Is buoyancy boring? It's certainly an underrated quality in the literary world. We value tragic ranters and ironic brooders, people who put on a show and really make the pages fly by. Sturdy resilience, on the other hand, always seems to be asking for a fall.
Lucy Knisley appears well aware of this. In her autobiographical comics, she comes across as down-to-earth, humble and most of all grateful for her robust emotional constitution. She mocks herself gently whenever she can, as in last year's An Age of License, a tale of her travels in Europe. On the first page she drew herself floating like a kite, tethered by a long line to the cursive title.
Knisley seems determined to fight her natural buoyancy, exposing herself to novel tests if only to keep people reading. That seems to have been a key factor behind her decision to escort her 90-something grandparents on a week-long luxury cruise, a trip she chronicles in Displacement: A Travelogue. Everybody knows cruises are basically floating, kitschy death cults, thanks to David Foster Wallace's famous essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." Knisley herself invokes Wallace early on. She sketches a witty little portrait of him oceanside with a quote: "I have felt as bleak as I've felt since puberty, and have filled almost three Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me."
Unlike Wallace, Knisley enjoys a basic certainty that it isn't Just Her. Death ship or no, that pesky buoyancy won't give way. Not that she doesn't suffer in Displacement. She endures constant anxiety, boredom and the spectacle of hundreds of other Americans in cruisewear. She has to anticipate the needs of two people who can't really do anything or go anywhere except to take short, gentle walks. Even sitting too long is hard on their frail bodies. And one of them doesn't always remember who Knisley is.
Knisley personifies her own feelings about all this as a rather cute purple monster crouched on her shoulders, labeled "The horror of age, infirmity and death in a young person's mind." Life onboard ship offers plenty of opportunities for the monster to run free. Lying in bed, she's assaulted at 3 a.m. by a sudden shipboard announcement: "Attention! Disregard the last announcement. Everything's fine."
But Knisley's single off-ship expedition provides her most intense encounter with existential dread. Her snorkeling group visits the site of a sunken ship lying "beneath 40 feet of dark, cold, murky water," she writes. "We bob on the choppy surface, peering down through the gloom to just glimpse the suggestion of a huge, unnatural object below. It evokes a terrifying, humbling, primal fear."
That's typical for Knisley: She names what she's feeling rather than evoking it, and she never dives too deep. A sense of tight control is detectable within her deceptively informal drawing style, too. She uses the same clean lines and delicate tinting for every incident in the book, no matter how agonizing or weird. Even when she doubts herself, fretting that she's "the worst at comics," her depiction of said fretting is deft. (Hilariously, her skillful pen does stumble when she draws the ship's onboard variety shows. The abyss of the snorkeling trip was a picnic, apparently, compared to a costumed medley of "Roxanne," "The Time Warp" and "Heartbreak Hotel.")
It's striking that the most memorable parts of Displacement aren't autobiography at all. They're excerpts from Knisley's grandfather Allen's war memoir. Allen's stories are a perfect kaleidoscope of human experience: Violent, funny, sad, surprising. Knisley's illustrations are both delightful and too small — both in these sections and all the way through the book. Something seems to be keeping her from sprawling across the page.
Whatever that force is, Knisley isn't looking at it too closely. That's no crime, and it doesn't keep Displacement from being reflective, engaging and lovely. Still, it's hard not to keep thinking about that shipwreck. It sure would be fun to ditch the snorkel for some scuba gear, go down and have a look around.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.