Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Shoplifter by Michael Cho

There is a particularly resilient and ubiquitous lie about the creative life: that it can only be done in splendid isolation, far away from the corrupting everyday world, because creative people are special snowflakes who must be coddled and swaddled and carefully kept away from the hurlyburly of commerce and real life. And they must especially be kept away from things that are similar to their creative muses: novelists must never write ad copy, painters will be destroyed if they do advertising layouts, symphonic composers risk their sanity altogether if they deign to write a jingle.

This is pure bullshit, and has always been pure bullshit. Anthony Trollope wrote nearly a hundred magnificent novels on trains, a few hundred words at a time, while commuting. A million other writers and painters and cartoonists and composers and dancers and actors similarly fit their creative passions into their regular lives, or arrange the latter to make room for the former. It has been disproven over and over again, so that the only people who still believe it are those who just can't stand that the real world does not follow the rules of fiction.

It's a particularly horrible myth to foist on young people: they all need to make their ways in the world, and, specifically, to make a living. Young people are also very susceptible to deep existential worries about their place in the world, so feeding those neurotic fears with unreasonable all-or-nothing choices is a bad act, plain and simple. (Older people have slightly different deep existential worries, and are equally neurotic -- but our worries are about the things we didn't do, or maybe the ones we did, and we can't possibly fix any of those without time machines.)

I don't know Michael Cho, so I don't know if he believes that horrible lie, or if it's just a convenient hook to hang a story on. (For the real world, it's a lie; for an individual fictional character, it could easily be her truth.) And his debut graphic novel Shoplifter is a lovely, deeply thoughtful and carefully observed story of one young would-be creative person in the big city, who is, or thinks she is, having her creative powers destroyed by working in advertising.

Shoplifter looks beautiful, sees deeply into the heart of its central character, Corinna Park, and tells its story in a thoroughly naturalistic and mesmerizing way. All of those things are wonderful and make Shoplifter an amazing discovery and a great achievement. But if Shoplifter has a moral, it's that working in advertising is stunting Corinna's artistic capacity and keeping her from writing her great novel, which is at the very least deeply problematic.

So I'm in an odd position: I'd like to recommend Shoplifter, but I can only do so with the caveat that no reader should take it completely seriously, or use it as a guide to real life. Corinna is fictional, and in fiction, advertising is traditionally opposed to novels. But its readers will not be fictional, and no such rule applies in their world. For anyone who can keep that in mind, this is an engrossing character study and a precisely focused look at a particular stripe of quarter-life anomie in today's world.

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