Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Strange Ones by Jeremy Jusay

So: the thing I most want to dig into about this book would be a massive spoiler. Since I am not a jerk - at least, not on purpose - I'll leave that aside and discuss other things. If there seems to be something missing in this post: that's it.

The Strange Ones is a graphic novel that draws from semi-autobiographical material; creator Jeremy Jusay worked on it, on and off, for nearly twenty-five years. He started thinking about it, and putting pages out in his Karass zine, in the early '90s, soon after the time the story is set. But he didn't finish it until he got a contract for this graphic novel edition from S&S's Gallery 13 imprint three or four years ago. (The prospect of actual money does wonderful things to the artistic impulse; I greatly recommend it to anyone attempting to motivate an artist.)

It is not entirely clear if Jusay reworked or entirely replaced those early pages; the final book has ten chapters and at least the first five were published independently, the first four of them twenty-plus years ago.

It is 1993. Our viewpoint character is Anjeline, who is in her first year of college somewhere in NYC. (From one background, I'm gonna say at Pace.) She runs into a young man named Franck at a Belly concert downtown; they hang out together on the long trip home as they realize they live in the same Staten Island neighborhood. Franck is chilly, not terribly responsive: I felt at times Jusay was depicting him as if he were on the autism spectrum, but that's never spelled out. Maybe he's just quiet and bad at interpersonal relationships.

Franck is a year or two older, in an engineering program at what I think is the NYU facility in Brooklyn. (My younger son is studying engineering in the NYC area, so I have a vague sense from his college search of who the local players are.) The two have a lot in common: taste in music, fashion sense, outlook on the world. By the time Franck walks Anjeline home at the end of the first chapter, at the end of that long Belly-concert night, they're something like friends.

And that's where their relationship stays. Anjeline makes no move to get closer, and Franck, we learn a little later, is still obsessed with another girl in New Hampshire. (Parts of that plotline felt forced to me, but it turns pretty central by the end: at times I wondered if Jusay originally threw it in to have a reason why Franck and Anjeline didn't talk about dating. "I have a girlfriend up north; you've never met her" is a clich√© for a reason.)

They are early-90s indy kids, to be a little reductive about it. They like the kind of stuff that got played on 120 Minutes, they wear military-surplus outerwear, they go to interesting places in NYC together to wander around and see what they can see. A secondary character supplies the title, late in the book, by saying he and his friends thought of Anjeline and Franck as "the strange ones," but...they're not particularly strange. I was in college roughly one cohort before these kids, and there were much, much stranger kids there - I was roughly this strange, and that's not strange at all.

But young people often feel strange in their own minds, and it's clear Anjeline and Franck did. It's entirely true on that level.

Each chapter is a day in their relationship, another event. Jusay sometimes signposts time passing, but it's often unclear. But, looking back, this was not very much time at all: starting in the summer, mostly taking place in the cold months of the following school year. Each chapter is a time they were together, doing something - usually fairly low-key, everyday.

There is something plottier that happens, roughly halfway through the book. (The ex-editor in me believes that, and everything forward, is the new material, and wonders how much of that was Jusay's original plan.) Going into more detail would be a huge spoiler; I refer the reader to my first paragraph.

The odd thing about The Strange Ones is that Anjeline is the viewpoint character and the one who changes, but Franck is more interesting and central - but we never really understand him, for all the talk about his great lost love. That never feels like the true explanation of "why is Franck like that."

Maybe the point is that we never really understand other people; that is certainly true.

But I also think Jusay split his autobiographical material in two: Franck got the physical details (family background, schooling, gender), and Anjeline got the artistic urge...but not a whole lot else.

So this is a good, interesting story about quirky kids. I'd still say they're not nearly as quirky as they think they are, but as I get older I think that about everyone. The plot doesn't go in the directions you'd expect, which is a positive. There's not a whole lot of plot to begin with, though: this is mostly a piece of tone and mood and feeling, about a time of life more than anything else. (And largely done much later, looking back at that time, so it's far more retrospective than it seems to be.)

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