I have read only a very few graphic novels, but the ones I have read all seem to tread the same emotional ground. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World and now I Never Liked You by Chester Brown. Their stories center on a sort of teenage emptiness that inspires a combination of pity and fascination in me. Visually, however, the three are quite distinct with Brown’s artwork being far more spare than the other two. Brown’s jagged panels placed asymmetrically on the page are surrounded by black, drawing the eye to his simple lines. (Unfortunately, later editions of the book have replaced the black pages with white.) His panels are devoid of details and instead focusing of the setting, the reader dwells on the characters, primarily young Chester himself. Brown’s picture of himself is both funny and sad, and while the book touches on his mother’s death, the focus is on his interaction with girls. He tells his friend Sky that he loves her but doesn’t know what to do next. His neighbor Carrie has a crush on him and they engage in this strange wrestling ritual as a stand in for actual communication. Girls are drawn to the odd, artistic boy but they are also repulsed by him. In the end, the book is about Brown’s inability to engage emotionally – with these girls, with his mother, with the rest of his family. It’s a poignant and quick read (it took me about an hour), but Brown’s dreamy artwork will stay with you.
Gerard’s writing has been described as “unflinching,” but perhaps the better terms are “generous” and “patient.” Her patience is what gets her close enough to her subjects that she can round them out, exhibit their complexities, and her generosity is what keeps her from mocking them.
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Nell Freudenberger is unquestionably a gifted writer and will, if we're fortunate, become a major one. Her story collection Lucky Girls, published when she was 28, earned ink from Vogue and Elle and hardware from PEN, and if Marisha Pessl has since eclipsed her as lit-fic's "It Girl," well... so much the better. Slipping out of the prurient heat of emergence and into the relative tedium of an established reputation can only be good for the work, right?In this case, yes and no. The Dissident shows off many of the traits that endeared Lucky Girls to reviewers: a clean prose line, a facility with dialogue, a Hogarthian ability to sketch a character, and, most substantively, an interest in the bad connections, missed connections, and disconnects that separate West and East and lover from beloved. And as a novel should, it broadens the writer's palette. Yet The Dissident sometimes feels beholden to Freudenberger's brilliant early notices, and overly eager to please.The set-up is promising: Yuan Zhao, a Chinese conceptual artist once jailed for his art, gets invited to spend a year teaching at a private high school for girls in Los Angeles. His hosts are to be the Traverses, the kind of semi-functional affluent family much beloved of American independent cinema and M.F.A. workshops. A comedy-of-manners-cum-novel-of-ideas will ensue.Or may ensue.Unlike many of our younger writers, Freudenberger knows how to underplay a hand. She lays out the story of her protagonist's visit to Los Angeles with a touch so light it's almost Austenish. Every bench, tree, and closet at the St. Anselm's School for Girls has been named for a donor. Characters insist on referring to an outdoor space as "the Malmsted Courtyard." A Vice Principal approaches a conflict "like a racehorse, pawing the gate, eager to demonstrate the qualities for which she'd been bred." Thanks to such keen attention to surfaces, Cece, mother of the Travers clan (no relation to Pynchon's Traverses), instantly comes to life, and if the pretensions of The Dissident's Angelenos are familiar, it's still fun to see them lampooned in set-pieces: the awkward dinner party, the dance recital. But as many of the characters - especially the men - collapse into types, the comedy is defanged. That the protagonist must, of necessity, be a cipher puts even more pressure on the supporting cast. Still, motivations remain opaque, or perhaps underimagined, and we too rarely see ourselves in these characters. Mostly we laugh at them comfortably, from afar.We look, then, to plot to draw us in, and here The Dissident underplays as well. The most exciting writing - the freest, it seemed to me, from the need to be "literary" - takes place in China, as we learn about Yuan's small circle of friends in Beijing's "East Village" underground, who have in common only their hunger for the radical, even frightening liberation of honest-to-God art. By contrast, the book's Romantic Subplot and its Big Twist feel dutiful, not to say inevitable.As for the ideas... in the realist novel, ideas come to life when embedded in dramatic situations, and as The Dissident hurries blithely past opportunities for complication and confrontation, never dropping its tone of wry self-assurance, potentially interesting notions about the provenance of art and identity and the cultural construction thereof sit inert on the page, like notes toward an undergrad thesis.But then suddenly, in the final pages, a brief and piercing ray of pain blazes up, like a Tolstoian candle: in the space of a single scene, Cece and Howard Travers become real. Their leave-taking has the characteristic heart-in-throat assault of a great short story, and remind us why Freudenberger's writing stirred such excitement in the first place.In The Dissident, she aces the basic requirements of the novel - modulation of point-of-view, slowing and speeding of time, and gradual revelation of information - with the same seeming aplomb with which she approached the short-story form. But we want less of an "approach" and more of an "attack." Then again, perhaps Freudenberger is aware of the learning curve: in her first novel, she's given us a protagonist who also has to live with premature accolades, and compares himself unfavorably to a more passionate alter-ego. And she's placed him in a milieu where the pressure to succeed reaches absurd extremes."Young writers as... good as Nell Freudenberger give us reason to hope," the Times effused, of Lucky Girls. The Dissident will lead no one to abandon that hope - but in order to fulfill it, Nell Freudenberger will need to discover and seize those things that can't be taught. It is enjoyable this time around to watch the young woman at the head of the class pass the critical and commercial tests put to her, but in the future, we'll look to her to be an artist, not an art student. We encourage her to aim for the private ferocity of marks on paper, and to hell with anybody else's gold star.Including ours.
“I’m scared you’ll never forget, that you’ll remember all of the bad things forever,” Kate Moses’ brother admits to her just before she leaves for college. Luckily by then Kate knows she wants to be a writer, and her memory is the very thing that gives her purpose. Her new book, Cakewalk, is the fruit of her remembering—a memoir of life and baking, recipes included. This plump book begins and ends with marriage. Though sprinkled with sweet recipes, the bitter moments are plentiful: as a child Moses is jammed between an overbearing, dramatic mother and a nonverbal, resentful father. With two brothers, her mother tells Kate (who she calls Cis) “We’re the only girls. We have to stick together.” Happy memories include a Coconut Layer Cake for her fifth birthday at the Howard Johnson’s across from Disneyland. But it isn’t long before her mother pleads “Cis you have to help me. You have to help me get out of this.” In the year that follows, her mother puts a deadbolt on her door, locks herself in and bails-out on her domestic duties altogether. “My father ate nothing but Campbell’s alphabet soup and toast for about a year . . . My mother hadn’t eaten in years, subsisting on Tab, cigarettes, thyroid medication, and over-the-counter diet pills. I baked.” For Moses, baking represented a brief reprieve from the relentless tension between her parents. Finally, they divorce. After Moses’ nervous breakdown at college, the book really begins to motor and take shape as an energetic coming of age, with delightful stories of literary celebrities, romance, and freedom. Moses recalls this period in her life with such aplomb that her joy is immediately transferred to the reader. Her talent for lyricism and whimsy comes in handy as she describes falling in love with her college boyfriend’s family, particularly with his mother, Nell, a fantastic cook. “Nell had baked aromatic Bosc pears with curls of lemon zest and dots of butter, then served them in a pool of warm butterscotch sauce. Everyone at the table scraped their plates clean, moaning with happiness.” For her birthday, Nell bakes Kate a spiced pecan cake. At school, her college professor Arlen Hansen, takes her under his wing, encouraging her to write. “It wasn’t Paris,” Moses writes, “but between my weekends at Nell’s and sitting under the columns with Arlen, my life felt like a moveable feast.” Meanwhile, her parents’ roles have flip-flopped. Her father apologizes to her and they move towards reconciliation. Her mother, on the other hand, slips into a reckless life of neglect fueled by psychosis. When Moses goes to visit and cleans out the refrigerator, her mother responds, “How dare you! How dare you touch anything that’s mine! I paid money for this food and it’s mine!” Though Moses tries to explain that the food was rotten and that she’s replaced it with new food, her mother throws her out of the house. As she leaves, Moses realizes she has to let go of any hope for a relationship. In her rearview mirror she sees her mother “In reflection—just as she had always seen me. And then I could see only the hillside of forgotten strawberries . . . I saw them there as I drove away: small clotted hearts struggling to survive, dangling on their stems among the weeds.” While there are triumphs, picnicking at M.F.K Fisher’s house (including a recipe for her Persimmon Parfait with Walnut Black-Pepper Biscotti), at twenty-six Moses is devastated by a failed marriage and her new role as a single mother. “I honestly couldn’t remember who I had been before motherhood . . . Whatever accomplishment, talent, identity I’d finessed in the last few years had evaporated into thin air, leaving no trace.” Struggling to survive, she finds a job, but her income is so precarious she doesn’t eat when her son is with her husband for the day. No doubt Moses drew on this experience to write her last book, Wintering, on the final weeks of Sylvia Plath. She wonders: “Could you die from this? Could you die from being this afraid and lonely and forsaken?” In these final chapters the message of the book reveals itself. Moses remembers the people who helped her, women from her neighborhood who baked her Blondies and dried her tears, striking up a friendship with her famous neighbor Kay Boyle, the man who would eventually become her second husband, walking through the door, ecstatic at the fact that Moses’ son is glad to see him. She forgives her father, who by now has begun a new family. At her wedding Moses remembers: “I turned from my new husband, flushed with a stunning joy, and there was my father. I saw him as if from behind the lens of a camera—the individual frames of his approach to me, his arms opening, his pale blue eyes glistening with tears, the roughness of his beard against my cheek.” Moses has captured a brilliant moment of forgiveness, which culminates in a recipe for “My Father’s Favorite Cheesecake.” Though the book is a bit unwieldy and long, it is beautifully written. And while Moses’ story could certainly stand on its own as a straightforward memoir, the baking reflects her “struggle to find a way to redeem with sweetness those moments that left, however bitter on occasion, such a lasting taste in my mouth.” The presence of the pastries reminds us of the importance of experience, that through work and forgiveness, one can make life into something sweet.
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Detroit may not be cranking out the fire-breathing cars or the finger-popping Motown hits the way it used to, but the Motor City has been inspiring some splendid writing in recent years. The latest addition to this long and growing shelf is Matt Bell’s stirring second novel, Scrapper, a book that gets its hands dirty wrestling with the wreckage -- both material and human -- of a once-mighty city. Kelly is the novel’s titular scrapper, a loner who cruises the city’s abandoned heart, known as the zone, looking for metal he can salvage and sell. It’s lonely, dangerous, back-breaking, and marginally criminal work, but Kelly does it without complaint. He isn’t living any sort of real life, just “wallowing in the aftermath of terrible error.” Even so, he proves to be a savvy guide to the city’s underground economy, the contours of its decline. He knows, for instance, that the decline began long ago, as in, “Nearly two million citizens in 1950 but then fewer every year.” He knows about emptiness: “The farther he moved toward the center of the zone the more the neighborhoods sagged, all the wood falling off of brick, most every house uninhabited, the stores a couple thousand square feet of blank shelves, windows barred against the stealing of the nothing there.” He knows about the relative value of scrap: “A hundred pounds of copper pipe paid more than double a truckload of steel.” And he understands the gradations of the city’s scrap yards, from legitimate to flagrantly illegal: “The unofficial yards kept unofficial hours. You could show up in the middle of the day and find the place deserted, show up at midnight and find three guys playing cards, getting high, cutting scrap. They paid a fraction of the price, the price of no questions asked.” Such details are important because they ground the novel in a very real and very sinister world. Reading Scrapper, you don’t so much enter a conventional fictional world as you succumb to a fugue state, or a fever dream. Bell is a brave writer, willing to work without a safety net on a high wire of his own making. He stumbles from time to time, but that doesn’t diminish this novel’s admirable ambition. The story gains steam when Kelly meets a girl at a bar and they begin a relationship. An emergency dispatcher, she knows cars and she loves the local hockey team, the Red Wings, which is to say she’s a true Detroit girl. In time Kelly learns that she’s suffering from an unnamed progressive disease that has the markings of multiple sclerosis, which will provide a test for his love and his mettle. The story finally soars when Kelly makes a horrifying discovery: a naked 12-year-old boy chained to a bed in the sound-proofed basement of an abandoned house. He frees the boy, takes him to the hospital, and watches his own simple life mushroom with complications, including the suspicion that he was involved in the boy’s abduction, and his mission to seek vengeance against the abductor. These complications lead to a nearly schizophrenic split in Kelly’s personality, between the rapacious scrapper and the high-minded “salvor.” There are stumbles, as I say. Sections narrated in the second person by the kidnapper feel contrived. A sudden shift to first-person narration by Kelly is jarring. Two sections -- one set in Cuba, the other in the Ukraine -- add nothing to the story. In the former, a terrorism suspect talks like a Don DeLillo character on a bad Cosmopolis day: “In your country, if I had shot a man in my youth, could my crime be almost an accident, an inevitability, an unavoidable outcome of a system?...A crime, yes, but the crime of having been younger, less educated, less patient. There would be those who would protest my harsh treatment.” No one talks like that, and I have no idea why this man is in the novel. But such missteps are minor compared to this novel’s larger virtues. Kelly was a state champ wrestler in high school, under the tutelage of a demanding, abusive father, and now he takes up boxing. This leads to a bravura boxing match, during which Kelly absorbs a vicious beating and Matt Bell proves he can write like a dream, can make boxing a metaphor for a way to live life: How to protect yourself from the blow you can’t see coming. This was what the other boxers talked about...(b)ecause it was the blow you couldn’t see coming that knocked you out. If you stared into every punch you could never be put down. The illusion of control. Self-determination in battle. Kelly didn’t believe in anything else he’d once believed in but he thought he might believe in this. For such insights, Bell acknowledges his debt to On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates. Maybe the finest thing about Scrapper is the way in takes us into a deep-pore underworld that’s rarely explored in even the best books about Detroit. Paul Clemens has written beautiful and sad stories about the decline of blue-collar Detroit, but Scrapper is something new, a book by a writer willing to explore worlds so dark you need a miner’s helmet to navigate your way. The novel’s publication coincides with the appearance of a wonderful new non-fiction book by David Maraniss, a Detroit native, prolific author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. His Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story offers a vivid snapshot of the moment when Detroit reached its peak, from late 1962 to early 1964. Meanwhile, Dominique Morisseau continues to write wrenching plays set in Detroit’s glorious and turbulent past. There have recently been insightful books on Detroit by Anna Clark, Mark Binelli, Charlie LeDuff, Scott Martelle, John Gallagher, and others. And Angela Flournoy’s terrific debut novel, The Turner House, the story of a sprawling Detroit family’s crumbling home place, has just been long-listed for the National Book Award. With Scrapper, Matt Bell has joined some fast -- and fast-growing -- company.