The Limits of Freedom

Arab migrant girls. Berlin, January 2017.

Arab migrant girls. Berlin, January 2017.

Irony can be a difficult tone to manage well. It can be even more difficult to visualize effectively. Jillian Tamaki is a skilled ironist whose new graphic story collection Boundless (Drawn & Quarterly) can absorb and reward repeated readings.

Tamaki infuses her work with a feminist ethos and women confronting boundaries in a male-dominated society. Irony and aesthetic subtlety are her weapons of choice.

The story “1.Jenny” exhibits Tamaki’s quirky, often elliptical storytelling style. It recounts a woman’s experience with her Facebook doppelganger, part of Tamaki’s interest in the Internet as part of daily life.

Jenny encounters a 1.Jenny mirror site whose small differences keep growing. Checking the mirror site on her cellphone becomes an overwhelming imperative that infringes on her work hours at a plant nursery. Jenny obsessively watches the divergences multiply as 1.Jenny begins dating 1.Robert and posts updates. She unfriends her doppelganger to regain her own life but after several months peeks to discover that 1.Jenny has broken-up with 1.Robert. “Jenny felt victorious. Also terrible – she was well aware that her delight equated to 1.Jenny’s misery.”

Domestic stories comment here on obsessive behavior, on an inability to separate ourselves from internet characters who are as fictional as real. Tamaki questions emotional investments made into internet life. The plant life that surrounds Jenny and intertwines through this story contrasts with the digital artifice of an increasingly independent doppelganger.

Another story, “Half-Life,” suggests how surrealism can become all too real. A middle-aged woman notices that she is getting shorter and losing weight. The shrinkage continues until she is child-size, then doll-size, and finally near-microscopic. She lives in a glass bell-jar until she disappears from sight, is blown away like a spore, and gets swallowed into a dog’s mouth.

The fate of this Jonah-woman is to become part of a dog’s consciousness and then fade into a blank darkness (two stories in this collection have similar closures). Tamaki uses compelling grey-wash illustration to shape this parable of human disappearance from the world and reabsorption into nature.

Tamaki has a predilection for women characters who are complicit in their own fates and who, unlike the shrinking woman of “Half-Life,” participate in shaping the terms of their existence. In “Bedbug” an adulterous English professor (a part of the job description for English professors, no?) discovers that bedbugs have invaded her home. She and her husband empty out their house to discover the sources of the infestation, a futile exercise.

The author draws a sulky, unhappy woman sleeping with her former TA simply because she is bored. Even after ending the affair the professor remains discontent, saying “Deep down, where it actually counts, I’m rotting away.” The cleanliness she desperately desires concerns herself as much as bedbugs. As in “Half-Life,” this is a character confronting her own insignificance.

In several of these stories – “Darla,” Sexcoven,” “The ClairFree System” – meaningfulness evades the protagonists. It is not a Thurber-esque discovery of insignificance, which seems a consequential reflection of Thurber’s misogyny. Rather this manifests a persistent state that Tamaki’s characters cannot escape despite their efforts. Insignificance is simply part of nature and it is human delusion to think otherwise.

Tamaki possesses a fine control of line. In “The ClairFree System,” for instance, she switches from heavily elaborated lines and hatching, filled with dark hollows, into simple outlines for speaking characters. Figuration shifts from quasi-classical to indie-style commix. Faces, whether sullen or blank, come alive in her drawing and inking. Tamaki’s range of technique enables her to adapt to the story she tells.

Interiorities are the true common subject of these nine stories. Characters meditate on themselves, often for little purpose or practical outcome. They muse for the value of musing itself. The last and title story, “Boundless,” traces the existential interiorities and thoughts of three characters – a bird, squirrel, and housefly.

In the final pages of this story collection, a philosophical fly buzzes about ruminating on Hobbes and short, brutish lives. As it flies over an open volume a reader slams shut the book, the fly’s monologue ends in mid-sentence, and Tamaki’s memorable book concludes with another blank, black, empty page. It provides ironic closure, one that is contradictorily ambiguous and direct. Our un-ironized existence remains bounded after all.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit.