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Displacement: A Travelogue


Displacement: A Travelogue

DISPLACEMENT: A Travelogue is the autobiographical tale of Lucy Knisley as she tries to care for her elderly grandparents --- ages 91 and 93 --- on a week-long cruise. It is painful in the most intentional way, following Knisley as she watches her WWII-veteran grandfather wet his pants in public and her grandmother, a former schoolteacher, lose her memory.

This is a story that would be much less powerful if it had been told in any form but comics. It discusses a natural repulsion toward the sick and elderly, and that repulsion comes largely from being able to see the wrinkles, the frailty, the eyes always squinted in order to see through thick glasses --- by seeing these things, readers are reminded that they will be like that one day too. The art here allows us to see everything and feel that uncomfortable mixture of pity and disgust, yet goes beyond what a movie can do because we can follow Knisley’s thoughts throughout the entire ordeal.

"DISPLACEMENT asks you to think about your own mortality and your reaction to the mortality of others."

It also has the potential to make readers feel a little guilty, wondering if they’re more like the passers-by shooting ugly looks at the old man wetting himself in the airport or the sympathetic granddaughter trying to help. Knisley does not hide her aggravation for the people who don’t seem to understand what it’s like taking care of two people in their nineties. Much of the book seems to be dedicated to complaining about these people --- the man who won’t give up saved seats at the bar, the woman who drops Knisley’s grandparents off in their room instead of staying with them, the family members who don’t put in the effort to try to change a connecting flight to a direct flight to make traveling easier --- and while the complaints are definitely warranted, it does make a good part of the book feel like an anecdotal airing of grievances. 

While the work is formatted as a travelogue, the characters don’t develop the way characters in a traditional story would, so while there’s the expectation that the experience with her grandparents will help Knisley learn something about herself and her own life or priorities, it doesn’t happen beyond some late-night trains of insomniacal thought. Knisley says very little about the cruise or where they travel to, because her grandparents aren’t interested in any of that. 

One of the most powerful parts of the book is Knisley’s grandfather’s war journal, which she expertly weaves into the story as her nighttime reading. This is especially heartbreaking after watching a whole day of Knisley fetching food, calming nerves and trying to anticipate her grandparents’ needs --- the reader can’t help but think see of these two people were like when they were young, something that’s easy to forget when dealing with the elderly. There are drawings of her grandfather as a handsome young man accompanying these entries, which recount him watching his friends die and trying to understand the point of war.

DISPLACEMENT asks you to think about your own mortality and your reaction to the mortality of others. It makes you uncomfortable while also sprinkling in moments of humor and joy, so as to keep the emotion from being overwhelming. It may not read like much of a travelogue, but it’s a rewarding and important work nonetheless.

Reviewed by Jess Costello on February 8, 2015

Displacement: A Travelogue
by Lucy Knisley

  • Publication Date: February 8, 2015
  • Genres: Graphic Novel
  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Fantagraphics
  • ISBN-10: 1606998102
  • ISBN-13: 9781606998106