Saturday, March 18, 2006

Jessica Abel, II

La Perdida, (Pantheon Books, 2006)
275 pp. + Glossary; $19.95

Jessica Abel's bracing graphic novel La Perdida is a suspenseful, well-drawn book. Her visual style is nuanced: her versatile brush is equally effective at depicting individual expressions, outdoor and crowd scenes, and fast-moving action. Her skillful writing doesn't take a back seat to the art, either: this is a page-turning narrative driven by the decisions, choices, and actions of the book's central female character.

Carla, the half-Mexican American expatriate who carves out a precarious life over a year spent in Mexico City, has an almost tangible need for her Mexican identity to be recognized, confirmed, and re-inforced -- and she most needs (and wants) this recognition and reinforcement to come from Mexicans, the people who matter most to her. She progressively isolates herself from other expatriates who might offer her advice, assistance, or guidance--and she does this for no other reason than that they are Americans. As she labors to form an identity that will be acceptable to her newly acquired Mexican friends, Carla's rejection of her American-ness and her need for recognition become the prime movers of the novel's action.

Carla is childish; a poor judge of character; judgmental; passive-aggressive; willful; misguided; noisy and belligerent when drunk; and a disaster waiting to happen. The novel culminates with her trapped in an unpleasant, life-threatening situation which a mildly perceptive person would easily have avoided. And though I spent most of the book angered by the bad choices that she was making, I strongly empathized with her nonetheless.

Solzhenitsyn wrote (in The First Circle, I think) that the soul is not granted to us, but rather, it's something that each of us must make. I interpret him to have been speaking about our identities, which we form on a personal level (though we do so in relation to our families, cultures, communities, and our nationalities). My parents were the sole members of their families who emigrated to the US. They dissuaded my sister and I from speaking Spanish, while sending us to all-white parochial schools. So, I understand, on a fairly profound level, Carla's grappling to forge her own tenuous sense of self.

Rather than forge anything, most of us scrounge and cobble; Carla, however, flails. She heaps scorn upon the other Americans she meets in Mexico City. She becomes friends with an annoying Marxisant blow-hard named Memo. Although he hates the US and its tourists, this hatred is not a bar to his tireless attempts to sleep with any attractive American tourist or student with whom he might come into contact. Memo becomes Carla's "mentor" in Mexican-ness, or, rather, he's the relentless castigator of her American-ness, administering verbal bludgeonings that she both hates and craves. However, Memo's frequent tongue-lashings ensure that Carla can never stand as her new friend's moral equal or compatriot.

Carla's rejection of the community of American expatriates in Mexico City becomes complete when she sets up house with Memo's young and pretty friend Oscar, a shiftless low-level T-shirt peddler, pot dealer, and aspiring DJ, who in turn places Carla in situations that include a man named El Gordo, who is decidedly bad news. Memo's harangues lead to Carla's constant self-abasement (please like me; can't you see I'm one of you?), and allow Memo and Oscar to take economic advantage of her without their feeling the need to justify or even explain themselves.

There's a fair amount of physical violence in the last portion of the book--Carla is essentially held prisoner in her home, and she finds herself at the mercy of several brutal characters who have no constraints against striking someone weaker than themselves. The situation is a dire one, and its severity leads her to finally assess things with some much-needed clarity.

While the final portion of the book makes for an intense reading experience, it's a testament to Abel's skill that the force of the later material is matched by a scene that takes place much earlier in the book. Prior to actually visiting Mexico, Carla had formed a strong identification with Frida Kahlo--the painter's life had come to represent something essential about Mexico to which she could connect from the States. Predictably, Memo finds Carla's fascination with Mexican crafts, and specifically with Kahlo's life and painting, as touristic and decadently bourgeoise.

Here is the culmination of their argument:

Man, that's powerful writing and effective use of imagery. By showing us Memo goading Carla into tearing the poster of Frida, Abel provides a single moment of revelatory dramatic force: we learn something essential about both of the characters. Several such moments punctuate this remarkable novel.

Rather than a narrative that follows a young heroine as she builds a sense of her Mexicanidad, Abel's novel instead charts the destruction of Carla's sense of self, which makes for compelling and difficult reading. In my initial post about Abel, I mentioned that La Perdida could be translated as The Lost Woman. The text to the novel's final panels reinforces this translation. Carla, back home in Chicago, ruminates about her experience:
And I look at her, the girl I was. Her head full of plans and hopes for what might lie in her future.

And I watch her. I watch her take one step, two steps.

And then she takes a turn down an obscure and unmarked path. I struggle to keep track of her as she fades from view. Before I know it, she's gone from sight, from understanding.

She's lost.
However, there's a second possible translation of La Perdida, which is The Lost Thing, or simply, The Loss. Here's text from a few panels in the novel's prologue that matches this translation:
I can't shake the feeling that I've ruined something precious.

That I lost something there. I want to search for it.

But I'm an exile. I can never go back.
Like I said, Abel's writing is as good as her art.

After she's back home, when the dust has settled, Carla yearns to find an illusory person -- the girl she believes she was prior to her experiences in Mexico. Ironically, that person is tied to her youthful idea of Mexico, something which no longer exists for her, given the reality of her harsh experience in Mexico. Carla was lost, and has also suffered a loss. (Talk about lightning striking twice.)

Jessica Abel has produced a taut and intense first novel, and I look forward to reading whatever she produces in the future.

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