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My wife and I are friends with Anya Ulinich, and she sent us an advance copy of her new book a few months ago. At the time, I thought I would hold off writing about until it was published, to, you know, help with that critical marketing push. But in the last few weeks Anya’s book received rave reviews in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, making my meager contribution less than necessary. To save time, I’ll stipulate that I agree with those reviews: it’s a sharp, clever take on life and love in our confusing times, told from Anya’s unique, divorced-Russian-mother-emigre-in-Brooklyn-by-way-of-Phoenix perspective.

Anya’s book isn’t just a novel, though, it’s a graphic novel, and while the some reviews* treat the art as secondary, it’s not; it’s essential to the story. So if I can add anything to the discussion, it’s as a longtime reader of graphic novels (ie. comic books) who understands that art can work with writing to tell a different sort of story.

Anya comes into graphic novels from an interesting direction: she trained in fine arts (studying with my wife at UC Davis), then wrote a traditional novel (Petropolis) in 2008, before combining the disciplines in “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.” The resulting synthesis is unlike anything I’ve seen before. I don’t know what Anya’s exposure to graphic novels was before she started hers – perhaps none – but she’s clearly at home in the genre, and is happy to play with the form in fun and interesting ways.

There’s a mix of styles and techniques in “Lena Finkle”, used for different purposes throughout the story. The most frequent is a straightforward, semi-realistic illustration that propels the plot:

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But for flashbacks to her girlhood in Russia, she deploys a cartoony style:

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Sometimes the two combine, when Anya’s inner voice appears as a frizzy-haired avatar to mock her, an ingenious representation of her self doubt.

Anya also paints gorgeous, atmospheric images, like this one of St. Petersburg (the color here isn’t in the actual book):

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At its best, “Lena” takes full advantage of the opportunities offered by illustration. In journalism, we say “show, don’t tell,” an injunction to breath life into stories with color and detail, and that’s literally possible in a graphic novel. In one great double-page spread, she diagrams the various cliques and social groupings of Arizona State University undergraduates. And here, she gives a run down of potential dates whose online images make them non-starters:

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Among Anya’s strengths as an illustrator is knowing when and how to employ her various styles, dialing up and down the realism-to-cartoony meter as the story moves from humor to pathos and back. She’s also a gifted artist, as demonstrated by this chapter introduction:

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If “Lena Finkle” has a weakness, Anya the Writer can overpower Anya the Illustrator, and at times her text crowds out her art:

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There’s a denseness to Lena’s neurotic introspection that’s part of the character, and her merciless examination of her life and choices give the book it’s honesty. But the story comes most alive when she gives her art room to breath.  The strongest sequence comes at the book’s emotional climax, where Lena is trying (and failing) to understand why she was dumped. Anya draws her as a duckling, in a series of repeating images that captures the despair of the heartbroken. In a novel, Lena-as-duckling is a metaphor. In a graphic novel, Lena can become an actual duckling, literally helpless, a device that shows Anya’s creative embrace of the medium.

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“Lena Finkle” is in black and white, which is unfortunate, because I suspect Anya would use color in smart and powerful ways. But that’s a quibble. The art soars in black and white, carrying the book with it.  I’m eager to see what Anya does next.

*I fixed this after my wife pointed out a number of reviewers did write about the art. I was generalizing. My bad.

Books completed this year

1, The Man in the High Castle (Dick)
2, Disgrace (Coetzee)
3, The Finkler Question (Jacobson)
4, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein)
5, Beautiful Ruins (Walter)
6, Petropolis (Ulinich)
7, The Caves of Steel (Asimov)
9, Winter in the Blood (Welch)
10, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel (Ulinich)
11, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Stevenson)
12, Moby-Dick (Melville)
13, The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

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