onsdag 2 februari 2011

Adrian Tomine: Shortcomings

Adrian Tomine's graphic novel "Shortcomings" depicts the miserable life of misanthropic young cinema manager Ben Tanaka. He has a nice girlfriend, a job, and an unpleasant manner that's going to wreck his life.

The story starts with Ben attending a movie festival that his girlfriend Miko has been part of putting together, sitting next to her and snorting derisively at the movies shown. Naturally, this ticks her off, and an argument ensues. Ben is simply unable to keep quite about things that he's dissatisfied with, and he's also unable to express his dissatisfaction in a constructive manner. It's possible that he simply doesn't know how, but my impression is more that he simply doesn't care to put in the effort.

Ben's only friend is Alice, a lesbian working her way through all the girls she can at the school where she is slowly failing to finish her Ph. D., a degree she seems to be mainly pursuing to please her family (and in vain, as it turns out). She puts up with Ben's abrasive personality because she's a tough girl who seems to enjoy the somewhat rough back-and-forth between them, and she's not shy about pointing out Ben's shortcomings.

It's pretty obvious from the start that Ben's and Miko's relationship is on the rocks, not just because they have problems communicating, but also because Ben apparently has a fascination for white women (the three main characters are all Asian-American) which, when enacted in the form of watching all-white lesbian porn, hurts Miko and makes her feel insecure. Things come to a head when Miko gets an internship in New York, and moves there for a couple of months. Ben now feels free to act out his wish to date and have sex with white girls, but as he's not really all that socially competent, he has problems succeeding with that, and when he finally manages to start  a relationship, his abrasiveness and pettiness ruins that as well.

Alice gives up on her degree, and goes to New York, Ben tagging along to find Miko – who is more or less all that he has left. Of course, things don't exactly go well, but I won't go into detail; better that you read it for yourself.

This is an excellent book. Tomine depicts relationships powerfully and realistically, is very good at characterization, and has a great ear for dialogue. The artwork is crisp and clean, not exactly elegant but still nice-looking and quite appropriate for the stories he tells.

I am especially impressed with how he depicts the character of Ben, his insecurities and inability to relate to others in a positive, non-egotistical manner. He really is a jerk, but he doesn't become entirely unsympathetic  in at least this reader's eyes. The insecurities behind so much of his behavior, and his own realization of his shortcomings coupled with his inability to get to grips with them, shows a vulnerability that elicits at least my sympathies – after all, who among us haven't made mistakes similar to those Ben makes (even if not to the same, rather extreme, degree as he)?

(I also can't help but note the similarity with the work of Swedish comics artist Li Österberg, both for the clean drawing style and for the excellent, realistic dialogues and characterization – both in her own comics and those done in collaboration with Patrik Rochling.)

Anyway, warmly recommended, and a joy to read – if not exactly a joy to read, if you know what I mean.

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