Strangers in Paradise (Book 1)

Prior to reading Pocket Book 1 of Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, I had never really read a comic book. Of course, I know people who read them—and many of them are vocal proponents of the form—but somehow I’ve never felt compelled to pick one up myself. In truth, I only read this comic because my boyfriend lent it to me, and I tend to read everything that’s lent to me unless it’s really really bad. (So, for example, I read the first Sookie Stackhouse book, Dead Until Dark, but just couldn’t bring myself to finish the first Gossip Girl book, Rich White Kids Pretty Much Have No Souls). I didn’t expect to like it. I flipped through some pages and just couldn’t understand why anyone would bother to draw all those little frames when, I figured, words would suffice. But once I actually gave it a chance, I was pleasantly surprised. And so, this may not be so much a review as it is the story of my conversion. I’m not planning on hanging out at comic book stores anytime soon, but I’d certainly be happy to get my hands on the second Pocket Book in this series.

Strangers in Paradise begins as the simple story of two friends, Katchoo and Francine, who share a very close bond. Katchoo is blonde, strong-willed, and a little bit crazy, while Francine is her perfect complement: dark-haired, appeasing, and mostly even-tempered. The main tension appears to be that Katchoo is secretly in love with Francine. At first, the comic chronicle their various romantic woes, and it looks as though the heart of the story will be the typical will-they-or-won’t-they trope so common to serialized dramas. Quickly, though, things get weird, and we learn a lot about Katchoo (bless you!) that we never would have guessed.

For one, she was a high-class prostitute. And she may or may not have run off with $850,000 of mob money. More than that though, she knows a lot of shady people, has a lot of shady skills, and pretty much subsists on secrets. These developments are a little jarring, even if it’s always been clear that Katchoo and Francine’s relationship was never based on openness and honesty. The shift from Katchoo fighting with Francine’s jerky ex-boyfriend to her accidentally getting Francine kidnapped by mobsters is, admittedly, sort of hard to swallow. Still, it makes for an exciting read, and allows numerous relationships to develop in very interesting ways. These obstacles, though not the typical kinds, force Katchoo and Francine to reevaluate their relationship; they test the boundaries of their friendship—and their love—and show both the strengths and weaknesses of each young woman’s character. Furthermore, they reveal the true nature of David, a young art student with a puppyish devotion to Katchoo. Despite Katchoo’s insistence that she is not interested in men, David persists in pursuing her. His loyalty and gentle support has the unintended consequence of winning Francine’s heart. Thus each of the three must decide to whom his or her heart truly belongs…and how far to go to fight for that love.

Having never read a comic before, I can make no strong judgments on the illustrations or style. Suffice it to say, I did like Moore’s drawings, and found them both consistent and clear. I also appreciated some of the more unusual flourishes, such as the occasional disruption in the standard narration—for example, by introducing a dream sequence drawn in a different manner, or a section made up of lyrics and sheet music. The reading was, on the whole, quick and easy to adapt to. While I at first read tentatively, I soon started to devour almost a hundred pages in one sitting. As I’ve stressed, the experience was new to me, so I didn’t know quite how to process it. Still, in the end, the comic was mostly about interesting characters that I would like to revisit. I look forward to reading more in the saga of Katchoo and Francine. And maybe eventually I will stop pronouncing Katchoo as if I am fake-sneezing.

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Wide Sargasso Sea

“None of you understand about us,” I thought.

When I first read Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, I approached it as a continuation of Jane Eyre. That is to say, my high school English class introduced it as another entry into the world of that novel, and I went along for the ride. As I have previously mentioned, Jane Eyre is my favorite book, so accepting another book into the saga—essentially placing it on the same level as the Charlotte Brontë novel—was quite a tall order. I could reconcile my conflicting emotions only by considering it an interesting alternate history, a sort of thesis on racial tensions and colonial themes which were present in Jane Eyre, but not of primary importance. I think I was somewhat worried that if I accepted Wide Sargasso Sea unconditionally, I would be acknowledging flaws or shortcomings in Jane Eyre, and emphasizing an aspect of the novel which I thought detracted from its triumph as a proto-feminist text. Thus, I appreciated this book, but at a remove. I enjoyed the writing style, and certain passages, but I also resented it for the way it somehow implicated Jane in the crimes perpetrated against Bertha Mason.

When I read it this past time, conversely, I was more interested in how it was representative of Caribbean experience. This eased my mind, and allowed me to become much more absorbed in it. Rhys, who was born in Dominica, expertly portrays the harsh beauty of Caribbean life, especially for poor white Creoles like the Cosways, Bertha Mason’s family. She well understands the contrast between the lushness of the land, and the suffering of its inhabitants.

The novel begins with the family hopeless and destitute, marooned at the untamed Coulibri Estate, in Jamaica, with little chance of escape. Since the death of her father, Antoinette (as Bertha is called in this novel), has lived a pathetic existence; she is too poor to be accepted by the white people, but too white (i.e., marked by a slaveholding past) to be accepted by the black people. Thus, she molders away on the crumbling estate, beyond the reach of everyone but her family and a few faithful servants. It looks as though this might be her fate, but everything changes when Antoinette’s mother, Annette, marries the wealthy Mr. Mason. It is not only his name that signifies a shift closer to the details of Jane Eyre—his presence brings the Cosway family one step closer to England. Indeed, this juxtaposition of the English vs. the non-English is quite significant. Before Mr. Mason enters their lives, Antoinette and her family are strictly West Indian. After Mr. Mason and Annette marry, Englishness begins to insinuate itself into their lives in ultimately dangerous ways. Racial tensions mount, and the first significant fire of Antoinette’s life results in the destruction of the only home she has ever known.

Soon after, Antoinette’s mother is gripped by an insanity that everyone regards as hereditary. Antoinette is sent away to a convent for schooling. The family has been dissolved; part one ends. Part two of the book begins with narration by Mr. Rochester, who has just been pressured into marrying Antoinette (or Bertha, as he calls her, insisting on using her middle name). It is obviously a terrible match: his heart belongs to England, while hers is in the Caribbean. They feel uncomfortable with one another, and their union is based entirely on the selfish intentions of their family members. This section does Rochester no favors, portraying him as morally weak, but it also shows just how victimized both parties have been. Still, it is heartbreaking to read Antoinette’s attempts at a loving relationship when we readers know just how repugnant Rochester finds her. She tells him, “I never wished to live before I knew you,” while he admits:

As for the happiness I gave her, that was worse than nothing. I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did.

It is hard to read about this Rochester and think of Jane, painful to imagine the true depths of suffering that he and Bertha reached before he found his redemption (and she, of course, never found hers).

The novel ends where it must, of course, with England and insanity and fire. But the journey there is moving and profound, agonizing yet of critical importance. It is easy to read Jane Eyre and feel a vague pity for Bertha Mason, to lament that anyone should meet such an end, yet brush her off as something symbolic—or worse, animal. It is impossible with this novel, however, to ignore those questions of lost innocence and inhuman treatment, of an imposed insanity that may have been prevented. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha Mason and Edward Rochester are both compelling victims, the casualties of two dissimilar worlds attempting to merge without understanding on either side. While this may not be Jane Eyre, it is a worthy successor; it understands the suffering behind the scenes, and restores a voice to a shadow.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop is, ostensibly, a documentary about the rising phenomenon of street art—and, in particular, the street art of the mysterious Banksy. At least, that’s how the film begins; where it ends is, in fact, in a much different place. Rather than the story of the notoriously secretive Banksy, we instead get the story of a strange French immigrant named Thierry Guetta, who, since the death of his mother when he was a child (at least as the story goes) has been obsessed with filming every minute of his waking life. The camera, as he and his friends and family explain, goes with him everywhere; the finished tapes fill boxes upon boxes in his home, though never to be watched, or even properly labelled. We learn that Guetta originally made his living selling clothing, not as a filmmaker…but this all changed when he found his purpose in the street art movement.

Thanks to a familial connection to a street artist named Space Invader, Guetta became involved with the movement early on, and started accompanying (and filming) not only his cousin, but a whole host of up-and-coming street artists. He not only recorded their “vandalism,” but participated in it, going so far as to follow the artists onto rooftops and into other dangerous places. Still, Guetta was content simply to film; despite giving his subjects the vague impression that one day all of this filming would culminate in a documentary, he had no plans for the footage to wind up anywhere besides his boxes of tapes. This was all before he met Banksy.

At least in the film, the relationship between Banksy and Guetta seems almost fated. It was, after all, Banksy’s influence that galvanized Guetta to become more than simply the passive recorder of life events. Banksy inspired Guetta to not only film art, but make art. At first, this was in the form of that long-promised documentary on street art. However, upon discovering that Guetta is perhaps the worst filmmaker ever to have lived, Banksy redirected his energies toward creating actual artworks. Guetta rechristened himself Mr. Brainwash, and set about putting together his own art show. Significantly, he did not create any of the works himself, but developed the ideas that his extensive staff executed. Much to Banksy’s, and artist Shepard Fairey’s, chagrin, Mr. Brainwash, or MBW, was an overnight success, and quickly starting selling his work to serious collectors.

Interviews with the two artists reveal a disdain for both Mr. Brainwash’s method and his actual derivative artistic style. Banksy argues that MBW’s “art” essentially renders art meaningless, in that it is created for an aesthetic purpose over a message. Additionally, MBW has no artistic background, or even ability. He has adopted street art as a medium without actually having created much art on the streets. The film asks its viewers to consider the very nature of art, particularly that which is created as a transgressive act. What does it mean when street art begins to sell for thousands of dollars at auctions? What, truly, is the difference between Mr. Brainwash, the kooky French dilettante who achieves success through hype and style, and Banksy, the consummate artist? Once both of them become associated with the same artistic movement, and attract the attention of art collectors, does it really matter who is authentic and who is an interloper? Perhaps Mr. Brainwash commits the most transgressive act of all.

This is, essentially, the conundrum of the film: What is “legitimate” and what is not? Can street art, with its intentional illegitimacy (or, at least, illegality), be judged by any set criteria without risking a total misrepresentation of its purpose? Indeed, the whole story of Thierry Guetta seems to serve as an allegory for the impossibility of “true” street art. If someone like Mr. Brainwash, whom we have seen in all his incompetent glory, can become an overnight success, then what does this mean for the movement? Is there even a movement at all?

One underlying possibility, which occasionally pops up in reviews for the film, is that the entire documentary aspect is a farce. That is, there is no Thierry Guetta, or Mr. Brainwash—or, at least, not as we see him in the film. There is certainly some evidence to support this, namely that so much of Guetta plays as caricature. We are essentially laughing at this man, who produces an entire film completely composed of fast MTV-style cuts, and, upon injuring his foot, is carted around in a wheelbarrow. Some have speculated that Guetta is part of a giant hoax perpetrated by Banksy himself. But, if that is the case, then Banksy is even more dedicated than we all thought. The events in the film—Mr. Brainwash’s art show in 2008, for example—have been confirmed to be true. Thus, Mr. Brainwash can technically boast a real, documented history…but does that necessarily mean that he himself, that man in the wheelbarrow, is real? Ultimately, we cannot say, we cannot know, for he is just as nebulous as the true purpose of street art. Is it a joke or is there a deeper meaning? In the end, does it really matter? All in all, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a fascinating exploration of what it means to make art. The fact that the art, in this case, so challenges our concept of reality is perhaps the most interesting lesson of all.

The Lovers

The Lovers begins with its protagonist, Yvonne, returning to the coastal village in Turkey where she and her husband spent their honeymoon almost thirty years ago. The trip is not a happy one: Yvonne, no longer a wife, but a widow, is now navigating the foreign land alone. She is dealing not only with the grief that continues to consume her two years after her husband Peter’s death, but also the unique transition that comes with being widowed, the mathematical shift from two to one. Tired of every trite offer of condolence, and the impossible new routine of her life at home, she has come to Datça hoping to retreat into memories of brighter days.

She immediately realizes that the landscape has changed, both in the small Turkish town and in her soul. What was once beautiful and light and new is now edging toward ruin. Yvonne is in her early fifties, but suddenly feels old, as if the word “widow” carries with it the implication of advanced age, forfeited love, and waiting for death. She is acutely aware that she is no longer seen as a sexual creature, a likely candidate for love—though, of course, she also has no desire to be one. Trapped in a fog of grief, she is concerned not with her future, but with her past: her early days with Peter, the time when their children were young, the later years that were marked by escalating tension. It’s as if she floats but doesn’t touch the ground, as if she she looks around but never sees.

The novel, a masterly exploration of female interiority, captures the almost dreamlike logic that now dictates Yvonne’s life. Indeed, she is not so much living life as she is trapped in a loop, interacting with the outside world only in a way that draws her further into herself. She makes a few friends—the jilted Özlem, a Dove soap model,and ten-year-old Ahmet, who sells sea shells—but cannot truly be a good friend in return. This eventually leads to a tragic accident, though it, too, matches the muted, dreamy pace of the novel. Still, it is only after Yvonne is confronted with another senseless death (the first being her husband Peter’s) that she slowly begins to emerge from her hypnotic state.

I found this novel to be less polished than Vendela Vida’s previous one, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, but still excellent. There is no debating that Vida is a talented writer, expertly tuned into the intricacies of female experience. Her writing is understated, but powerful; her details are often spare but just perfect. She transports her readers to new, fascinating worlds, but never resorts to vulgar exoticism. Rather, she is concerned with the disorientation that occurs when a woman—in this case, a middle-aged woman, older than Vida herself—is placed, alone, in an unfamiliar context. The result is unnerving, yet satisfying.

My only complaint is that Vida never quite seems to know how to end her stories; in this novel, the last page comes too quickly, and the words fade away abruptly. It is as if the alarm has gone off, and Yvonne has been shaken from her dream prematurely. This jarring conclusion only half-works; I found myself wishing for something stronger, weightier. Still, perhaps this is the point, that the novel is a dream of disorientation, and must end the second clarity arrives. Regardless, it is a thoughtful—and thought-provoking—read, which approaches grief in a way that is both sympathetic and unflinching. For as unreal as its atmosphere often seems, it always rings true.

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