Thursday, July 20, 2006

Book-A-Day #3 (7/19): La Perdida by Jessica Abel

This is the first book-length comic strip by Abel, who did a comic book called Artbabe for most of the '90s. (I don't think I ever read an issue; I also think it was one of those mostly autobiographical things.)

La Perdida is fiction; it really does feel like a novel with pictures (it has chapters and everything), and it's generally enjoyable. It tells the story of a young (and exceptionally naive and easily led) woman named Carla who moves to Mexico City (in 1998, if I'm getting the sequence right) to get in touch with a side of her history that she's previously avoided. She also apparently has some sort of interest in art, though we don't see her doing any kind of art, or even complaining that she never does art anymore (which is far more common with young wanna-bes who don't know what they want). And, probably most of all, she wants to be real, to be authentic, to be part of something and feel important. (Yes, I know this feeling is supposedly common in young people, but I insist it only shows up if they're ridiculously spoiled, and there's an easy cure for that.)

In her quest for authenticity, she quickly leaves her initial circle of expatriate Americans, whom she fell in with because they're the friends of her ex-boyfriend (whom she moved in with, basically trading sex for room and board). Her new circle of friends are real Mexicans, which of course means that they're radical leftists and mostly minor criminals. (Oh, did I mention that she can't even speak half-decent conversational Spanish at this point? It's a tribute to Abel's storytelling abilities that I only half wanted to strangle Carla; she's the kind of person who, when faced with a decision, invariably chooses the worst possible outcome.)

Since you might conceivably read this book, I won't tell any more of the plot. But Carla's bad choices keep adding up -- and, even more, her bad avoiding of choices adds up. And a plot twist the reader will have seen coming thirty pages before takes her completely by surprise -- again, I'll give Abel the benefit of the doubt, but I'd really like to find an interview with her when she admits Carla is not only thicker than two short planks but also the poster-woman for Bad Choices Anonymous.

The ending didn't entirely work for me, since Carla is wallowing in sadness and the reader is presumably supposed to wallow with her -- but she hasn't learned anything! She still sounds like the same bone-deep-stupid girl she was on the first page, and I'd bet it's only a matter of time before she accidentally opens a door on an airplane or otherwise Darwin-Awards her ass out of existence.

As I said above, I wish the narrative showed more clearly that Abel knows that Carla is an idiot; I'm pretty sure she does, but I have a lurking suspicion that Abel thinks Carla's story is romantic and inspiring, rather than an occasion for repeated head-slapping. (This may be because I've seen and read far too many stories about tortured young bohemians who do stupid things and then expect to be rewarded for it.)

One artistic note: Abel generally uses a cartoony style for faces, which serves her well (except when she has two characters in the same scene with the same major differentiating markers in common), but she sometimes drops in one face in a hyper-detailed mode, when a character is facing directly outward from the page. The big change is the eyes: they're generally dots, but the hyper-real style has fully rendered pupils and eyelashes. This is odd and distracting; it doesn't look like the same person when the style changes so radically.

All in all, this is an impressive work for, essentially, a first-time novelist. The fact that Carla is such a real character to me shows Abel has great skill. I just wish she'd put that skill to work depicting someone with slightly more common sense. I do recommend La Perdida; in my experience, most people are not bugged by character stupidity as much as I am.

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