A quick Google search reveals that we make approximately 35,000 conscious decisions a day. Most of these decisions fall into the category of the mundane: Do I want mustard or mayonnaise on this sandwich? Should I clip my fingernails? Which shoes should I wear? Every once in a while, though, we are faced with a decision that could possibly change the entirety of our lives. Leslie Stein’s new book from Drawn and Quarterly, I Know You Rider, is about a decision of this magnitude, its ramifications, and ultimately, how we live with the consequences of our decisions. It’s also a book about art, ideals, and being in the world.
Stein is a bold storyteller. Her thin-lined cartooning is at times almost whimsical, her sense of timing is impeccable, and her use of watercolor adds a depth to her work that might otherwise lay flat on the page. She eschews panel borders and renders almost all of her characters’ faces with no distinguishing features other than dots for eyes and wild hair. To a great extent, her choice to eschew specificity and embrace openness helps her stories transcend the individual into the universal.
And yet, I Know You Rider is an extremely personal book whose narrative focus is her termination of an unplanned pregnancy. Stein uses the tricks of a storyteller to bring the reader in: playing with time, burying important details, layering complex side-stories onto the anchoring narrative. Stein places the decision she faces in the context of her daily life. By doing so, she establishes herself as a unique voice, providing a springboard into an exploration of the very notion of creativity.
There is a small moment in I Know You Rider where Stein brings the man with whom she has conceived her as yet unborn child up to her apartment to see how he feels about the prospect of fatherhood and his intentions towards her. As they enter her apartment, she apologizes for not having a couch. When asked why, she responds that she wants all of her energy focused on the corner of the room where her art table and supplies sit.
It’s here that all the ramifications of the reality of her situation coalesce. It’s here that she is at the crossroads — all the forces that she must consider to make her decision arrive. If she were to have this child, how would her life be transformed? Where would her energy have to go? If she must take on all the responsibilities of childrearing alone, what will that mean for her as an artist?
And as much as this is a book about her decision around her pregnancy, it is also a book that explores the concept of what it means to be an artist. It examines the procreant urge in its many forms. Everyone she meets in I Know You Rider has an opinion about it, either about children, or art, or gardening, or living, or love. Stein becomes almost bogged down with options, complicating her ultimate decision. As she explores the possibilities that others have to offer, she begins to lose herself.
But it is her decision in the end, and once she makes it, she begins to allow her choice to open up her world. New opportunities arrive, relationships are fostered, and while she ends up in the same place she began, outdoors among the butterflies, she comes out of it stronger and more sure than before.
Towards the end of the book, Stein writes, “In the distance I see hedges that seem to form a maze. But when I arrive there, I realize I was mistaken, they are easy to navigate.” The immensity of the decision was, at the moment, seemingly unsurmountable. Once she had the courage of her own convictions to guide her, though, she understood her choice to be the right one for her, at that moment, for her life and for her art.
While Stein takes the title for the book from the American folk song of the same name, her story doesn’t echo the regret and the loss at the heart of that tune. Rather, it embraces the idea of moving forward, using that which did not happen to make a better future, to be “the headlight on a Northbound train”. I Know You Rider is a beautiful, funny, heart-wrenching, and inspiring book.