What the Fuck Is This by Celeste Mountjoy review – David Shrigley for the terminally online

Popular internet comic @filthyratbag takes pitch-black experiences and alchemises them into painful, pithy punchlines – with emphasis on the punch

At 16, Celeste Mountjoy had already found viral fame as an illustrator under her moniker @filthyratbag. The username, in her words, referred to being “a sneaky lil shit”, but it was also an apt descriptor of the Australian artist’s comics – deadpan, self-effacing, grotesque, bleakly relatable – which made their way feverishly across the internet. An elongated leopard appears like a non-sequitur beneath the words: “I’m really struggling at the moment”. Figures – blank and bare – cry in showers and ward off depression with vice after vice.

A profile in Dazed from 2016 called Mountjoy a cataloguer of “humanity’s most hideous attributes”; a Rookie magazine interview that same year raved about the sheer accuracy with which she documented the pitfalls of being “young and riddled with anxieties”. The characters in her work were hypocritical, exhausted and dependent on validation: like late-noughties indie sleaze before her and “gross girl” TikTok since, it was clear that she had tapped into some primal part of our brains, undamming our secret, collective urges to live deliciously.

Now 22, Mountjoy has been exhuming those urges for the better part of a decade. What the Fuck Is This is her first book – part autobiography, part absurdist poetry collection, with a natural stylistic evolution from the black-and-white line drawings that defined her earlier illustrations into a candy-coloured carnival of angst, addiction, and anxiety. It’s David Shrigley for the terminally online.

Though Mountjoy is quick to disclaim therapy as “preachy and unhelpful” in her introduction, that is exactly what this book functions as, for both author and reader. Over six stunning, sweeping chapters, she traverses the Herculean effort of coming of age as a teenage girl when everything, including your own mind, is stacked against you. There is no resolution to be found in these pages – no adversity overcome, no sparkling sense of fulfilment or wellness at the end – but the mere fact of screeching pain into existence brings about, regardless, its own kind of catharsis.

two illustrations from the bvook
‘Mountjoy draws herself as a cornucopia of avatars’ Photograph: Pan Macmillan

Mountjoy draws herself as a cornucopia of avatars: a leggy fish in high heels (don’t ask), a cool cat with lipstick and shades, bug-eyed rats creeping about the recesses of a brain addled by a world that “presented itself to me as very gross and exciting”. This world of extremes abounds with trapdoors dressed up as archways into illusory pleasure: workout tapes promising a “transformation into babetown”; “booze, drugs, and attention” offering temporary diversion; romantic flings delivering “a big fat chemical high” before the inevitable comedown.

Men, throughout, are always wolves preying on the young and supposedly naive – a tale as old as time, or at least Little Red Riding Hood. In one section Mountjoy recounts the cavalcade of weirdos, wannabes and walking red flags she dates as distraction from existential doom. Whether they’re softbois who love Proust or comedians whose jokes are, she realises later, “word for word quotes from Adam Sandler films”, their intentions remain unfailingly, unsurprisingly lecherous.

Much like the work that made Mountjoy an internet prophet, What the Fuck Is This takes these pitch-black experiences and alchemises them into painful, pithy punchlines – emphasis on the punch. “I thought I was being wild and glamorous,” she proclaims on a page laid out like an advertisement, casting herself as the poster girl for poor life choices. “I was left feeling traumatised!” Another gag reflects on her past debauchery: “Time offers distance, which provides me with clarity. Often the clarity makes me want to spew.”

An illustration
‘Reading What the Fuck Is This can feel nauseating, dizzying – evoking the same giddiness that accompanies a late-night doomscroll’ Photograph: Celeste Mountjoy/Pan Macmillan

Writing in the Sydney Review of Books in 2018, the publisher Ben Juers offers a framework for the comic form in all its shorthand and abbreviation: “Their visual ellipses make for a mutable, participatory and mutualistic interaction between reader, artist and artwork.” Excuse me for going full galaxy brain, but the same could be said of memes, the nichest of which demand an intense, unspoken understanding between sender and receiver.

And that line – between comic and meme – often feels porous in Mountjoy’s book. Some illustrations follow a coherent throughline; others appear out of the ether like smirking asides, drenched in the cracked-out irony which underscores so much online discourse. Indeed, reading What the Fuck Is This can feel nauseating, dizzying – evoking the same giddiness that accompanies a late-night doomscroll. To use that cliche: it is like watching a car crash that you can’t look away from, except you are inside the car, and you are also the wall it is crashing into, again and again until you are left pulverised by your own proclivities.

Mountjoy reflects our own ugly tendencies – to stress ourselves silly, to date the wrong people, to turn to alcohol as salve – back at us; her shuddering dread becomes ours, too. Her sleight of hand is such that she tethers her own incredibly idiosyncratic exploits to a grand, unifying malaise: the hollowness we may feel as a byproduct of simply being alive in cataclysmic times. And through the barrage of never-ending misery, we might find something close to peace, if only we delude ourselves for long enough. As Mountjoy writes, looking for signs in the universe: “I force the bird’s song to have meaning. I need it to.”

  • What the Fuck Is This by Celeste Mountjoy is published by Pan Macmillan ($32.99)


Michael Sun

The GuardianTramp

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