Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Stone Fruit by Lee Lai

One of the things I love about comics is how the drawing can be a separate thing from the words: the style and manner of a panel or a page can comment on or amplify or undercut the dialogue or captions there immediately, giving a reader two things to read simultaneously and insisting that both are true and correct.

Stone Fruit is a book that does that: Lee Lai mostly draws it in a precise indy-comics style, thin lines outlining faces with small features, her people all guarded and emotionally closed-up. But when they let themselves go, when they play like a small child (with a small child), she draws them feral: pointed faces full of contour lines, huge grins, giant eyes. Their whole posture changes - they're different people when they let themselves go.

They're better people, maybe. Purer. More in touch with themselves. More able to express what they feel and care about. More able to be happy.

This is a book about people who have trouble being happy. Eventually, we readers learn why, more or less - the specifics, I mean. Most of us have trouble being happy, I think. Most of us want to be happier than we are, want to enjoy moments more than we feel we actually can. So we know what this feels like from the beginning, and learn more and more as we go.

Ray and Bron are a couple: the two women have been living together for a few years. They're each other's first big relationship, I think: both still somewhere in their twenties. Ray is Rachel, Bron is Bronwyn. Ray wants to talk about the relationship, at least sometimes. Bron does not seem to be good at talking, or explaining, and we don't know exactly why for a long time.

The things they don't talk about are problems. The problems are large and central. None of it is either one's fault: it's who they are, who they've been, who they're becoming. Maybe what their families are like, how they're pulled in other directions.

Ray and Bron watch Nessie a couple of days a week. She's the daughter of Amanda, Ray's sister. Amanda doesn't like Bron, doesn't trust Bron. We're not sure why. Bron avoids Amanda, as she avoids conflict and talking as much as she can. Ray and Amanda are snippier with each other, that back and forth needling that only siblings can do, the way only siblings know how to use a few quick words to hurt as much as possible.

That's the three of them, on one of those happy days, on the cover: Ray and Nessie and Bron, in that order. That's their best time; Ray's narration says as much. And like all best things, it doesn't last.

Ray spends more time with Amanda afterward. Bron spends more time with her sister, Grace, and her emotionally closed-off parents, who are said to be horrible repressive Evangelicals, but who seem to be trying, as much as they can: they're even quieter than Bron, even less likely to talk about anything emotional or fraught. They're probably good people, basically. And they weren't the worst parents for Bron, not by a longshot. But they can't give her what she wants.

Stone Fruit is a book about a whole cluster of people who can't give each other what they want. What they need.

Amanda wants a sister like herself who will watch her daughter while she works, doing exactly what she would have done.

Ray wants Bron to express deep love, to talk to her about feelings, to really commit to their lives together. Maybe she also wants her sister to trust her.

Bron's parents want things to go back to how they used to be, years ago. Or, failing that, to never have to talk about any of it again or spend any time noticing it.

Bron wants....Bron, I think, doesn't know what she wants. She wanted One Big Thing, something overwhelming and central, and after getting that, more or less, she's left on the other side. But when she's watching Nessie, I think she has moments when she doesn't need to want anything, when she can just be, true and happy in her own skin, alive and roaring and making funny little doggerel chants.

That's Stone Fruit: the stories of these people. Centrally Ray and Bron, secondarily Nessie and Amanda and a bit of Grace. They're damaged, as everyone is damaged, each in their own ways, and they're living through that. It is a book magnificent and true and compelling and deeply moving in its unflinching view of people who can't fix themselves and can't fix each other - but can keep going, and keep looking for those best moments.

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