Friday, December 23, 2011

Winter Town by Stephen Emond

Winter Town by Stephen Emond is advertised as “an illustrated Garden State meets Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” and I think that those two comparisons really immediately describe the book as something that has been seen in other places, and will be immediately recognizable to a new audience.

The novel is set in New England at Christmas, and although the bulk of it takes place during one set of Christmas holidays in particular, Emond starts and ends the book both a year in the past and a year in the future from the present story. The Christmas holidays create the occasion of the return of protagonist Evan’s childhood friend Lucy to New England, where she visits her father for Christmas. For the rest of the year she lives with her mother in Georgia, and the return to New England allows her to also catch up with Evan. A year before this story takes place shows the Lucy that Evan knows, a normal girl with long brown hair who can relate to Evan on many levels. The bulk of the book takes place during the Christmas when Lucy returns home with her hair dyed black and chopped off, with heavy eye makeup and her nose pierced. Evan is the focus of the novel, along with his trying to come to terms with what he calls “The New Lucy.” The story takes place over a week or so, during the days leading up to Christmas until New Year’s, when Lucy has to return to Georgia.

As a standalone character (I mean in another book, without the relationship with Lucy), Evan is a great, relatable character. He feels the pressure from his father about university applications, and is trying to navigate between the future that his parents want for him and the future that he wants for himself. He is smart, kind, but overwhelmingly confused. However, when Lucy enters the picture, everything that makes Evan so likeable is immediately reversed. He can’t come to terms with the changes that have taken place in his friend, and because of his own confusion, Lucy becomes less of a character than an object for Evan to examine, question, and try to understand. And the difficult thing about that is that Lucy is an incredibly interesting and dynamic character. She’s funny, cool, and incredibly intelligent. When we do get a glimpse into Lucy’s life in Georgia during a short chapter halfway through the novel, I think we almost want to stay there, and experience the overwhelming feelings that Lucy has felt, rather than return to the banal world that Evan inhabits.

Yet, Evan goes one step further by actually turning Lucy into a character in a comic strip that he creates and titles “Aelysthia” after a fantasy world that he and Lucy made up when they were younger. As a character in his comic strip, Lucy becomes further stripped of everything that makes her so interesting and dynamic, as Evan has her speak lines such as, “Feh. I’ll be stuck here. I’ll meet some dumb guy and have dumb kids. I’ll never see the ivory tower, just ivory soap. And then I’ll die.” This oversimplification is not just in comic form; there are also hints at this through Evan’s descriptions of Lucy. The reader gets a sense, especially from the one chapter that does talk about Lucy’s life in Georgia, that there is a lot more to her, and as a reader I felt almost cheated out of her story.

Additionally, the art, music, movies, and books that this book references create this small bubble of culture, one that calls on the intertextuality between the different art forms to define the ideal audience of the book. For example, throughout this book, Emond calls on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, Lord of the Rings, Ben Folds, the Beatles, and web comic series Achewood and Gunnerkrigg Court. As exciting as it is as a reader to see references to familiar works, at times the references seem artificial, as if they come with a preconceived idea about who the people who consume this culture are, and as an effect, references can take the place of more in-depth character description. That Lucy and Evan consume this culture seems to say more about them that Emond does. Still, it does lead readers down a reference rabbit hole, one that Emond sets up with care.

A focus on art is at the heart of the book. Lucy’s troubled home life and experience in Georgia have given her a drive towards expression, and she believes that Evan will never be able to be the artist he could be because his home life is so ideal. She believes that art has to come out of a place of pain and hurting, and she has a desire to almost set this up for Evan, so that he can experience the heartbreak necessary to be an artist. It is a conversation that is familiar, the origins of art and whether it can come out of an ideal situation or rather that there has to be heartbreak and loss to nurture an artist’s work. Emond resolves this discussion by the end of the novel, and whether it seems contrived or easily achieved depends on how invested the reader becomes in these two characters and their story. For me, Lucy’s pain and heartbreak was definitely where I wished the story would go towards more often, yet we return to Evan, whose ideal home life does seem boring and uneventful at times. His “with it” grandma is the one character who stands out in Evan’s family, but if Emond wants to convince readers that art can come from anywhere, he seems to double back on this by making Lucy’s story so much more engaging than Evan’s own.

This book really reads as a contemporary novel for young adults, and it does it through a fusion of words and graphics. However, I think Bryan O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series did what Emond is looking to do here – use comics, words, and culture alongside a male character trying to figure out how to read a female one – but I liked the way O’Malley did it a little bit better. But this novel is still an interesting reflection on a relationship, one that happens for one week out of every year, and it captures two teenagers on the cusp of the transition between high school and college both realistically and effectively. 

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