Monday, October 29, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl is the recently published mystery/psychological thriller by bestselling author Gillian Flynn. The beginning of the book finds characters Amy and Nick on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. The day seems the same as any other, just with a light addition of celebration: Amy makes Nick crepes for breakfast, Nick meets her in the kitchen downstairs before leaving for work at the bar he owns with his twin sister Margo. The first chapter serves as an introduction to their life, uprooted from New York and moved to Carthage, Missouri after Nick found out his mom had cancer. Rather than a temporary move, they have been in Missouri for a few years. They live in a house. Nick bought a bar. They have settled into a new way of living, even though New York was the place that they met, fell in love, and started to make a home.

Nick begins the story with an unsettling description of his wife: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.” Nick’s careful narration starting on “the day of” his wife’s disappearance reveals the weathered tension between him and Amy. The question of “What have we done to each other? What will we do?” is the question that shapes the narrative, determining what happens to a couple when they grow apart together, and the lengths they will go to preserve or end their relationship.

Late in the morning of their anniversary, Nick returns home from work to find that Amy has disappeared. The front door is wide open and the cat is sitting outside on the front steps. The living room has been overturned, furniture out of place and broken. Nick is slow to react to the fact that is wife is missing. He is slow to call the police, to call Amy’s parents in New York (who have written a successful children’s book series called Amazing Amy, based on their daughter), and to come up with an alibi that explains why he was late to work that morning. And then there is the fact that he continuously returns to the shape of her head, in a way that makes it seem very much like Nick has murdered Amy.

Nick’s experience of the day of Amy’s disappearance and the days after are interspersed by Amy’s own diary entries, beginning with the night that she met Nick for the first time in New York. Her diary reads as a love story, and is juxtaposed eerily alongside her disappearance and the police’s suspicion that Nick might just have murdered his wife. Their present is interwoven with their past, inviting the reader to speculate about what happened to the couple and what the nature of the mystery at the heart of this novel really is.

However, halfway through the book, Gone Girl turns into something like I’ve never read before. It’s not an easy mystery story; it’s complicated and layered, frustrating and exhilarating. Nick and Amy are doubled characters. They are one way in the first half of the book, and then they are another way in the second half, and it is up to the reader to reconcile these differences and determine, in the midst of it, what exactly has happened to Amy, and what will happen to Amy and Nick. Gone Girl is an incredible portrayal of a couple that relies on the psychological games that they play with one another, and what happens when they go too far. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is the co-authored novel by John Green and David Levithan (who is also known for co-authoring Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist with Rachel Cohn) that examines the intersection of two different characters, both named Will Grayson. In an interview following the book, Green and Levithan show their process in writing the book, where they each wrote one of the Will Graysons, and then wove the two stories together. Green’s Grayson starts the book; Levithan’s Grayson comes next. Levithan notes that the idea for the book “came from the fact that one of my best friends is named David Leventhal. Not the same name, but close enough. We both went to Brown, and were mistaken for each other a lot.” The interview at the back between Green and Levithan almost rivals the book itself, and it definitely worth reading when you reach the end.

Green’s Will Grayson lives in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, where he is consistently overshadowed by his best friend, Tiny Cooper. Tiny is a later described by the other Will Grayson as looking like he is the size of a refrigerator, and he is in the process of directing and starring in a musical he has written about his own life. Will describes it as “the gayest single musical in all of human history,” and it has a slightly fictionalized character named Gil Wrayson. Tiny becomes a larger than life character in the novel, sometimes overshadowing both of the Wills. Even his text messages communicate his personality, especially the following that he sends to one of the Will Graysons while re-writing parts of his musical:


Will feels like a Green character, especially when he meets a member of Tiny’s Gay Straight Alliance named Jane, someone he feels a mixture of ambivalence and desire towards. In the novel she has a boyfriend, and then an ex-boyfriend, and then a boyfriend again, one who reads her poems over the phone. When Jane tells him that her boyfriend read her an e.e. cummings poem, Will leaves her a note that says

Dear Jane,
Just so you know: e.e. cummings cheated on both of his wives. With prostitutes.
Will Grayson

Levithan’s Will Grayson is another character altogether. Deep in the throes of depression, Will relies on antidepressants to keep him at a careful, easy level of day-to-day life. He spends much of his time talking to Isaac online, a guy he has never met before, but has been talking to for long enough that a real life meeting is almost inevitable. When he talks to Isaac, he notes, “issac knows how stupid i find these things, and he finds them just as stupid as i do. like lol. now, if there’s anything stupider than buddy lists, it’s lol. if anyone ever uses lol with me, i rip my computer right out of the wall and smash it over the nearest head. i mean, its not like anyone is laughing out loud about the things they lol. i think it should be spelled loll, like what a lobotomized person’s tongue does. loll. loll. i can’t think any more. loll. loll!”

This Will speaks all in lowercase, which Levithan notes is because “that’s how he sees himself. He is a lowercase person. He is used to communicating online, where people are encouraged to be lowercase people. His whole self-image is what he projects in that space, and his one comfortable form of communication is when he’s anonymous and sending instant messages.” In real life, Will keeps to himself. He’s friends with a girl named Maura, but this doesn’t seem like it’s by choice. Will seems like he doesn’t understand how friendships work. Sitting in the cafeteria at lunch he notes, “when i look at the guys and girls at the other tables, i wonder what they could possibly have to say to each other. they’re all so boring and they’re all trying to make up for it by talking louder. i’d rather just sit here and eat.” When perusing his Facebook, he thinks, “i have a friendship request from some stranger on facebook and i delete it without looking at the profile because that doesn’t seem natural. ‘cause friendship should not be as easy as that.”

The two Wills are very different, but similar aspects of friendships, relationships, and day-to-day experience begin to crossover in the early chapters of this book. When Levithan’s Will finally decides to meet Isaac in Chicago, the two characters intersect, and end up having their worlds overlap. Their early conversations, the first time they meet and discover they have the same name, shows the ease and familiarity innate in sharing “Will Grayson.”

For example, when Isaac doesn’t show up, and Will discovers why, he trusts the other Will Grayson enough to explain to him what is going on:

o.w.g.’s looking very concerned now. so I put my hand over the phone for a second and speak to him.
me: i’m actually not okay. in fact, I am probably having the worst minute of my life. don’t go anywhere.
o.w.g. nods.

Green’s Will tries to put him at ease in terms of a comparison, and even though the other Will hates comparisons, there is something in the ones that Will provides that connect with him, or at least distract him:

o.w.g.: i’m afraid we’re in new territory here. my best friend tiny was once going to enter me into seventeen magazine’s boy of the month contest without telling me, but i don’t think that’s really the same thing.
me: how did you find out?
o.w.g.: he decided he needed someone to proofread his entry, so he asked me to do it.

In this back and forth way, Green and Levithan examine the intersecting lives of two teenagers who share the same name, and how they affect one another when they meet. They are confronted with an “other” them, someone with something very familiar and recognizable, but each of them exhibits characteristics that the other doesn’t. Their two separate worlds start to orbit one another, changing their lives in a humorous, and affecting, way. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods by Jeff Lemire

Canadian comics artist Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth is a different kind of apocalyptic fiction, imagining an adolescent human-animal hybrid that comes into existence after an event known only as “the Affliction.” Protagonist Gus, nicknamed Sweet Tooth by a man named Jepperd, appears normal by all accounts – except for the skinny antlers protruding from the sides of his head and his elongated ears. Lemire’s style made familiar through his book Essex Country is here, too, but it seems changed when it appears in a more fantastical setting.

Sweet Tooth starts deep in the woods, where Gus has been living with his father in a cabin removed from civilization. Gus’s father is showing signs of his sickness worsening, a result of “the Affliction” that has caused billions of people to die previously. Gus has been sheltered and protected in the woods, and when his father dies, it is only after Gus promises to never leave the woods. However, Gus does leave, after a man named Jepperd saves him from two hunters who find him and try to catch him. They talk about taking him to someone who will purchase him for a price, as Lemire gives away small details of the dystopic world he has created and the rules that it runs by.

Jepperd becomes Gus’s unlikely protector, taking him away from the cabin and promising to take him to “The Preserve,” a place where hybrid children can be safe. Gus’s “sweet tooth” earns him his nickname, as he eats as much chocolate as Jepperd will give him, a stash that he’s saved up for years. The purpose of Jepperd seems to be to introduce both Gus and the reader to the dystopian world, through a series of episodes that take place along the side of abandoned roads, in the city, in an old apartment building, and in run-down farmhouses. Gus learns what the world looks like, and the reader learns what the world looks like now, while Jepperd’s defense and protection of Gus seems at once both noble and suspicious.

As well, Lemire experiments with his art in short dream sequences, as Gus dreams at night in an almost distorted Disney-style, which Jepperd attributes to him eating too much chocolate before bedtime. The edges of this dystopia are sharp and its inhabitants are hardened; this is the first time Gus has left home, and although he doesn’t have anything to compare what he sees too, he senses the terrifying difference in this place.

The violence is dispelled with by Jepperd when it needs to be, as Gus stands back and watches, trying to understand his new protector and guardian. Gus holds the dystopic, imaginative details of Lemire’s plot together, his naivety, gentle nature, and kindness both out of place and necessary in this world. Sweet Tooth has been collected into four volumes so far, and I’m looking forward to finding out what happens to Gus next, especially after seeing the place at the end of Out of the Deep Woods that Lemire left him in. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bigfoot by Pascal Girard

Bigfoot, a graphic novel by Canadian comics artist Pascal Girard,* follows teenage character Jimmy as he deals with his newfound infamousness after a video of him disco dancing in his bedroom goes viral on YouTube. The book starts slightly after the video goes up, and Jimmy’s introduction to the reader in the first few pages is mostly through the comments of the people he walks by in his city. An old lady in a convenience store: “OH! I KNOW! You’re the guy who dances on the Internet! I saw you on TV!” A few people on the street: “Heey! Disco Jimmy! Let’s see a move!” Girls at his school: “Wanna give us a little lesson? Woo hoo!” There are even t-shirts for sale at the store that show Jimmy striking a pose, and several characters are illustrated wearing the shirt. For most of the book, Jimmy’s facial expressions represent resentment and annoyance, and although there are a few happy moments for him in Bigfoot, he has a fairly grim expression on his face throughout the story.

The beginning of the book also finds Jimmy taking Saturday morning drawing lessons after he overhears the girl he’s crushing on, Jolene, telling a friend that she is taking that same class. It also becomes apparent that he took a dancing class that Jolene had registered for as well, and practicing for the dance class lead to him filming the video that went viral. His Uncle Pierre is a staple in his life, and when he comes to Jimmy with video evidence that he has spotted Bigfoot near his cabin, Jimmy changes his uncle’s life in the same way his friend changed his: he posts the video on YouTube. Although most of the book takes place in the city, Jimmy’s friends convince him to take them out to his uncle’s cabin, to see if they can find Bigfoot for themselves.

I really enjoyed reading Bigfoot, mostly for the everyday look at the lives of a group of teenagers that it provided. There are so many small moments that I think would really resonate with teenage readers, or at least they resonated with my memory of being a teenager.
I was also interested in the title of the book, and how it brings the narrative together, while also not really defining what the story is all about. At first I was expecting the search for Bigfoot to take up more of the storyline than it eventually did, but by the halfway point of the book I started to understand that Bigfoot is just a distraction from the straightforward everydayness of the novel, and he becomes just as elusive as everything else is for Jimmy. Bigfoot is the occasion to tie elements of the book together – Jimmy's relationship with his uncle, the idea of the viral video, the excuse to have an unchaperoned weekend at the cabin – but as a figure, he doesn't really make a solid appearance in the book. He is just a hopeful moment in a teenager's experience of the world, where there is a potential for something to change or alter Jimmy's mostly mundane and unchanging life.

As well, the use of color in Bigfoot really played into teenage experience. There is a lot of beige, brown, and grey (more neutral colors) that are then punctuated by bursts of color. Jimmy's clothing choices are made more meaningful with color – he chooses a grey hoodie or a pale blue shirt while the people around him wear colorful or printed t-shirts. The frames that used red to highlight Jimmy's anger or frustration became more effective because they stood out so starkly from the rest of the frames. I thought it was emblematic of Girard's artistic style, and was effective to show off Jimmy's teenage world. 

Finally, Jimmy’s dance is included in the front and back covers of the book. It seems like an interesting choice to use the covers of the book to depict the dance, instead of showing it represented (even on a YouTube freeze frame) in the pages of the book itself. I felt like Girard was asking readers to really see this as a physical book, one that had to be read, quite literally, from cover to cover. It didn't just communicate the narrative events, but it also operated as an object that had multiple parts that were necessary to getting the full story. Although it's easy to skip the front and back inside covers and not feel like there is much missing, it seems like Girard's reproduction of every step of the dance is time and labor intensive, and I think it is worth thinking about its inclusion in its entirety instead of as a YouTube freeze frame. I don't know if Girard did this for the aesthetics of the inside covers, or if he wanted the book to be read as an object, from back to front in every sense, or for some other reason (or if it really doesn't mean anything at all!). 

* The book was translated to English from the French version, Jimmy et le Bigfoot.