In this wonderfully quirky assemblage of 189 “cyclettes”--think cross between cycling and vignettes–designer and visual artist Tree Abraham offers little postcards, ranging in length from a paragraph or two to a couple of pages at most–loosely connected by her experience of, and thoughts about, cycling and cycles.
Much of it is personal: some memoir, some travelogue. But just as much is philosophical, intellectual–an inquiry into the bicycle as object and cycling as activity from a variety of aesthetic, metaphysical, psychological, geometrical, and spiritual angles.
And that’s just the text. The book is also extensively illustrated with black and white photographs, odd diagrams, cheeky charts, maps, lists, and original drawings. But these aren’t mere supplements to the text; the text-image balance is much more even, like an actual postcard. Reading this book is as much a visual experience as a textual one.
Tree Abraham grew up in Ottawa, where she first became enamored with cycling, and there’s a familiar element of nostalgia in her association of bicycles with the innocence of childhood. (Her description of the joys of Spokey Dokeys brought me back many decades.) But for a relatively young person (early 30s), she has moved around a lot. She wonders if she was addicted to motion: “younger me always said yes to the novel and the kinetic.” Abraham mentions travelling to or living in India, Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Morocco, Spain, Italy, Romania, and The Netherlands, parts of the United States, and England. She now lives in Brooklyn.
There’s something of the restless pilgrim about her, questing constantly after something that she can’t quite identify (identity? family?), spinning her wheels, as it were. As she explains, she’s “a pilgrim not yet settled on her sacred places” (88). It’s tempting to call her predicament a kind of millennial ennui on two wheels, but that doesn’t do justice to the complexities of Abraham’s situation or her thoughtful meditations on it.
At first, some of Abraham’s observations about cycles and cycling may seem a bit obvious (Victorian bicycles as a symbol of female emancipation, Amsterdam a cyclist’s paradise), but far more often she points out rarely noticed details such as the surprisingly beautiful geometry of various wheel spoke designs (and how much they look like the Spirographs of her youth). It’s these sly, unexpected connections that make the book sing.
The book is also a love story, of sorts, and not just between Abraham and her preferred mode of transport. What she’s really looking for in all her travels is not a spot on a map but an idea—call it love, home, family. (She does talk about her biological parents, especially in the early part of the book about her childhood, and their divorce clearly figures somehow in Abraham’s complicated view of family and home as a young woman, but the parents, to my eye, are a curious blank spot in her story. The Wheel of Life chart she filled out for her therapist showed that family is the least satisfying component of her otherwise mostly fulfilling life.)
One curious thing about Abraham is the fact that she’s not what some would call a “serious” cyclist. That adjective needs quotation marks, of course, but what I mean is that she doesn’t ride an expensive bicycle (quite the opposite, in fact), doesn’t race or even ride very fast, doesn’t use Strava (other than to make artistic route maps), and doesn’t really even ride that much.
Yet the bicycle brings her so much pleasure. Her view of these machines is far more aesthetic than athletic–she loves their shape, their design, how they work, move, function, and make her feel. It shouldn’t be surprising, given that Abraham is a designer, that the wheel/circle is the most prominent motif. Flipping through the pages of illustrations, circles appear frequently: from Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path to a DIY Brownies Cycling Merit Badge to bottle caps and mandalas and Spirographs.
In the end, however, after finding love, Abraham opts for the spiral–a circle with a twist that could go on forever– as the metaphorical shape that best captures her new sense of selfhood, connecting a clever array of imagery, from ammonites to seashells to Hollywood tornadoes, all linked by the themes of spinning, growth, and home.
As Jane Alison says in one of the epigraphs, “A spiraling narrative could be a helix winding downward–into a character’s soul, or deep into the past–or it might wind upward around and around to a future.” Tree Abraham’s lovely spiral of a cycling book does both.