PITTSBURGH / AUTHOR: FRANK SANTORO / PUBLISHER: THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: 17TH SEPTEMBER
Pittsburgh is such an intimate, unflinching encapsulation of the trappings of urban family life that reading it feels like an awkward intrusion of privacy. It’s as if we’re reading a story that was never intended to be read by a mass audience. An autobiographical account of the author’s parent’s fractured relationship and illustrated in a cut-out, sketchbook fashion, its rawness is softly alluring.
Frank Santoro writes and draws this muted yet lengthy account of quiet family drama with a balance of hallucinogenic visuals and fourth wall-breaking frankness. The most striking aspect of Pittsburgh is its illustrative qualities. Visualised through near-finished sketches, stickers and layered papers, this rough, mid-process style of delivering the story feels like an extremely deliberate choice of medium. Santoro uses this deconstruction of a traditional sequential structure to comment and reflect on the content of his narrative. This story of his parents' courtship and unfortunate split isn’t told from their perspective, but rather through Santoro’s own fragmented memories. As jagged and purposefully incomplete as the art, the end result is a graphic novel that’s permanently tripping over feelings of nostalgia and sorrow.
Santoro’s narrative also takes advantage of exploring the fallout of his parents' relationship on other members of his extended family (including himself), as well as the community they all live and work in. His depiction of his parents' slow breakdown is tender and considered, yet unwavering in acknowledging the toxic reasons for the breakdown itself. The effects of their community slowly succumbing to changing social and economic landscapes feels much less fully formed than other elements of the story, however. Granted, this is a book that gleefully exploits and masterfully weaves its sombre narrative via its half-formed format, but the wider community aspects genuinely feel sidelined. It feels like the shifting state of Santoro’s home city should form a larger reflection of Pittsburgh’s comments on how metamorphic relationships can be, and how such relationships can alter the people who make up those bonds themselves. Perhaps that’s the deliberate downfall of this very memory-driven narrative, that some aspects of the past are better remembered than others. It all adds to Pittsburgh’s lucid charm.
Pittsburgh isn’t without its warmer, more inviting elements. Santoro’s colour palette is unpredictably inspired and invigorating. Pastel colours work wonders in establishing the domestic tone of the narrative, as we traverse across the streets of Santoro’s home world, meeting characters whose small actions proceed to have ripple effects on Santoro’s life. The colour and shape of Pittsburgh go hand in hand in crafting its illuminated introspections. The sheer inventiveness makes it worth reading alone, but Santoro’s concise narrative helps make the book’s strange, swirling appearance all the more legitimate.
Pittsburgh is a visually imaginative rendering of the fragility of relationships. The gorgeously erratic artwork mixed with the intensely romantic and reflective story feels as though this is Santoro’s attempt at making sense of his family’s disjointed state. The fact that he’s able to take these experimental mechanics and turn it into a riveting graphic novel makes Pittsburgh a muscular and necessary read.