Comeuppance

Let’s face it: some guys are jerks. Ben Tanaka, the lead in writer-illustrator Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings, is one of them. Cynical, selfish, bitter and indulgent, he’s the kind of fool who covers his sexual insecurities with a façade of righteous self-confidence and a porno collection. By any measure—and that wrap around English/metric ruler under the dust jacket suggests that’s just what we’re to do—he deserves to be miserable. There’s one consolation: guys like Ben get what’s coming to them.

Ben is one of the most realistically drawn characters—pun intended–we’ve encountered in recent fiction. In him, we recognize our buddies, and frighteningly, ourselves; guys who take themselves way too seriously and just don’t get it when it comes to love and respect. Ben’s position is particularly complicated. He’s a Japanese-American, want-to-be intellectual living in San Francisco with a pretty and considerate girlfriend. He also carries a lust for Anglo girls. Most of his frustration is sexual, and self-inflicted. His powerless, relatively low position in life—he manages a movie theater—makes him a case right out of Susan Faludi’s classic study of male frustration Stiffed. All this contributes mightily to his misery. Ben’s the kind of guy who harasses the waitress about the type of oil the diner uses to fry his food. He takes three panels to list his food allergies, another to say he’s not allergic to olives. Still, he occasionally shows bursts of honesty. He recounts his belief that he was discriminated against in his Oregon high school not because he was the only Asian, but because he was “a nerd with a bad personality and no social skills.”

Tomine is a proven master at portraying post-adolescent alienation and self delusion. His previous collection, Summer Blonde, explores the personal and sexual conflicts of teens and young adults with the same ethical questions regarding honesty and compassion that pop up in Shortcomings. But Shortcomings has added complications. It’s characters struggle with their racial, geographic and generational identities as well as sexual ambiguity.

Then there’s the book’s ironic answer to the old Tower of Power question, “What Is Hip?” Ben claims to know. When we first meet him, he’s attending the “Asian-American Digi-Fest” with his girlfriend Miko, who helped organized the festival. Ben can’t help but snicker at the winning film, a document that capsulizes many of Shortcomings themes. When Miko asks him who he is to criticize the low-budget production, Ben blurts, “I know a lot about movies…I’m in the industry.” He’s not so critical when attending one of his conquest’s performances, a multi-media mess entitled “Fallujah” that’s a crescendo of angry guitar feedback, posed nudes and militant gymnastics watched (or not) by indifferent hipsters standing around slurping Red Bull or, maybe, PBR. “That was…amazing,” he tells Autumn, the young artist who has come to work for him at the movie theater. By the look on his face, you can’t help but feel his unease at the lie.

The supporting cast is equally well-drawn. Autumn, eight years Ben’s junior, is fresh-faced and disarmingly innocent. Miko is svelte and alluring. It’s hard to understand how Ben can turn down her invitation to come to bed as she leans provocatively against the wall. Ben’s second conquest is visually cute and confident, traits that don’t necessarily work in Ben’s favor. The most predictable character is the most outrageous, Ben’s confidant Alice Kim, a graduate school student who declares that she wants to “make out with a hundred girls by the time I get my Ph.D.” Alice serves as Ben’s sounding board, drawing him into the new York-San Francisco rivalries while attempting to keep him honest. In an attempt to cover her sexual inclination, Alice takes Ben as her date to a relative’s wedding. But her Korean parents are still unhappy because Ben is obviously Japanese.

Tomine’s storytelling skills are matched by his illustrations. Few graphic artists weave the two together so seamlessly. Drawn with an eye for expressive realism, his subjects appear in uncluttered frames that speak directly to the plot. Arguments and dark moods are shaded in black, facial close-ups reveal emotion and conflict. Six beautiful and touching portraits of Miko delve deeply into her feelings. Turn the page and the portraits become a plot turning device, one that leads to Ben’s downfall. Tomine’s ability to carry the narrative in wordless panels is unsurpassed. His layered and conflicted characters burrow into our brains and give us pause about our own lives. The six silent panels that end the story as Ben flies back to New York make for a meaningful though ambiguous climax. Has he learned anything? Will he overcome his shortcomings? Do men who are big jerks like Ben ever grow up?

Shortcomings, by Adrian Tomine; Drawn & Quarterly, hardback, 108 pages, $19.95

Back To the Future

We have seen the future, thanks to science fiction author Philip K. Dick, and it looks like the present… even when it’s set in the past. No, we don’t fly around it rocket-powered hovercraft, there are no colonies on the moon let alone Mars and we don’t carry around laser tubes for zapping our enemies like they do in Dick’s novels. But the pervasive and shady marketing, corporate warfare, bum but expensive technology, reality-altering drugs, and the pervading sense that somehow all of this can’t be real, well, seems so contemporary. And there’s something else familiar about Dick’s fiction: persistent paranoia and self-doubt.

Never mind that much of Dick’s future is now 15 years in the past. Most of the action in the recent The Library of America collection Four Novels of the 1960s is set in the 1990s. That much of the technology he imagined didn’t materialize in the roughly 25 years since the original publications doesn’t matter. Dick correctly foresaw much of the questionable materialism, the nonchalant pursuit of pleasure and the corporate dominance we see today as well as our enslavement to the technology. To borrow one of his own terms, Dick was decidedly “precog.”

But precognition wasn’t Dick’s greatest talent. What he grasped was the present. Dick understood the drug taking, the advertising and the pay-to play mind set that evolved in the 1960s–not to mention the feeling that someone was always watching–and extrapolated the future from there. In some of these tales, it costs a nickel just to open a door, even if it’s your own. Who gets the nickel? Does the door report activity to the government, or worse, the corporate oligarchy?

Dick was a much honored writer among sci-fi buffs in 1982, the year of his death. That was also the year Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner, loosely based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and it ignited general interest in his work. Forget that Scott’s film took place in a rainy Los Angeles rather than Dick’s dusty San Francisco, that the replicants in the book, unlike the movie, were easily dispatched or that the blade runner himself, bounty hunter Rick Deckard, was married, adding another layer of ethical quandary to his existential problems (Harrison Ford, with a fetish for a certain replicant, played the role single in the movie). Those of us who, once we left our teenage years, gave up on science fiction recognized Dick as a writer who’d made hack a craft (close exceptions in some of his early work from the 1950s). He turned pulp genre into ethically complex, tryingly plotted, multi-layered works of genius. The movie, though brilliant, didn’t come close to the thoughtfulness of Dick’s book.

The four stories here are more William Burroughs than H.G. Wells. They reflect the author’s slow descent into paranoia and hallucinatory mind set that continued until his death. The Man In the High Castle reverses the outcome of World War II with the Germans and Japanese, in an uneasy alliance, splitting the coasts and struggling for control in the center. An illegal work of fiction has captured attention in the former United States. The book is a Dick-like novel that imagines what would have happened if America had won the war.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch follows turf battles on the colonized planets between rival corporate drug suppliers. Hallucinations overlap reality and sinister CEO types literally become gods. Life is cheap in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and not easily identifiable. Parallel realities exist in adjacent buildings and a real live animal, like a spider, is worth a fortune. Time reverses in Ubik, threatening the profit of an all-purpose product (and we mean all purposes) even as precogs gather the mental power to save the future.

What’s fantastic here is not the technology, which is developed not to benefit mankind but to fleece it, but the evolution of a world where nothing can be trusted. Inanimate objects control even the smallest acts. If you don’t have a nickel to open that door, the door speaks insults even as you beg it for credit. Science has found a way to contact the dead but it’s going to cost you plenty and, like cell-phone reception among the mountains, the signal isn’t guaranteed. Corporations employ precogs to predict the success of their products and spy on their competitors. You may think you’ve recovered from a drug-induced hallucination but have really only entered another.

The volume is edited by Jonathan Lethem, whose Fortress Of Solitude carries something of Dick’s absurdist sense of fantasy as well as some of his humor. There’s no forward but Lethem’s chronology of Dick’s life will set fans wondering if the author’s later work was even more twisted and paranoid than these four tales. Reality, as Dick knew, isn’t always what it seems.—Cabbage Rabbit

Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick; The Library of America, hardback, 830 pages, $35.

A version of this story first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly

Freedom Train

The last conversation I had with my grandfather was about train hopping. By then, he’d decided I was a shiftless, long-haired hippie of dubious political beliefs and used silence to show disapproval. But driving back down from Lake Arrowhead to Riverside after a family outing in search of snow we began—I don’t remember how—talking about his experience riding the rails.

“Becoming a hobo goes far beyond dropping out. That something is part strength, part weakness, both pure freedom and an absolute prison.”

Dale Maharidge, The Last Great American Hobo quoted by William T. Vollmann

The last conversation I had with my grandfather was about train hopping. By then, he’d decided I was a shiftless, long-haired hippie of dubious political beliefs and used silence to show disapproval. But driving back down from Lake Arrowhead to Riverside after a family outing in search of snow we began—I don’t remember how—talking about his experience riding the rails. He told stories I’d heard a few times before, how he hopped freights between New Orleans and south Texas and how some Depression-era boxcar carried him to St. Louis and eventually to the Midwestern town where he met my grandmother and took a job, not ironically, with the railroad. Most of the talk was about practical matters: where to catch trains, when and how to jump off, the dangers of riding up top or between cars, spiking boxcar doors open, how to avoid the bulls guarding the rail yards.

While I did my share of haunting rail yards and climbing around boxcars, I never overcame my fear of catching on or jumping off moving trains. I had one exhilarating and frightening experience mounted on impulse—where was I going?—that ended some 20 miles outside of town when the train slowed to a crawl and, panicked, I leapt to a bruised and knee-scrapped landing.

You wouldn’t think William T. Vollmann shares those fears. The prodigious writer, a National Book Award winner for his novel Europe Central and author of a 3,000 page study of violence, traveled through Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and once walked to the North Pole. But he does. “I am not a brave man at all, but a cautious, even timid soul who makes himself pull off one stunt after another for his own good,” he writes his account of contemporary freight hopping Riding Toward Everywhere. The book holds enough tales of broken bones and severed limbs, even death, to justify his fears. But Vollmann pursues them and the uncertain freedoms of “catching out,” conducting a risky romance with a disappearing lifestyle.

Facing his fears is only one of the attractions that brings Vollmann to the rails. He sees America—its beauty and its ugliness—best from the picture window of an open box car. He loves the uncertainty of not knowing where a freight is headed. It puts him in touch with a mostly invisible underclass of Americans who live beneath bridges and in thickets next to the tracks (his last non-fiction book, Poor People, explored impoverished lifestyles). It allows him to connect with “back then,” an earlier generation, much like I did with my grandfather.

Best, and most American, it allows him the chance to challenge our “security man” society. “Every time I break an unnecessary law, doing so for my own joy and to the detriment of no other human being,” he declares, “so I regain myself and become strong in parts of me that the security man can never see.” Vollmann views train hopping not as a crime but as “an unauthorized borrowing property of others” the chance to become “a microbe on the trunk of a [corporate] elephant.” That Vollmann does this voluntarily—“Hey, you guys hop trains for fun!,” one yard bird marvels—tells much about the man.

Indeed, Vollmann and his traveling companions enjoy advantages not available to real hobos, whispering to each other on cell phones while hiding from bulls, dining in restaurants, buying Amtrak tickets when they can’t find out-bound freights. Somehow, this heightens Vollmann’s narrative, holding him separate from the experience, an observer as well as participant. Mostly, this book is a meditation on what it means to be restless, to know that basic human desire–“I have to get out of here”– a statement he repeats endlessly. His goal is to go everywhere and no where at once in pursuit of “Cold Mountain,” a Zen-like state of contentment that sometimes blurs with the all-American notion of Big Rock Candy Mountain, the sweet place just beyond imagination. Threading themes from Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Mark Twain, Jack London and other American writers Vollmann seems to settle on Kerouac’s simple declaration for guidance: “Everybody wants to GO!”

Vollmann’s musings sometimes stretch too far, tending to trivialize his obsession with rootlessness. “Isn’t running away from everything the same as running toward everything?” he wonders to no meaningful conclusion. But this “shadow play” also serves him well. Weaving hobo encounters, the disapproval of “citizens” including his father, tramp graffiti, tales of rail-riding women and violent encounters with the notorious Freight Train Riders of America with his own bright experiences and literary bent, Vollmann has discovered an America lost behind its current conformity. We’d all be wise to catch on. Cabbage Rabbit

Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann, Ecco, hardback, 270 pages, $26.95

A version of this review first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly

Eyes Wide Shut

I’ve always wondered: If love is blind, why is sex so much better with one’s eyes open? There’s an essay in Do Me: Tales of Sex & Love From Tin House that addresses that question in reverse fashion. If the person having sex is blind, is their love more visible?

“You Don’t See the Other Person Looking Back”, a romantic account by essayist Michael Lowenthal of a sea cruise for blind gay men, makes a point of the association between love, sex and vision in light of the latter being impossible. And it opens with one of the best leads we’ve encountered in a while: “They say animals resemble their masters, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that Oscar, Tommy’s Seeing Eye dog, the instant he was unharnessed, rose to his hind legs and humped my knee.” The theme here is relevant to all attraction, sighted or blind, straight or gay. “When blind people—without the aid of visual inspiration—feel the burn of sexual desire,” Lowenthal writes, “is that desire, I wondered, deeper, more authentic?” In other words, is visual inspiration necessary to sexual attraction?

These and other heady questions pop up all through Do Me. Tin House is one of the most widely read of literary quarterlies and it’s easy to see why from this stimulating collection. Even the least complicated of sex in these 22 pieces carries deep meaning of the kind everyone discovers in their romantic attachments. This is one of the book’s many lessons: There is no such thing as casual sex.

Other truisms arise as well. The ever-popular motto of relationship counselors—sex changes everything—is apparent in all these stories. Whether it’s fellatio in an amusement park fun house, an adulterous rivalry between two sisters or a married man’s hour with a prostitute in Las Vegas on Christmas day the stories all turn on the act. Or, in a tale of phone sex, its impending possibility.

It’s old news that well-written eroticism can be as big a turn on as the hard core porno. But that’s not always the case here. Some of these tales are meant to stimulate the intellect rather than the libido. Some arouse both. And it’s hard to feel any arousal in Victor LaValle’s tale of a group of New York thirteen year olds who run straight into reality when they pool their resources to hire a street walker.

Many of the authors collected in Do Me are professors or graduates of writing programs and it follows that the scenarios are often of the ivory tower sort (what could be more phallic?). Two English teachers meet at the Modern Language Association convention and begin a phone sex relationship; a professor fucks one of his students while his colleagues discuss Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Freud. One story is in the question-and- answer form of a mid-term exam. Yet little of it is stuffy or scholarly—this is sex after all—and some of it seems delightfully white trash. ‘My mother rarely spoke of my father’s family history,” opens Mark Jude Poirier’s “I Maggot,” “but when she did, she spoke in threats: ‘Ask one more question about that cousin-fucker and I’ll kick the queer right out of you!’”

Not surprisingly for adult subject matter, the best stories deal with adolescents and early sexual confusion. Steven Millhouse’s “The Room in the Attic” is a spooky tale of a troubled high school girl shuttered away in a lightless attic—the vision thing again—and her touchy-feely relationship with a kid her brother brings home. A middle school girl wonders truth or dare fashion if her father’s friend is raping her in Dylan Landis’ “Like Jazz.” The innocence of cross-generational attraction is suggested in Sarah Sun-lien Bynum’s “Sandman” in which a teacher tries to get her eighth graders to take seriously the threat of sexual predation. “Want some candy little girl?” one of the students sneers back.

But the most tangible turn on here is death. It’s claimed that sex is our reaction to mortality and that inevitability is here battled again and again. The recipient of that amusement park blow job is shocked to learn its young and lovely bearer is later “carved up” by cancer. The voice in Carol Anshaw’s “Touch and Go” has a lesbian affair with her dying mother’s doctor. Her brother deals with it by watching porno.

Not everyone wants to watch what they’re doing or see who they’re doing it with. The subject of Lucia Perillo’s “Sick Fuck,“ a twisted, scarred victim of disease, asks his lover how he can stand such a “freak.” “That’s what eyelids are for,” is the answer. Maybe, after all, it’s desire that’s blind and it’s the sex that’s a sort of vision. Just the thought is a turn on.—Bill Kohlhaase

Do Me: Tales of Sex & Love From Tin House collected by the editors of Tin House; Tin House Books, paperback 352 pages, $18.95

A version of this review first appeared in the OC Weekly

Graphic Lessons

What if you learned something about yourself that was really terrible, completely contrary to what you believed of yourself; how would you react? That’s the dilemma facing Happy—yes, the name’s ironic—in Chip Kidd’s second novel The Learners. Actually, Happy gets two hard lessons about himself before this quick-witted little book comes to a close. Before that, he leans a whole bunch of good and practical things as well.

Kidd is the revolutionary graphic designer whose book covers are celebrated as the best thing since the dust jacket. (A collection of his covers and other graphic work, Chip Kidd: Book One: Work: 1986-2006 was published by Rizzoli in 2005.) The Learners displays his talent with a diagonally-cut, half-a-dust-jacket over which peers a sweating, be-speckled Charles Burns portrait (Burns is the imaginative graphic novelist behind the mutant teens comic The Black Hole). Peeling away the dust jacket reveals the face half-hidden behind a volt meter. More on that later. There are other hip touches: cartoonist Chris Ware did The Learners logo and the copyright page is split, requiring the reader to flip back and forth between pages to learn the typefaces used. Cute, yes; even a bit troublesome. But you can’t always judge a book by its cover.

The real innovation here is in the design of Kidd’s story, especially in relation to his first. We originally met Happy in The Cheese Monkeys (published in paperback this past January), a coming-to-college tale set in the late 1950s that follows Happy to “State U” where he majors in art. Happy is particularly influenced by a graphic design class taught by one Winter Sorbeck, the professor who bestows on him the Happy moniker. The Cheese Monkeys is structured on semesters and classes, the second semester broken into critiques suffered—and we do mean suffered—during Sorbeck’s “Introduction to Graphic Design,” formerly “Introduction To Commercial Art.” Yes, the distinction is important. The sections are divided by short discussion of form–left to right, top to bottom, big and small—so that you may more easily, uhumm, get the picture.

The Learners takes place in 1961 and is conveniently divided into “Before,” “During,” and “After” sections. “Before” and “After” what isn’t clear until one reads the “During” section. The sections are separated by a-word-from-our-sponsor, public-service-announcement styled breaks. This is a story about commercial art, remember? But content is as important here as form was to the first novel, and Kidd takes opportunity to discuss the importance of design to meaning, notably in a section on the variables of typography. What falls between these design elements is that great cliché—the “creative process”—and that’s what makes Kidd’s story fun. Before it gets serious.

Our Happy graduate falls into a job with Spear, Rakoff & Ware, an advertising agency in New Haven, Connecticut, which survives on newspaper coupons and the Krinkle Kut potato chip account. The agency once employed Professor Sorbeck who at the end of The Cheese Monkeys abandoned his class much to Happy’s chagrin. “If I couldn’t be where Winter was now,” he says, “I’d go where he’d been.” This opens Happy to a new round of characters: Tip, an eclectic concept man, Sketchy the frustrated cartoonist and Mimi, the widowed boss with a great dane known to take liberties. After a series of successes, Happy is asked along with the others to come up with one big idea to win a major shoe company account, a task which recalls the assignments inflicted by Sorbeck in the previous book.

Returning from Cheese Monkeys is Himillsy Dodd, the outspoken and outrageous object of Happy’s unrequited affection. The fun turns when Happy creates an ad calling for subjects for a psychology experiment at Yale. Proud of his creation and with a nudge from Himillsy, our anti-hero volunteers himself. The experiment, pulled from history, is Professor Stanley Milgram’s infamous “obedience” experiments that found that over 60 per cent of his volunteers gladly inflicted a 450 volt shock to a fellow participant as long as they were asked to, no matter how much the other participant, a confidant, begged them not to.

The fact that Happy is so willing to please makes him something shy of his name. That he was already burdened with Himillsy’s joke gone-too-far brings weight to what until then seemed like a screwball comedy of clever dialogue, something like Ben Hecht’sThe Front Page placed in an off-Madison Avenue ad agency. The story is propelled like paint from a can, its characters just as colorful. All the graphic touches, visible and literary, are added effect to the bold face print of moral quandary. You end up liking Happy even if he doesn’t like himself. In that, there’s an obvious lesson.

The Learners by Chip Kidd; Scribner, hardback, 260 pages, $26

A version of this review first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly