I don’t seem to have reviewed a single humorous book unless you count ‘Happy Things in Sorrow Times’ as such, and that was ridiculous, not humorous, a kind of foolish, mirthless third cousin. This month therefore I’ve chosen ‘Hyperbole and a Half,’ a book by Allie Brosh. Actually, its full name is: ‘Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened.’ If I didn’t review it now, the name alone should tell you something.
Brosh decided in 2009 to become an internet blogger. ‘This was a horrible idea for too many reasons,’ she writes, ‘but the decision wasn’t really based on logic.’ So Allie started her blog which you may find at hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com. ‘Things sort of spiralled from there,’ said Allie, which means that the blog, with its combination of humour and primitive MS Paint illustrations, became a huge success. When in 2011 she went offline for more than a year thousands of fans agonised over the reason and were delighted when she resurfaced in 2013, to announce that she was putting together a book, and this is that book, a graphic novel, published in October 2013 by Simon and Schuster.
A book however was only one reason for Brosh’s disappearance. The other was a severe bout of depression.
Several well known persons have struggled with depression; you’d know Kurt Cobain was depressed by his lyrics, you can imagine Dostoyevsky with depression, and definitely Edgar Allen Poe. Many have employed humour so effectively that depression is not evident, Douglas Adams who wrote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for example, and Stephen Fry of Jeeves fame, and Mark Twain. Allie Brosh writes about her depression and discusses her suicidal urges and feelings of despair. ‘I just woke up one day feeling sad and helpless for absolutely no reason,’ she writes.
This candour is one reason for the popularity of her blog and this book. Psychologists have called it the ‘most insightful depiction of depression to date’. Readers who suffer from depression, and there are many, relate closely to her writing. She speaks of her adulthood and her childhood, of panic, of motivating herself to action by means of fear and shame, and about the times she cannot bring herself to do simple tasks. She tells how returning a movie once became an insurmountable challenge: ‘surely I have more control over my life than this. Surely I wouldn’t allow myself to NEVER return the movie.’ But that’s exactly what happened. ‘After thirty five days, I decided to just never go back to Blockbuster again.’
‘Most people can simply motivate themselves to do things,’ she says, ‘but not me. For me motivation is this horrible, scary game where I try to make myself do something while I actively avoid doing it…I never know whether I’m going to win or lose until the last second.’
In spite of this she is hilarious, and her crude illustrations extremely expressive. In an incident where her mother baked a cake for her grandmother, Allie describes how she tried to get at the cake by every means at her disposal, until finally her mother locked it into a room. Allie managed to break in and eat the entire cake then spent the entire evening in a hyperglycaemic fit.
The funniest sections of her book prose and graphic are those that deal with her two dogs, simple dog, and helper dog. Allie and her husband got ‘helper dog’ to make life more interesting for ‘simple dog’ and ended up making life challenging for them all, if you can imagine a dog crouching in the corner of your room at night, rigid as a block of wood, just staring at you all night long. The helper dog moreover, as far as Brosh can tell, believes firmly that other dogs should not exist. That they do fill her ‘with uncontrollable, psychotic rage,’ and throws her into a hysterical fit of ‘scream barking,’ (I love that term and have lost count of the times I have been able to apply it since). But ‘’she can’t do anything to prevent the world from containing dogs, so instead, she is determined to make sure that no other dogs enjoy existing.’’
Hyperbole and a Half: the book became a New York Times bestseller and remained on the NPR Non-fiction Bestseller list for twenty nine weeks.