Pluralistic: Mirion Malle's "So Long Sad Love" (25 Jun 2024)

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The Drawn and Quarterly cover of 'So Long Sad Love.'

Mirion Malle's "So Long Sad Love" (permalink)

In Mirion Malle's So Long Sad Love, a graphic novel from Drawn and Quarterly, we get an all-too-real mystery story: when do you trust the whisper network that carries the fragmentary, elliptical word of shitty men?

Cleo is a French comics creator who's moved to Montreal, in part to be with Charles, a Quebecois creator who helps her find a place in the city's tight-knit artistic scene. The relationship feels like a good one, with the normal ups and downs, but then Cleo travels to a festival, where she meets Farah, a vivacious and talented fellow artist. They're getting along great…until Farah discovers who Cleo's boyfriend is. Though Farah doesn't say anything, she is visibly flustered and makes her excuses before hurriedly departing.

This kicks off Cleo's hunt for the truth about her boyfriend, a hunt that is complicated by the fact that she's so far from home, that her friends are largely his friends, that he flies off the handle every time she raises the matter, and by her love for him.

There's a term for men like Charles: a "missing stair." "Missing stair" is a metaphor for someone in a social circle who presents some kind of persistent risk to the people around them, who is accommodated rather than confronted:

The metaphor goes like this: you're at a party and every time someone asks where the bathroom is, another partygoer directs them to the upper floor and warns them that one of the stairs is missing, and if they don't avoid that tread, they will fall through and be gravely injured. In this metaphor, a whole community of people have tacitly decided to simply accept the risk that someone who is forgetful or new to the scene will fall through the stair – no one has come forward to just fix that stair.

The origins of this term are in BDSM circles, and the canonical "missing stair" is a sexual predator, but from the outset, it's referred to all kinds of people with failings that present some source of frustration or unhappiness to those around them, from shouters to bigots to just someone who won't help do the dishes after a dinner party:

We all know a few missing stairs, and anyone who's got even a little self-reflexivity must wonder from time to time if they're not also a missing stair, at least to some people in their lives. After all, friendship always entails some accommodation, and doubly so love – as Dan Savage is fond of saying, "There is no person who is 'The One' for you – the best you can hope for is the '0.6' that you can round up to 'The One,' with a lot of work."

And at least some missing stairs aren't born – they're made. Everyone screws up, everyone's got some bad habits, everyone's got some blind spots about what others expect of them and how others perceive us. When the people around us make bad calls about whether to let us skate on our faults and when to confront us, those faults fester and multiply and calcify. This is compounded in long-tenured relationships that begin in our youth, when we are still figuring out our boundaries – the people who we give a pass to when we're young and naive can become a fixture in our lives despite characteristics that, as adults, we wouldn't tolerate in someone who is new to our social scene.

To make all this even more complicated, there's the role that power plays in all this. Many missing stairs are keenly attuned to power dynamics and present a different face to people who have some authority – whether formal or tacit – to sanction them. This is why so many of the outings of #MeToo predators provoked mystified men to say, "Gosh, they never acted that way around me – I had no idea."

These men aren't necessarily clueless. There's a predator who once traveled in my circles, and when he was outed, it wasn't just men who were shocked. My professional and personal life includes a large cohort of socially and professionally powerful women to whom this "missing stair" presented an impeccable face on every occasion. None of the people this guy looked up to ever witnessed his behavior firsthand, and for complicated reasons, none of the lower status (younger, less experienced, and not exclusively female) people whom he preyed upon came to us.

Which brings me back to Cleo and Charles, and the mystery of what Charles did to Farah in art school, many years before. The people in Charles's circle have an explanation: Farah was Charles's first heavy crush, and he courted her in ways that crossed the line into harassment. But – according to Charles's friends – this was a temporary condition that Charles outgrew, and it was only later, when Charles was in a healthier relationship with someone who reciprocated his affections, that Farah retaliated by attacking him to their small art-school circle.

This is just plausible enough – Charles was young, still figuring stuff out, he made a misstep – that Cleo is able to console herself with it. But as Charles grows more irritable and belittling of her, and as Cleo's friends gently encourage her to dig further rather than burying her lingering doubts, a much uglier truth comes into view.

Malle handles this all so deftly, showing how Cleo and her friends all play archetypal roles in the recurrent missing stair dynamic. It's a beautifully told story, full of charm and character, but it's also a kind of forensic re-enactment of a disaster, told from an intermediate distance that's close enough to the action that we can see the looming crisis, but also understand why the people in its midst are steering straight into it.

This transitions into a third act where Cleo leaves Montreal and finds herself in the midst a very different social dynamic of people who have figured out a far healthier way to manage their interpersonal problems. This short conclusion is powerfully satisfying, showing how it's possible to live without missing stairs and without the immediate expulsion of anyone who has a "problematic" moment.

The missing stair phenomenon would be so much easier to deal with if every missing stair started out as an irredeemable monster. We could fix all those stairs and declare ourselves done. But – as Malle illustrates – there's a reason it's so hard to fix those missing stairs. Every good friendship has some give and take – but every missing stair takes too much. Knowing the difference is a skill you learn through hard experience, not one you're born with. Learning when to call someone out, and when to call them in, is a hard curriculum – and it's even harder to know when to keep trying to help the people in your life be better selves, and when to protect the other people in your life from their worst selves.

Malle's book is packed with subtlety and depth, romance and heartbreak, subtext that carries through the dialog (in marvelous translation from the original French by Aleshia Jensen) and the body language in Malle's striking artwork.

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