Saturday, December 04, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 304 (12/4) -- Luna Park by Kevin Baker & Danijel Zezelj

Every work of art has its own level -- high or low, comic or tragic, mimetic or fantastic. The larger in scope that work is, the more the level can vary -- a short story or a small still-life painting needs to stick to doing one thing well, while a long novel or a TV season can ebb and flow, wandering around its core area and striking out into stranger territories on occasion. But the work needs to know what its core level is, and to keep that central, at the risk of confusing, annoying, and baffling its consumers, who will stare in disbelief as it wanders off its home turf to become something unlikely.

Luna Park, the first graphic novel written by well-reviewed novelist Kevin Baker, announces itself as a modern-day crime story, more meditation than thriller, with a hard-luck hero and a deeply Russian fatalism. And those things are true about it -- but it wants to be more than that, and tries to punch through into a kind of magical realism in its last third, at the expense of losing focus on the grounded, specific nature of the world it established in its first hundred pages. It's unfortunate, but we knew that Luna Park was going to be an odd ride from the beginning -- like many novelists coming to graphic fiction, Baker is overly fond of long, discursive captions, the kind that explain what we're seeing in flowerier language than we would have used ourselves.

Alik Strelnikov is a Russian immigrant in Coney Island, and thus -- since that's the way the stereotype runs -- an enforcer for a minor ganglord in the area. He has the usual tormented relationship with Marina, the prostitute with a heart of some semi-precious metal, and has recurring nightmares about his service in the Russian Army in Grozny, Chechnya, where he saw his then-love (another not-quite-a-prostitute named Mariam) killed when it turned out he wasn't clever enough to work a double-cross as he thought he could. As minor mobsters do, he just wants to get out and go to a beach somewhere -- minor mobsters are obsessed with becoming beach bums, for whatever reason -- but Marina has a daughter with a nastier, stronger local ganglord, and thus can never, ever leave. It's all very sad and depressive and Russian; life is horrible and will always be so, because such is the way of the world.

Luna Park follows a fairly predictable path for those first two-thirds -- one part current-day squalor and fatalism, one part flashback horror and loss -- but one element that seems to be a bug (the similarity of names between Alik's current and dead women of negotiable virtue, and the equivalent similarity of the ill-conceived plan for a violent double-cross that he falls into) turns out to be a planned feature, and that magical realism takes over. It's not an impossible transition, and if Luna Park had been less dour and Russian, or less heavily narrated to emphasize its dour Russian-ness, or less gritty and street-level, that transition might have been entirely plausible. But it's not, and it wasn't.

Along the way, Danijel Zezelj's moody, gloomy art and Dave Stewart's dusty, nearly monochromatic earth-toned colors provide great support for the story -- though those colors and inks do make Coney Island look more like Oklahoma in the middle of a dust storm -- but Luna Park is a story that just tries far too hard and stretches itself out well beyond the point a reader can swallow.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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