagraphics Books; to purchase it, click here.