Lewis Trondheim/Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrisson

Trondheim, Lewis and Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrison: Fais un Sourire, Maggy, Dupuis
ISBN 9-782800-160788

“Sometimes, winning just means not losing.” This, said by the protagonist of Lewis Trondheim’s book with Stéphane Oiry, just about sums up the darkly humorous tone of this quite excellent first volume. I cannot remember reading something quite like this. I picked it off the shelf in anticipation of my flight to London today (I’m packing and leaving in half an hour and need to stay awake, so here we are), and was surprised at the way Trondheim and Oiry create a sense of space and density at the same time. Maggy Garrisson manages to both sympathetically portray an unusual character with remarkable depth, and tell a noir crime story that follows genre conventions and thumbs its nose at them at the same time. There’s also a sense, partly due to my limited reading in the genre, that in this book, the francobelgian influence on American comics has ‘come home,’ in the sense that some of the rooms and atmosphere in the book are more common in the great American artists that are all influenced by the Belgian ligne claire tradition. I was particularly reminded of Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine, not in the way Oiry draws his characters (though that also plays a role), but in the way Trondheim and Oiry use the space in rooms, streets and landscapes, and combine it with the real estate on the page, to create a sense of emptiness, loss, longing and loneliness. The writing itself is equally remarkable: Trondheim’s characters never say too much or too little. There’s never a sense of the writer posturing to create a sense of drama or sadness: all the dialogue is just right, sometimes driving the story forward, sometimes just filling in a gap in how we understand the characters and the socioeconomic background. This is very good, and I am looking forward to acquiring and reading the second volume, but I’d like to stress how much of a complete experience this slim album really is. I’m currently also very excited about Greg Rucka’s Lazarus, but every 120 page trade feels like half an episode, half a story, just dragging me along in a half-glimpsed plot (I really love Lazarus, but that’s not the point). Trondheim’s pacing is much different – a book by a writer who is correctly admired by many readers of comic books.

The most remarkable scene is just one page somewhere in the middle. Maggy is in the supermarket as she notices a man stealing a package of cookies. Outside, she catches up with him and asks him: why did you steal these cookies? Why not the much more expensive kind, the artisanal cookies? He answers: the camera would have picked him up stealing those cookies. That’s it. The book moves on and doesn’t return to the cookie stealing, shop-lifting or this particular thief. There is no sense of overdramatizing it, but Trondheim needs it to illustrate three different points: the commonness of crime, and how much it is woven into the way poorer people make ends meet (stealing food always has important literary connections, to Hugo and others) is one element. Another is the pragmatics of crime – there is no romanticization of criminals or crime. You take what you can get, when you can get it. Crime is not a story of elaborate ego-pleasing capers. It’s a question of survival for many people, and not an evil deed, but part of pragmatic evaluations. Both of those points are relevant to the larger story of the book, and the small observation of the cookie theft ends up offering a metaphor of sorts for the other crimes committed in the book and the other criminals portrayed in it. There are criminals who we meet as criminals, and criminals who turn out to be criminals as the plot unfolds, and criminals who are not particularly criminal after all. We don’t hear about all of their motivations, but this one page with its story of cookie theft compromise serves as an illumination of everything else that happens in the book. And Trondheim and Oiry do all this without offering us an explicit summary or moral, and they manage to sidestep the saccharine melancholy of many American comics this reminded me of. I mean, it’s interesting to me how similar many scene set-ups are, especially when compared to the most similar francobelgian comics I can remember reading. And yet, the difference to Ware, Burns, Tomine and company is so striking, that it’s hard not to see the distance as intentional somehow.

Some of this difference, surely, is owned to the female protagonist. Trondheim’s Maggy approaches many portrayals we know from other media, but Trondheim sharply differentiates her from them. First of all, this is a story about Maggy. I’m a bit worried about the ending and what it could mean for a second volume, hut taking just the first book, Maggy’s main motivation is – well, it’s Maggy. Maggy is unemployed but scrappy, trying to make her way. The story is started when she gets a job in a private detective’s office, though that job quickly turns sour. You could imagine a Maggy existing in a Chandler novel, and you wouldn’t have to rewrite the books, at all – noir protagonists are usually oblivious to the role and presence of women who are not either attractive or rich, and Maggy’s attractiveness is not of the glossy noir kind, and she’s certainly not rich. She picks up something that doesn’t belong to her, and foils whatever plan her alcoholic gumshoe boss had, and you can imagine him seeing it as a nuisance or bad luck and moving on at his job that apparently involves real crime, as well as the riveting case of a cat that ate a canary (literally). One of the emotionally most affecting turns is not Maggy’s connection to a man, but a connection she built to a female police officer, and one of their bonding moments involves the examination of (subpar) men at a bar, and the groping of men with the help of a trick. As a scene later shows, Maggy is attractive enough to distract men during the commission of a crime, but her attractiveness isn’t the point. She’s charming and intelligent, but that isn’t the point either. She has a manic pixie dreamgirl-like effect on a man, but that doesn’t define or limit her character, and it doesn’t dominate the book either. Maggy is just Maggy and for her, sometimes, “winning just means not losing.”

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Notes from Boston (III)

So I had notes for two more “Notes” but somewhere at the conference venue I lost my notebook full of drafts, notes and poems, which isn’t great, but there you go. I lost some of my notes on theory and things, and so, sitting here in Bonn, note-less, very, very exhausted and in a bit of stress, my Boston trip mildly merges with the day I spent in Amsterdam during my layover on the way home, and I have to type this very quickly straight into WordPress so I hope it makes sense. (Notes from Boston Part One and Part Two)

But here you go: I have personal interest in, and written about, memory. Boston is an interesting town that way. Much like Amsterdam’s central parts, Boston’s central parts are basically a celebration of its past, with extraordinarily old buildings, rich in history and memory. Some of that memory is difficult, but Boston doesn’t insist in discussing the issue with you. Take Boston Common. Across the street from it is the Mass. House of representatives, or rather the Massachusetts State House, as the building is called. Right there where Boston Common and the State House meet, separated by a street, is the Robert Gould Shaw memorial. Lowell describes this permanent encounter like this in “For the Union Dead,” a poem everyone’s probably read: “A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders / braces the tingling Statehouse, / shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw / and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry / on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief.” Shaw’s regiment, as you can glean from Lowell’s lines, was the first African-American regiment organized in the northern states during the Civil War. They weren’t paid the same and, of course, not treated the same afterwards. The monument is a reminder of the sacrifices paid in war by people the country treats badly before, during and after the war. This of course continues in the US. Did you know that Mexican immigrants are “allowed” to serve in the US Army and are then often nevertheless deported? For a country that prides itself on its hollow war machine and guns and all the obscene patriotism, this treatment of actual US veterans is bizarre. And the Shaw monument shows how far back this goes. And yet, as I suggested in my first note, I am not sure it has a real impact on the city. Lowell writes “Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat,” but walking through Boston for many hours, it doesn’t seem like it does.

It is a strange assemblage of power and memory in that city, driven by the need to venerate the powerful, and the problem with having a history partly built on revolution and fights for civil rights. There’s not much “sticking” in people’s throats if you remember ROAR and other violent protests against desegregation in Boston. “The Soiling of Old Glory” is a particularly powerful image of, well, Boston, really. This happened all over the US, but the combination of elements seems typical of Boston. Boston has given up on busing today, but even when desegregation was declared a success, some schools remained segregated, but that was fine, Boston’s courts declared, because “the racial imbalance is rooted not in discrimination but in more intractable demographic obstacles.” – Which, I mean. I can’t currently locate my copies of Mike Davis books, but I wonder whether there’s an equivalent story of Boston to Davis’ narrative of Los Angeles and its shifting interests of power that moved poverty through the city. Much, also, in the area of Boston that I lived, reminded me of Davis’ discussion of an “informal proletariat.” Without wanting to misuse both of these writers, I think one interesting aspect of Boston is that it has not become one of Deleuze’s fields of becoming, of possibilities. Boston’s racially segregated areas are more like Geertz’s “splinters.” Maybe it’s not a huge surprise that some of the theories of global assemblages that came out of the current re-evaluation of Deleuze’s work, particularly his seductive, but vaguely defined term of “becoming,” are often connected to personal or academic privilege; I mean there’s a lot of criticism of class and race that seems quite oblivious to the writer’s own position in these issues. I think writers like Davis have a much more accurate and unromantic view of the structural strictures of power. Agamben doesn’t necessarily apply here, because black life is clearly circumscribed by power. But then, there’s Shaw’s regiment. Or, in central Amsterdam, the prostitution. Prostitution there, as in many places, is often /though not always) based on an exploitative model, and has always had an odd place regarding legality. As a tool of patriarchy, the industry has always come close to what Agamben describes as “bare life” (incidentally – I wonder whether there are studies on how to apply the first three books of the “Homo Sacer” project to prostitution). In Netherlands, prostitution is legal, but there are around 7,000 trafficked women there, including many in the so-called “window prostitution.” The popular red light district in Amsterdam, 5 minutes by foot from Amsterdam Centraal, is dotted with brothels, and women who present themselves to an international male audience. This physical transparency doesn’t lead to more safety necessarily. And there’s an odd phenomenon that I haven’t noticed last time I was there. There was always the odd encounter of the brothels surrounding Oude Kerk, the big old church in the middle of the red light district. Now there are a few bars that are advertised on being in the rooms of old brothels, and a “prostitution museum” right next door to sketchy looking brothels. The ideological structure of museums is replicated by the streets surrounding that specific museum, in a strange assemblage of power, ideology and patriarchy. Amsterdam’s old houses represent the country’s connection to (and profits from) colonialism, and the foreign prostitutes, 7,000 of which (it bears repeating) are trafficked, mirror the same thing on a smaller level.

Lowell’s comment about the Shaw memorial representing a “fishbone in the city’s throat” contrasts to Berryman’s much longer poem about “Boston Commons.” At that period, Berryman lacked the sharpness and instinct of his later poetry and the poem, in all its meandering length, lacks Lowell’s view of history. It’s difficult to write the poem Lowell wrote any better than he did. But Berryman’s poem achieves something else. Into the faux-heroic platitudes, and the silliness of lines like “(q)uestion / Your official heroes in a magazine,” Berryman mixes, in small doses the questioning, confused mind of a middle aged man trying to grapple with everything. The poem is bracketed by “the impressive genitals / Of the bronze charger” and a slumped, lifeless body. The tension between Shaw’s memorial on one side of the street and the State House on the other is resolved by the two poets in different ways. Lowell offers a broad historical view and a criticism of the city and its history. Berryman doesn’t have that in him. But his confusion is more true, I feel to the reality of Boston I saw, and this applies to Amsterdam too. Somehow, both cities have inoculated themselves against the bug of criticism as visible in the way the cities support these intense tensions within less than a minute of walking distance. But they have not moved on to a clear, clean space. They are suspended where Berryman’s poem is, in the darkness of ideology, and the pushing forces of ideology. Erik Wolf writes about how ideology transmutes class difference and how it asks for minor histories to be folded into the larger history of a people or a country. In an interesting way, Boston, by resisting the global assemblages, by refusing to turn into a Deleuzian Body without Organs, does an enormous job of retaining the structure of power. An open air museum, repressive, but beautiful.

Notes from Boston (II)

I find Boston an odd city, beyond the way that the center of it is intensely European. I have difficulties “letting go,” i.e. not working on some project or another, doing research, writing, something like that. I came here to present a paper and as I am wont, I spent much of the previous days rereading sources, cutting and adding some 1000 words. I don’t know how it turned out but what I do know is that now I have “nothing to do” – and I am bad at just relaxing. And I dislike densely planned touristing. What I instead prefer is a kind of dérive. I like feeling out cities by walking in – not a random motion, but one mostly inspired by quick decisions, attractions and angles. People around me don’t like it, but it is my preferred mode of discovering cities. Boston, however, is strangely resistant to it. There is the area where I am staying, an area of large grids, but interesting situations. But “downtown,” between Copley and Harvard Square, and between Packard’s Corner and Boston Harbor seems strangely resistant to that and I am not entirely sure why. Here is the oddest thing about this – sometimes this city makes me think of London. I mean, London is my favorite or second favorite city, and sometimes, when my mind is wandering, my brain prompts me to expect a London landmark. However, I love drifting through London, even with suitcases or tired, or when stressed. London, to me, opens up that way, almost as beautifully as Moscow does, my favorite city to drift through. And yet, despite the similarities, I do not get the same feeling from Boston. None of this is real or objective, but there you go.

Notes from Boston (I)

I suppose this is true for many cities, but it is remarkable nonetheless: I am staying in a part of Boston that is roughly 30 minutes by bus away from downtown Boston. The area I live in is majority black. I say “majority” but I’ve looked at the clock: it usually takes ~25 minutes until I see the first white person on the bus or on the street, the first person, that is, that isn’t me. The difference to not just downtown but even just the parts that are more equally split is stunning. Just the way healthcare is delivered alone – and the astonishing frequency of churches, many of which are just inside regular houses. On the bus route I am taking there is on average one church per block. But also the poverty. Many of the bus stops are near clinics or “health centers,” and I see people entering and leaving. A disquieting visual, certainly, and it reminds me of how rarely truly open questions about economics are raised here. Someone once said that debates about racial justice, and policing are supplanting debates about economic equity in the US and sometimes, in Boston, it seems like those people are right. In the most affluent part of the center, just off Commonwealth Avenue and Boston Commons, on and around Newbury Street, there are a handful of churches, all of which have banners proclaiming (sometimes in arabic script) that refugees and Muslims are welcome. Two unitarian (I think?) churches even hung a “Black Lives Matter” banner in their window. And yet I wonder how concerned these same churches are about the lack of economic opportunities for the black people whose lives supposedly matter, how concerned they are with the fact that Boston is among the most segregated cities in the country. In an hour, I will get on that bus again, and will take a trip through a part of Boston that many Bostonians I talked to said they wouldn’t set foot in. They say it’s because it’s dangerous. What they mean is, it’s because it’s black.

Silence? Broke!

I’m sorry for the relative silence here. I’ve been finishing my PhD draft and several conference papers and am generally trying to find some financing for said conferences which isn’t looking great, so this is all a bit stressful. Too broke to blog, is, I suppose, the summary of this blog post. But I have a bunch of book reviews in the pipeline. June should be better. I’m giving a paper on Pasternak in Boston this week and I can see a review of Dr. Zhivago coming out of the whole stressful mess. 🙂 So, stick around, come by now and then and maybe you’ll be surprised. 🙂 Have a lovely week. PS. SHould I blog from Boston?

A short note to my Mother

I feel like I should tell you this but you are not someone who likes this kind of soppy sentimentality, so I am saying it here in a language you do not understand.

Today I talked to you on Mother’s Day and you expressed your feeling of maybe not having been a particularly great mother. I cannot possibly stress enough how wrong you are.

I have always had difficult emotions, have had emotional and personal conflicts that have led me all the way to a mental hospital. Through all this time I have been able to rely on your love. We all have in our family. For the longest time, my idea of love and family was a group of people that stick together even through the worst trouble, who may argue and fight, but who, ultimately, stick it out. That I lost it isn’t your fault. And these days, as I am slowly regaining it, I lean on your love, even at my advanced age.

I have never quite fit the categories and expectations placed upon me. Uncomfortable with professional, religious and gender categories, I have never felt pressure at home to conform to any particular role. The only thing you always wanted from me was my happiness. I cannot tell you how important that was to a strange teenager who read books on trees, secretly used nail polish sometimes and is erratically agnostic in his religious beliefs.

I have needed protection from my father in various ways throughout most of my life – and I have always been able to rely on you to provide it; even when I should have been able to protect myself, at least emotionally, you had my back, literally. In our small family, our almost claustrophobic family life, you created room for me to be safe, to be myself, to simply be.

You don’t know that I am a poet today, but I wouldn’t have been a poet without you, without your example of being willful and creative. I couldn’t have pushed past reasonable limits into trying to still work academically and poetically without having you in my life whether you know it or not. I have always tried to make you proud, even if you don’t know.

From you I learned how to love, how to be myself, how to persevere even in the most difficult situations. I am currently tangled in the manifold webs of your native language which isn’t mine. I don’t know whether I can ever truly communicate as clearly with you as I wish I could. As I appear to be the most healthy member of my family, despite all my unhealthy habits, I am terrified by the idea of losing you. I cannot possibly express my gratitude for the enormity of your influence on my life.

Thank you, mom.

Wioletta Greg: Swallowing Mercury

Greg, Wioletta, Swallowing Mercury, Portobello
ISBN 978-1-84627-607-1
[Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak]

Look, it’s not that I regretted reading this book; it was, after all, fairly short. On the other hand, I’m not particularly elated about the fact either. The novel by Wioletta Grzegorzewska (who writes under the name Wioletta Greg) is fine. It’s okay. Swallowing Mercury is a solid entry into the canon of books on growing up. Much like many books in the genre, it’s written in short vignettes, which largely center around the way the world of things shaped this young Polish girl’s early life. It’s actually quite remarkable how overall pleasant this book is despite the decidedly unpleasant things that have apparently happened to Greg’s protagonist, young Wiola, including sexual assault and the death of her father. Part of that impression is due to the calm voice of the protagonist who talks about her life with a kind of detached air of curiosity and equanimity. Much of the book follows story-lines we probably expect from this kind of fiction. The overlap of objects and bodies, the examination of religion in her life, some elements of village humor (a trickster figure, here, the grandfather) and grotesquery and some unpleasant evocation of the discovery of sexuality. The incipient dullness of it all is forestalled by the author’s deft use of these elements and her intelligent connection of various elements, making the novel resonate with its themes again and again. The book is well written – or maybe well edited, that’s hard to tell, because all of the skill in the novel is structural. The writing is lamentably flat. Since I don’t know any Polish, I cannot tell whether the dullness of the writing is the author’s fault or the translators, but the novel exemplifies the worst qualities of so-called sparse and simple writing. Writing simply is, as I probably said before, much more difficult than writing a solid text in ornate prose. Swallowing Mercury’s prose isn’t always bad, but it is always inconsistent, and never particularly interesting. This is the kind of prose narrative where one gets the distinct impression that the author (or the translator) wasn’t extraordinarily interested in how the book works on a sentence by sentence level (in contrast to “genre” writers like Brian Evenson, by the way). This is not necessarily bad, but when that approach is wedded to a “simple” style, the result is not particularly enchanting. And in a book that uses so many well-worn elements, with political asides sometimes awkwardly shoehorned in, the writing is particularly important. As it is, Swallowing Mercury is a light, pleasant read. You won’t regret it, but with so many other books to read, I mean, why would you read this one?

Wioletta Greg is a poet, which makes me think the blame for the writing should be placed at the feet of the translator maybe. But maybe I’m just a bit put out by the “Translator’s Note.” Usually that note explains words and terms, explains why certain choices were made over others, sometimes maybe some background is offered, but in this case, the “note” is basically like a regular afterword, offering a cohesive reading of the book in light of its political and historical background. It doesn’t just explain facts that are unclear to the reader who isn’t well versed in the history of Poland in the 1980s, it also explains and elaborates on suggestions that are clear to the reader. The only real “translator’s note,” i.e. the only remark that discusses her work on the novel, is a short paragraph towards the end: in it we discover that the book’s title, which is also the title of one of its chapters/anecdotes, wasn’t the title of the book when it was published in Polish. It was, in English, “unripe fruit,” which, in hindsight, makes a ton of sense, as the novel consistently alludes to its title directly and indirectly. After I spent an hour reading a book and connecting its various elements to the title and that specific story in my head (after all, it is a book that asks for, even requires this kind of reading, spinning a web like the holy spiders that recur in the novel), I was a bit put out that the structure I imagined was created by the translator or the publisher or both; who knows. So maybe that’s why I suspect a sloppy translation here rather than a carelessly prosaic writer.

The book has two main themes threaded throughout: one are the fruits of the (original) title. Ripe and unripe fruits are present in many moments of Wiola’s life. The sticky juice from raspberries is smeared over her face as she first meets her father after his release from prison, she is arms deep in sour cherries when she meets, dirty and disheveled, an ex-boyfriend at a fair, unripe fruit are eaten, strawberries and finally, her father, who leaves her again at the end of the novel, tells her he always considered himself an unripe fruit on the inside. There are echoes of fruits in the way the body treats bodily fluids and other wet things, most remarkably, her period and the mercury of the (English) title. The insistent, and sometimes quite gently and skillfully done, mirroring of different elements connects these various things in sometimes powerful and interesting ways. The book begins with various Catholic rites, but never allows religion to be a transformative element. Neither eucharist nor confirmation are accorded that place – instead, we have Wiola “swallowing mercury,” an element associated with transformation, and we have the pagan webs of various juices and fluids that are involved in shaping this girl. It is accidents that push her to become who she is. This novel is very emphatically not a Bildungsroman. Wiola is nudged, pushed, and she demurs, acquiesces, follows the paths suggested by others. Not until the very final page do we see her make a firm, autonomous decision, and even then, it is presented as Wiola choosing one current to drag her rather than another. In this, Wiola is certainly her father’s child – he still considers himself an unripe fruit, internally. If you start reading a novel about childhood called “unripe fruit,” as polish readers of the novel did, the expectation is to see the fruit ripen, expectations formed by many other books in the genre. But, the novel suggests, maybe some people always remain unripe fruit inside, aging only outside, from the years and events that the world has forced on them.

The second theme of the novel is the father. His presence and absence form, more or less, the beginning and end of the book, and his travails offer the book’s most potent metaphor: taxidermy. Wiola’s father is a passionate taxidermist, who cannot keep up with the dead animals in his house. As we learned in the 1980s from Donna Haraway’s magnificent essay on taxidermy (“Teddy Bear Patriarchy”), modern taxidermy was put in the service of realism, of creating the magic of epiphany from within the world of modern man’s tools and concepts. If I don’t misremember, Haraway insists that this is a continuation of the enlightenment-borne attempts to contain and categorize nature, but to offer, to the audience, a magic situation that appears to remove all traces of man’s hand from the created product. It is creating a story and then hiding all the elements of creation. Wioletta Greg’s use of taxidermy as the father’s predominant metaphor (much as his daughter’s are fruits, ripe and unripe) is her most impressive trick. It allows her to connect the various single stories in the book, about childhood, about womanhood, as well as the single story of socialism, using the opaque figure of taxidermy as the connecting element. It is also an explanation for the novel’s refusal of the enlightenment genre of the Bildungsroman, built right into the narrative. In many ways, Swallowing Mercury is a novel about secrets, but really, it is a novel about that which we cannot know or contain. The animal elements of our world prove to be uncontainable for the father, who is poisoned by an angry critter; similarly, adulthood, as viewed through the eyes of a young girl, is something that is opaque. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t plan for it. You just go. Wiola, Greg’s protagonist, is pushed, and occasionally resists, but she goes on, inevitably. One wishes Wioletta Greg (or her translator) had found a better language for this the overall interestingly structured book. Grzegorzewska lives in England. Maybe she’ll write her next novel in English and allow us to take a full measurement of her achievement as a writer without the tempering pen of a translator.

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