Monday, August 5, 2013

Examining Privilege: Little Fish

Ramsey Beyer's account of her first year of college, Little Fish, is a sort of Bizzaro version of Phoebe Gloeckner's Diary Of A Teenage Girl. The latter book is a blend of text and comics that detail all of the horrible things that happen to Gloeckner's stand-in character, thanks to the presence of all sorts of predators in her life. Beyer's book starts off by talking about her comfortable, safe life in a Michigan small town and then proceeds to discuss her first year in a Baltimore art school. For the most part, she's able to find friends, do well in school and have fun with very little trauma. She's the little fish in the big pond in any number of ways as someone who's far more innocent than her peers, but she gets along well with pretty much everyone. The most traumatic thing that happens in the book occurs when a friend gets hit by a guitar at a punk show, and even that just winds up with him getting some stitches in an ER. Readers looking for drama, conflict or seismic character changes will be disappointed. Readers looking for tales of wild parties and young people making bad choices will also be disappointed, since Ramsey didn't drink or do drugs, and most of her friends didn't party much either. So, without any sort of conventional story hook, what makes Little Fish worth reading?

Unquestionably, the strength of the book likes in Beyer's authorial voice and the authenticity of her observations. Beyer was a compulsive list-maker and LiveJournal addict who documented her life thoroughly, and much of the book consists of her type-written lists detailing every imaginable thought and whim. Things she liked, sounds she hated, feelings she had, plus/minus lists, etc. The fact that she wrote them on an actual typewriter is a charming quirk that greatly adds to the handcrafted, zine quality of this book. Indeed, about half the book consists of those lists and hand-lettered transcriptions from her LiveJournal at the time, and the other half consists of comics riffing off those items that she drew especially for the book. In the galley that I read, this mix works nicely, but there was some repetitiveness. For example, she introduced what would turn out to be her initial batch of college friends and their interests, and then did it again a few pages later in comics form. At 267 pages, there is certainly a bit of flabbiness that's a result of repeating the same kind of thoughts several times, and I thought the book in general needed a nice, tight edit that chopped out about 15 pages. That said, her comics themselves were impeccably designed with her warm clear-line style. We'll see what the final result looks like when it's published this fall.

What I like best about the book is Beyer herself. She is an interesting study in contrasts. She's still very much a girl (as opposed to an adult) in some ways, down to her pigtail braids and glasses. At the same time, she thrived in her weed-out year at art school and found she did a much better job at time management and taking care of herself than many of her peers. She was comfortable in her tiny home town but was growing bored because she was never challenged, and consciously went to an art school in a city with a good punk scene. Even growing up, she constantly marveled at how good she had it. She wanted for nothing, traveled a lot and generally never had to worry about anything. Rather than feeling entitled as a result, Beyer felt grateful and even a little guilty if she ever felt unhappy or complained about anything. That's an attitude I found refreshing and unusual. In her diary, Beyer felt she was too trusting but also noted that she had trouble letting people in. She wanted a tight-knit group of friends but was still too scared to commit to anyone in terms of dating. Her painting teachers excoriated her for a lack of passion in her work. Her LiveJournal detailed her life and made her, in her words, "an open book", but it was obvious that she kept large portions of herself bottled up. What's interesting is that her self-awareness regarding this found her putting herself in situations where she would be challenged. Most people go through life reeling from life's challenges, but Beyer lived such a charmed existence that she had to seek them out for herself, pushing past her comfort zone time and again.

That even extended to her discomfort regarding dating, as she slowly fell into a relationship with a guy at her school and found her life enriched as a result. He introduced her to alt-comics, which she took on as her new challenge by the end of the book. Her friends challenged her politically and got her to think about things in a new way, especially regarding feminism. Beyer didn't so much radically transform as much as she simply had her consciousness raised a bit with regard to a lot of issues, simply needing the nudge that she received and wanted. Beyond her relentless self-examination, Little Fish is simply a wonderful document about the joys of being in a new place as a college freshman. It's about new starts, simple pleasures, rapid friendships created by being in a similar set of circumstances and the mix of stress and exhilaration that a challenging environment creates. Beyer captures all of those feelings in a unique, attractive format that will resonate with its young adult target audience.

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