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Status Upbeats

In 2008 George Toles asked himself a question. Did he have the discipline to match the invention of his brother, Tom Toles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist of The Washington Post, and produce an idea every day that was worth reading? He wanted to see if he had the necessary “inspiration and comic readiness.” Thirteen years and 4,745 status updates later, he seems to have answered that question in the affirmative.

For five of those years, he entered into a collaboration with Cliff Eyland, an artist, close friend and one-time academic colleague. Eyland responded with 1,600 visual interpretations of Toles’s status updates, and Winnipeg’s At Bay Press has published a tidy 100-page book offering a mere tease of their delightful collaboration. (Toles dedicated the book to Eyland, who died in May of last year.) The words and images for Status Update were smartly chosen and introduced by George’s son, Thomas, who went through the entire range of postings and drawings to make his selection. It would have demanded, or produced, a response of Herculean zaniness.

What Toles and Eyland share is a biting sense of humour—“I have a loathing of whimsy,” Toles says— and a quest for the kind of laugh “that we wish we could take back, the laugh that escapes us without our being able to explain or defend it.” Toles calls it “unsanctioned laughter,” and the book is overflowing with entries that move in that direction.

The updates themselves are of various lengths, from epigrammatic one-liners to full paragraphs that function as mini-narratives. Here is a sample of the former: “Once he had captured her imagination, he set about torturing it” (4 September 2010); “He turned in his raffle ticket stub to the firing squad officer and claimed his prize” (11 October 2013); “Ben liked plays where you get to touch the actors you like and then take them home and cover them with wet plaster” (17 July 2010); “Who would ever have guessed that such mundane, unpromising shit would one day hit the fan?”(17 July 2013); and “God broke a centuries-long silence to announce that He hadn’t yet forgiven anybody for anything” (28 April 2012). The final two updates play with the malleability of the cliché. It is a strategy that Toles employs throughout the book: he takes recognizable narrative forms, like folk tales, domestic bagatelles and literary conventions, and upends our expectations of how they operate. In one longer update from 10 June 2013, a man’s children are fascinated by and fearful of his girlfriend, who locks them in a bathroom with her and tells them frightful stories, “dipping them in the honey of her madness.” She’s like a lyrically perverse fairy godmother.

Eyland’s drawings travel the same distance in the same quirky manner. He includes everything from delicate pencil drawings to surrealist doodles, “the remarkable mysterious, playful and lovely elusiveness of his renderings,” as Toles characterizes them. The accompanying image for a 22 June 2010 update—“All they needed to become a real family again was for the neighbours to have another great tragedy”—is a cluster of four women, in various states of undress, squeezing something red onto the head of a man. Toles describes it as “an exact illustration of something that bears no direct relationship at all to the notions I was playing with verbally. It just throws everything into a different kind of relief that startles and pleases and makes you begin over again to think about the family. Now they’re naked. I love that.”

Eyland can go for baroque and then pull back to the simplest rendering. The 18 March 2012 update presents a marriage night redolent with sexual anxiety that is salvaged when the couple conducts a forensic investigation into the death by ice pick of the bride’s former lover. Eyland’s drawing for this murderous tale of matrimony is a pair of ice picks that sit above the text like a malignant hieroglyph. The update for 18 December 2010 is about a Woodster who marries five times before he figures out his wives are actually all his first wife, Rosalie, “a master of disguise and dialect and coital capers.” Eyland gives us Rosalie in six guises, all wearing the same swirling dress but each with different features on her lumpen, goofy face.

Status Update is a collaboration, but it is also a tribute to a significant friendship. Toles says, “He was the nearest thing to Peter Pan that I’ve ever known. I played Peter Pan as a kid, and I got it all wrong. But he was the real deal, the spirit of eternal youth and absolute refusal to put on the staid livery of the settled response. It was a constant reminder why one should loosen up, keep it light, not make your opinions the ones you ought to have. Tapping into Cliff’s humour was one of the most marvellous things of my grown-up life.” ❚

Volume 40, Number 1: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #156, published May 2021.

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