måndag 31 januari 2011

Liv Strömquist & Jan Bielecki: Drift ("Drive")

Writer Liv Strömquist and artist Jan Bielecki have created the graphic novel "Drift", which is labeled as a "queerfeminist adventure story". That story depicts two people, Lena and Robert, who meet on a night bus between the cities of Helsingborg and Norrköping. Lena checks out the men on the bus before deciding that Robert is the hottest one, and promptly sits down next to him and starts a conversation (starting with telling him how hot she thinks he looks).

The conversation gradually turns towards relationships and sex. Lena tells about her incredibly hot girlfriend, Pyret, and how they met and first had sex in a public restroom. Robert tells about his work as a painter, how he preferred to have himself as a model but how this girl, Sigrid, used to come to the studio he shared with some other artists just to watch him paint. Gradually, they start establishing a relationship, having sex – even though he at first doesn't in any way restrict himself to Sigrid – and finally she moves in with him. After a while, however, he grows tired of her – my impression is that the narcissistic Robert after a while doesn't feel himself sufficiently excitingly mirrored by the adoring but somewhat clingy and predictable Sigrid. However, it doesn't take long before he starts missing her, because none of the new women who now come to watch him paint look at him in quite the same totally adoring way that Sigrid did. So now he's traveling to Norrköping to try and find her again.

Meanwhile, Lena tells about her developing, sexually open relationship with Pyret – where they are both free to have sexual experiences with others because they're both so great that it would be egotistical to bereave others people of the privilege of having sex with the other. This part, however, is pretty uninteresting, as there aren't any complications to make their relationship interesting, and the sex depicted is rather dull to look at and read about.

And herein lies the two major problems with the book. First, it is too much about the sex scenes which aren't particularly exciting, and part of the reason for that is the art. Bielecki is a good artist, I've seen him work in a more cartoony style that works excellently, and he's very good at depicting movement, gestures and stances in a natural-looking manner, but the realistic style he uses here doesn't work because it's way too sketchy – rough and unfinished. It looks rushed, and for large parts of the book, backgrounds are practically non-existent. Sex scenes are often by their nature somewhat repetitive if there are a lot of them in a book, so to make them interesting yo need to spice them up with something – like real emotions, beautiful pictures, or humor – and "Drift" doesn't deliver in any of these departments IMO. And since it's supposed to be a "femisex" book, it of course has quite a lot of those not-very-interesting sex scenes.

Second, Lena's story is not particularly compelling. "I met this totally hot girl, and she thinks I'm totally hot too, and we have great sex and because we're so great and generous we both want the other to have sex with others as well" sounds more like somebody with an overinflated sense of self-esteem (or somebody trying to pad their own self-esteem a bit) than an actual person you want to get to know. So half the book is more or less wasted on an uninteresting person. The portrait of the tortured narcissist Robert is much more interesting, but it can't carry the whole book by itself.

Strömquist usually does leftist-feminist satire of the somewhat angry variety, and I have to say I think she did better with this effort than she does with her more popular satiric stuff. Here, she tries – and at least halfway succeeds – to actually craft an interesting story about sexual and gender roles in our society. But what succeeds is precisely what she usually avoids in her satire: painting a personal, individual portrait. It seems to me that the vain Robert is something of a generic portrait of things Strömquist dislikes about a male gender role in today's society; she's had similar characters in her satire, but then as symbols of men more generally, but the thing is, the character of Robert works so well because she doesn't blow him up to the level of "symbol of all men". It is precisely because she depicts him as an individual and not a symbol that he works as a character – and paradoxically, because he works as a character, he can also work as a symbol of precisely that sort of male gender role Strömquist wants to criticize. No longer is he a caricature that is used to hit somebody over the head with, he is instead something real, something that can be discussed and worked with, which is infinitely more valuable if one wants to enact change instead of just blowing off steam.

...Which brings me to the somewhat unlikely parallel that struck me as I was reading some of Strömquist's satirical works: The Tea Party movement in the USA.

The common denominator is, IMO, what is often labeled "the politics of resentment". Feeling that you're not getting your fair share of chances and/or resources while some group you're not a part of (immigrants, government officials, politicians, blacks, "progressives", men, capitalists, etc.) is getting way more than its fair share of resources of course breeds feelings of resentment. Playing to those feelings of resentment can make you quite popular and even engender a sizable income if the group whose resentment you're pandering to is sufficiently large (see Glenn Beck, Fox News, and several Republican Party politicians). However, even if pandering to resentment can be popular among those you're pandering to, it's still just pandering, not analysis – and analysis is what is absolutely crucial if you're going to come up with actual solutions to actual problems. What pandering does is instead usually entrenching prejudices and anger, and while anger can be a great motivator, it's usually a terrible rudder. (We have in Sweden a couple of political parties whose rhetoric seems based mainly on resentment. On the left, we have a party that has the haves vs have-nots as their main rhetorical trope, we have a (very small) feminist party for which it's the heteronormative patriarchy that's the big problem in the world, and we have a far-right anti-immigration party for which it is immigrants, immigrants, and immigrants – and the politicians who've let in all those immigrant, of course.)

Anyway, with "Drift", Strämquist took a big step away from anger and caricatures that satisfy a core audience, towards actually telling good stories. She didn't entirely succeed, but she came close enough that I wish she'd do more of that and less stuff of the "Ray in 'Everybody Loves Raymond' hates his mother, which proves that we live in a sexist, patriarchal society" variety.

Anyway, I can't recommend buying "Drift" because of its flaws, but for the intelligent portrait of Robert, and a nice (if not entirely surprising) twist ending, it is at least worth reading – especially if you skip over the sex scenes.

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