Fly­ing Couch

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

Ever since Art Spiegelman’s stun­ning achieve­ment in his Pulitzer Prize win­ning Maus, oth­er writ­ers with Holo­caust sto­ries to tell have been inspired by the cre­ative free­dom that the graph­ic nar­ra­tive form affords, includ­ing an increas­ing num­ber of women artists. Among the mem­o­rable exam­ples of Holo­caust fic­tion and mem­oirs by child sur­vivors and oth­ers are Ber­nice Eisenstein’s I Was A Child of Holo­caust Sur­vivors (2006), Miri­am Katin’s We Are On Our Own (2006) and Let­ting It Go (2013), and Ruto Modan’s The Prop­er­ty (2013).

Now the third gen­er­a­tion is also hav­ing its say, most recent­ly in Amy Kurzweil’s sparkling, dar­ing and wild­ly idio­syn­crat­ic Fly­ing Couch, an extra­or­di­nary tapes­try woven from both painful and uproar­i­ous fam­i­ly sto­ries, dream­scapes, and oth­er sur­re­al flights of fan­cy (such as sequences in which the patri­arch Jacob, Freud, and Her­zl appear before the young artist with their incom­pat­i­ble agen­das) and poignant episodes from Amy’s own Bildungsroman.

Every­thing is large in this con­stant­ly grip­ping, beau­ti­ful­ly illus­trat­ed and enter­tain­ing mem­oir, begin­ning with the evoca­tive ded­i­ca­tion For the women who made me,” inscribed over smil­ing illus­tra­tions of two of the novel’s three stub­born and per­sis­tent pro­tag­o­nists: Kurzweil’s moth­er and grand­moth­er. The third hero is, of course, Amy her­self. The nar­ra­tive scope is ambi­tious­ly expan­sive, imag­i­na­tive­ly nav­i­gat­ing between her grand­moth­er Bubbe’s har­row­ing strug­gles in the War­saw Ghet­to and Pol­ish coun­try­side where she pass­es (bare­ly) as a gen­tile, scenes from Amy’s vex­ing rela­tion­ship with her psy­chother­a­pist moth­er, her sojourn in Israel and angst-filled days as a col­lege stu­dent amid the bewil­der­ing pol­i­tics of cam­pus activism, and lat­er as a strug­gling artist. Some­how this all coheres: the dizzy­ing mul­ti­plic­i­ty of choic­es, lifestyles, and oppor­tu­ni­ties avail­able to Amy form a sharp con­trast to her grandmother’s trag­i­cal­ly fore­closed hori­zons as a young per­son — espe­cial­ly evi­dent in the vari­ety of con­tem­po­rary Judaisms avail­able to Amy’s gen­er­a­tion, when the denial of any Jew­ish faith was essen­tial to Bubbe’s very sur­vival. Kurzweil sen­si­tive­ly ren­ders evoca­tive moments of both uni­ty and dis­uni­ty between the gen­er­a­tions. In that respect, Kurzweil’s por­tray­al of Bubbe may put some read­ers in mind of Vladek, Spiegelman’s prick­ly and exas­per­at­ing father as por­trayed in Maus; both fig­ures under­score how the very traits that enable sur­vival in unimag­in­able cir­cum­stances may prove alien­at­ing to others.

Kurzweil’s hilar­i­ous­ly acer­bic but con­sis­tent­ly empath­ic por­tray­al of her mother’s and grandmother’s foibles — as well as her own — amounts to a win­ning blend of whim­sy and somber notes. These por­traits of three prick­ly and spir­it­ed women will undoubt­ed­ly enthrall any­one who was won over by Can’t We Talk About Some­thing More Pleas­ant?, Roz Chast’s sear­ing mem­oir about the aging and mor­tal­i­ty of her par­ents. It is no small claim that Kurzweil’s for­tu­nate read­ers will just as read­i­ly laugh out loud and be brought to tears in read­ing Fly­ing Couch; nor is it any small feat to man­age the dif­fi­cult chal­lenge Kurzweil under­takes in this work to jux­ta­pose the past and present in such thought­ful and orig­i­nal ways.

Through­out the book, Kurzweil makes inven­tive use of hand-drawn maps and old fam­i­ly pho­tographs to cre­ate a rich fam­i­ly por­trait that sub­tly under­scores how each woman has sought to cre­ate a sense of belong­ing and self. Fly­ing Couchs most affect­ing episodes inter­weave the voic­es of oth­ers, most mem­o­rably Bubbe’s poignant and ago­niz­ing mem­o­ries of sur­vival amidst true hor­ror. In one touch­ing inter­lude she recalls wan­der­ing in the woods, still a child and bereft of her fam­i­ly, dur­ing the months of her ordeal, wondering:

What am I? I would try to say a lit­tle bit of Yid­dish words to myself, but I was so scared. I couldn’t do it. Even all alone like that, they were locked up inside me. I didn’t think the Jews exist­ed any­more. I thought, I’m the only one.

Kurzweil proves a sophis­ti­cat­ed artist whose imag­i­na­tio­n­is brim­ming with com­pas­sion as well as psy­cho­log­i­cal obser­va­tion and insight. Fly­ing Couch is as pro­found a book on the trans­mis­sion of trau­mat­ic mem­o­ry through the gen­er­a­tions as one could hope for. It is also an immense­ly charm­ing com­ing-of-age sto­ry and fam­i­ly mem­oir whose warm humor will sure­ly evoke recog­ni­tion and delight read­ers across the generations.

And yes, even your grand­moth­er can read it — par­tic­u­lar­ly thanks Fly­ing Couchs over­sized for­mat and bold lettering.

Hear Amy Kurzweil speak about her work togeth­er with fel­low graph­ic sto­ry­tellers Eli Val­ley, Amy Kurzweil, and Rock­et Chair Media at Ink Bleeds His­to­ry: Reclaim­ing and Redraw­ing the Jew­ish Image in Comics Thurs­day, Novem­ber 3, 2016 at the Muse­um of Jew­ish Her­itage. Reg­is­ter online for free admission!

Relat­ed Content:

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

Discussion Questions