David Herrle reviews Terese Jungle’s CHICKEN: A COMIC CAT MEMOIR

Cover_ChickenTheBook2published by t. jungle Design, 2016


Check it: I despise almost all books and movies about children or animals (though I adore both in real life). Screw Charlotte the spider and Wilbur the pig! Begone, Black Stallion! And I certainly don’t care for animals as central subjects of works of visual art any more than I look forward to seeing pet pics on Facebook. Luckily, I was turned on to Terese’s lovely and worthy book, Chicken: A Comic Cat Memoir, and I learned that a story about a cat can be much more than a story about a cat.

Presented via clever and unmistakable Teresean illustrations that include handwritten text and word balloons, Chicken tracks the autobiographical plot of a girl named TJ who used to be “very, very allergic” to cats, grew out of the allergy (or the allergy grew out of her), had recurring dreams of a green-eyed black-and-white “tuxedo tabby” and eventually adopted and adored just such a cat until her (the cat’s) death many years later.

One of the basic messages of the book is the grand miracle of fated intimacies. “[Those] destined to meet will do so, apparently by chance, at precisely the right time” goes a pertinent quote attributed to Emerson on the dedication page, though, for the life of me, I don’t know from which work it came – and I know my Emerson. Dovetailing this quote, TJ’s friend Mimi gives her some sage advice about how to go about acquiring the right cat: “[Y]ou have to wait for your cat to find you.”

Sure enough, TJ discovers one of a few stray cats outside of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and resolves to go from being a cured cat-activated sneezer to a full-blown cat owner. Eventually TJ names the cat Chicken. Yes: Chicken. Why? Because the cat makes a rare, if not unique, “bak” sound, which, thankfully, provides the central gimmick for the book’s title.

Terese seems to have an enviable effortlessness in her illustrating, but just when you think she produces clever images almost willy-nillyingly, with savant-like rapidity, something pops up that shows real careful design behind it all. In fact, I doubt that I could have managed to communicate so much, create such an effective mood and poignant autobiographical summary, so deftly. (I think Terese would kick ass telling a story on The Moth Radio Hour. I’d suck.)

Though comparing artists’ art to other artists can be quite tacky, I do so only out of respect and with full acknowledgement of the former’s distinction. Terese’s general work doesn’t allow for easy comparisons, so the best I can do is evoke the pithiness of Raymond Pettibon, the deceptive simplicity and fluidity of James Thurber (whose cartoons echo Picasso’s sketches), the weirdness of Edward Gorey and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Three Incestuous Sisters, maybe even a little R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman.

Chicken also features judicious incorporation of photographs: Grandma W’s quilt, Grandma V, Chicken’s kibble coincidentally arranged as a smiley face, a desert campsite, former apartments, her daughter Ana’s drawings, a mouse killed by Chicken, and Chicken’s shrine.

Perhaps above all, Terese’s humor earns the book high ratings: from Chicken’s impossible use of human language to a psychedelic portrayal of a cat-nip high. When infant Ana grabs her tail, Chicken thinks or says “Mother? [H]elp. Me not toy,” and when someone mistakes her for a “bed lump” offended Chicken says “’bed lump’ indeed!” Dust bunnies in a closet are really bunnies in a closet; the sound a spring makes is “sproing;” Chicken’s first word of greeting before the adoption decision is “y’ellow;” and the very comic frame is broken by sound effects twice: when girl-age TJ sneezes (“ahchooo”) and when TJ’s premonitory dream cat gets very close and lets out a “meyow.” Even the vinyl albums strewn on the floor near a pregnant TJ are silly: Radiohead’s Kid Ana (instead of Kid A), Oleman Hawkins instead of Coleman Hawkins, and Mama Milk instead of Tigermilk, and Oddest Mouse instead of Modest Mouse.

My favorite humorous bit is when Terese’s habitual employment of asterisked footnotes is taken to an absurd level with the image of Chicken licking her own butthole, which is almost identical to an asterisk. “* not an asterisk” appears between two brackets, and a text emoticon says, via a word balloon: “OMC” (which, I assume, means “Oh my cat!”).

However, Terese’s humor knows its place, and it doesn’t ban life’s inevitable shadows with too much brightness. By the time Ana has grown into a little girl, Chicken gets sick: kidney failure and a tumor after 17 years of health and vibrancy. As deftly as a scene in an episode of All in the Family could go from zany to ultra-serious, the story takes a tragic turn, and I found myself reading through tears as Chicken is dying and TJ recalls the times when she could have been more vigilant and protective of her beloved pet. Finally there a heartbreaking goodbye scene: “Please…forgive me, dear cat,” TJ sobs as Chicken thinks “I’m ready to go.” Bravo to Terese for a masterful balance of Thalia and Melpomene, life’s joys and sorrows.

Of course, the book is full of inside jokes and anecdotes, and likenesses that are recognizable and dearest to Terese’s intimates, but the incidentals don’t gum up the book’s accessibility at all. Chicken has abstract worth, vibrates with universals: the age-old love between pets and humans, the sickening fact of mortality and how it forces tearful goodbyes out of everybody sooner or later, the episodic and migratory rhythm of life. The book also celebrates the peculiar and miraculous medium of comics, its visceral power and its attractiveness to people of all ages. Copies of Chicken should be sold on both children and adult bookstore shelves.

Are TJ and Ana found by another cat, one special enough to replace the great Chicken? Buy the book and find out.