Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 221 (9/12) -- Koko Be Good by Jen Wang

There are expectations so ingrained that they're not even noticed until they're foiled. In a story about two young people, particularly one young man and one young woman, especially if they're both wondering about what to do with their lives (as young people do), the gravity of American storytelling drags those two characters together almost inescapably; the romantic comedy is the neutron star of popular storytelling.

Except not here. Jen Wang's debut graphic novel Koko Be Good is about one girl (Koko) and one boy (Jon), and they don't fall in love. But maybe they do save each other, or at least help each other, through that early-twenties time of not knowing who you are, or should be, or want to be.

Jon is twenty-three, and has been working at a job in San Francisco since college, but he's really just waiting for his girlfriend Emily, who's in graduate school across the country. She has a plan for her life: she's going to move to Peru and teach at an orphanage in Ayacucho, where some of her ancestors come from. Jon has no plans, no grand schemes – so he’s latched onto Emily’s, and is sure what he wants to do is follow her and help her out with her life.

Koko is a year or two younger, probably – she comes across as all youthful energy and ever-changing enthusiasms – and also lives in San Francisco, rent-free with an older, gay man named Chin who apparently loves her energy. (Wang tells her story very visually, without any narration or captions, so a lot of the details of relationships and connections are glossed over quickly in dialogue or left to be inferred.) Koko used to work for a company called Peachy’s Puffs -- “candy girls in hot costumes who show up at parties and clubs in limos. They sell you cigarettes and glow sticks for too much money when you’re drunk” – but now does the same thing on her own, or wanders aimlessly. Koko is one of those very fictional free spirits, flitting quickly from one thing to another with world-shaking enthusiasm and tornado-level energy, dragging everyone along behind in her wake.

Already in her wake is Faron Lau, a teenage boy who loves musical theater – or at least Wicked; or at least he wants to love it – who lives with his older sister and her boyfriend, works in his mother’s store, and maybe even goes to school once in a while. Faron hardly talks at all, so we know the least about him – he clearly wants things (maybe most of all to grow up and get away from his family), but he doesn’t tell us, or any of the other characters, what he wants and why.

Jon and Koko, though, do talk a lot – after an odd meet-cute, which you wouldn’t think would make them friends, they cling to each other as if they’ve both realized they don’t know anyone else around the same age and having the same issues – and tell each other what they want and don’t want, over and over. But we’re not convinced that Jon really does want to go to Peru, or that Koko really does want to “be good”…even if she could really articulate what she means by that, and she can’t.

Koko and Jon bounce off each other over the course of several weeks, as both of their lives (and Faron’s, and Faron’s sister Grace’s, and Emily’s) build to crisis points – where they have to either just keep moving forward in their tracks or to jump up and go where they want to go. Do they all make the right decisions in the end? Well, they all make good decisions – all decide to do what looks right to them right then, which is all you can ever ask.

Along the way, Jen Wang tells her story through a remarkable succession of watercolored pages, each in subtle earth tones. Her characters have the facial expression and fluency of the best animated-character designs, with large, open faces with plenty of room for sweeping expressions. Koko Be Good looks gorgeous, and Wang's page designs pull the reader forward, giving us a sense of these people even if Wang never stops to tell us who any of them are, or why we should care about them. (We care about them because that's how Wang paints them -- how could we not care?) Her twenty-somethings are realistically verbose and pompous about themselves, as Koko demands respect and adoration for essentially just not being as self-centered as she was before. Koko Be Good is better than good; it's excellent.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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