If you spend somewhere between a considerable to absurd number of hours traipsing through the internet, you’ve likely come across the crude, colourful, and surprisingly expressive cartoons of Allie Brosh. 20-something Brosh—whose self-professed “notable achievements” include “living with two dogs and being very, very depressed”—is author of the wildly successful blog, Hyperbole and a Half.
Launching in mid-2009, the blog was hurled from obscurity ten months later after being posted in one of the internet’s most notorious sinkholes, Reddit. From there, Brosh has gradually climbed to meme-level fame, with the motif ‘ALL OF THE THINGS’ (archived as ‘X all the Y’ in meme encyclopaedia, Know Your Meme) being plastered everywhere from university toilet stalls to bodybuilding forums. Recently, she was even voted as Advertising Age’s top 50 most influential and creative people.
Equal parts new and old material, her just-released book, Hyperbole and a Half—subtitled Unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened—is a compilation of short, illustrated, autobiographic-ish stories. Mirroring her above list of notable achievements, the book focuses almost exclusively on the two most influential aspects of her life: her pair of (perhaps mentally challenged) dogs—Simple Dog and Helper Dog—and her sometimes devastating bouts with depression. These twin threads bind an otherwise disparate collection of random and roisterous life events into a semi-coherent narrative, which alternates between extremes of hilarity and existential self-implosion.
Brosh seems to have struck a winning recipe in Hyperbole and a Half, with crisis-inducing and cripplingly self-conscious tales of depression, (de)motivation, and apathy being punctuated by relieving and riotous tales of horrific encounters with killer geese and psychopathic obsessions with cake. However, it’s not so clear-cut as there just being a distinct binary of depressing stories and funny ones.
Instead, through these vignettes into her hyperbolised life, Brosh explores how human existence is saturated in seemingly inescapable paradoxes and illogic. She sets out to show that, however good we are at tricking ourselves otherwise, humans are forever intensely self-interested and, ultimately, just really, really strange creatures.
The chapter on ‘Motivation’, for example, starts off with the simple yet strangely powerful admission that:
“One of the most terrifying things that has ever happened to me was watching myself decide over and over again—thirty-five days in a row—to not return a movie I rented.”
Even if you haven’t been in this exact situation, you’ve probably experienced something comparable. It goes like this: you’re charged with some really, really simple and painless task—like, for example, throwing out some month-old McDonald’s bags festering in the back of your car—and yet for some reason it just never ends up getting done. Why? You know how easy it is, and that the consequences vastly outweigh the effort (i.e. having a car that smells intensely and sickeningly of stale Maccas), but you avoid it like a leper. Perhaps for months. Rationally, this sort of thing makes no sense. This is the sort of (il)logic that forms the philosophical backbone of the book.
Brosh treats other themes in a similarly self-critical manner, including: (failing at) becoming an ‘adult’; using shame as a motivational technique (or what she calls ‘How Horrible Can I Be Before I Experience a Prohibitive Amount of Shame?’); our wildly inflated sense of self-importance; and, of course, testing the questionable acumen of her dogs. Her exploration of these irrational aspects of human existence, coupled with her complete mastery of MS Paint, make for a book that is often deeply moving. The characters, although drawn with a coarse but calculated simplicity, provoke a whole spectrum of feeling. It’s actually pretty incredible how intensely human her characters—composed of a few lines spattered with some primary colours—can become.
It would be easy to dismiss Brosh as unnecessarily self-deprecating. But it seems that it’s the sheer intensity of her critical self-consciousness and conscious self-criticalness that people have connected with so deeply. By revealing the selfish grotesqueness of everyday humanity, the stories encourage us to become more reflexive of our inherent flaws, which can be both productive and humbling. And also, it would be nothing short of ironic to criticise Brosh for her almost complete lack of subtlety when the premise of the book is embedded right there in the title: it’s all about hyperbole.
In any case, it’s not all doom and gloom. As Brosh shows, realising your innate shiteness can also be sort of liberating and actually quite amusing. Becoming an explorer of human weirdness can be a kind of hobby, leaving us with an endless source of comic relief. In short, if you like colourful pictures and stories of dogs and depression, you’re going to totally love this book.