Monday, June 8, 2015

Check Your Privilege: Angie Bongiolatti

(In the interest of full disclosure, I was thanked by the author for offering him some suggestions after reading an earlier draft of the final book.)

Angie Bongiolatti (published by Secret Acres) is Mike Dawson's most interesting and challenging book. Dawson's comics tend to have a surface story covering up his real goals. (For example, Freddie and Me is on the surface a memoir about growing up as a fan of Queen but is really about the nature of memory.) On the surface, the book has two distinct threads: one follows a group of 20-somethings immediately post 9/11 amidst a great deal of personal and political turmoil, and the other follows the ways in which sex and relationships color our beliefs. Both threads center around the titular character, who is the one character who remains somewhat opaque in terms of her personal thoughts and dreams. Indeed, in my initial assessment of the book, I thought she was given too little to do. In thinking about Dawson's meta-story for this book, it became clearer that this book is really about the ways in which our points of view are inevitably colored by a number of sociopolitical factors, factors that are difficult to understand and empathize with.

There are a variety of political viewpoints espoused in this book. Dawson is careful not to turn characters into caricatures, however. For example, her boss (jon) at the online learning firm that's one of the hubs of the story is a little older and depicted as being politically conservative as well as kind of an asshole. However, his home life reveals a man under a great deal of stress with a new baby and the very real fears of losing his job. The intersection between sex and politics is often hilariously navigated, as a guy (Matt) from Angie's job attends a protest meeting in an attempt to get to hang out with her. Former college friends Amol and Malcolm are also in the mix, and flashbacks reveal how Angie and her then-boyfriend got them involved in a three-way. The privacy and secrecy of sex is strongly contrasted against the public nature of political activism, though Angie makes it clear that she's not ashamed of either.

Let's delve deeper into those sex scenes, because they're key moments in the book. The first, with the funny Amol, winds up being played for laughs, as he ejaculates on himself before anything even gets started and winds up going home. The second, with Malcolm, winds up being the real thing, but it turns out Angie's boyfriend was cooler with polyamorous activity more in theory than in practice. Angie sensed this when he kicked Malcolm in the head "accidentally" and later starts singing the song "You Don't Own Me" as a way of indicating just that--that her sexuality was hers and no one else's. When he grumbles about what he "let Malcolm do", that's Angie's breaking point: she's not owned by anyone. It's one of many cases in the book where a character utterly fails to recognize a divergent point of view and simultaneously fails to recognize the ways in which their social standing gives them a certain degree of privilege.

Dawson's visual choices were interesting. He went even cartoonier than usual, giving characters big heads in proportion to their bodies as a way of emphasizing emotions and the subtleties of slight facial tics--much like a caricaturist might. Angie in particular gives away everything with her facial expressions, and the scene in which she and her boyfriend have the confrontation that leads to them breaking up is especially masterful. Dawson wants us to look as these characters as people, small actors in a larger world stage but whose own point of view paints each of them as important players. It should also be noted that the slice-of-life situations Dawson puts his characters into are frequently quite funny; Dawson's gift for dialogue is crucial here, as it prevents the book from ever falling into didacticism.

Throughout the book, there are illustrated excerpts from the writer Arthur Koestler on the nature of the revolutionary, and how it related to both the religious zealot and the neurotic. The fuzzy, penciled art stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the book. The smart but cynical analysis is presented with no comment, other than its juxtaposition against the activities of the characters in the book. After 9/11, Angie joins a socialist organization and encourages those at work to attend. Koestler's comments seem to comment on Angie in particular, initially making her into a sort of naive figure. Matt and Amol hope that their attending the socialist meeting will get her attention, her boss Jon holds her views in contempt, and her radical friend Kim holds her views in contempt for entirely different reasons while still wanting to be around her. As the reader slowly discovers, Angie is no one's tool and has no time for fools. She more-or-less ditches both Matt and Amol at the meeting (she gets them to sit together!), she sneers at her boss and she winds up cutting Kim out of her life when she disparages Angie's attempts at being an activist while holding a cushy job.

Kim also winds up quoting Koestler's friend Orwell when she sees Amol while looking for Angie, a quote that essentially resigns one to the machine of the state and capitalism being all but impossible to change and advocates simply recording what one sees. In a sense, it's a nihilistic confirmation of Koestler's point of view, one sparked by a visit to the USSR as a witness to a Stalinist purging trial. The various layers of story and especially of Angie's history are crucial to Dawson's next move: quoting Langston Hughes' visit to the USSR at the same time Koestler was there. He notes Koestler's discomfort in areas of true deprivation and was less interested in that same trial than he delighted in the fact that he could walk around outside the courtroom and not have his behaviors monitored or prohibited in any way--a degree of respect and dignity for his personhood that he did not receive in his home country.

This story was brought up by a speaker at a socialist meeting attended by Angie, and gets to a key point: we talk about the importance of freedom, a somewhat abstract concept. (I'm not about to write off the Stalinist purges as glibly as the speaker does, considering how many millions were killed--though I think this may have been another intentional device by Dawson to indicate that she's as unable to see the point of view of the other side as the pro-capitalist set is). She notes that in a capitalist society, freedom is considered to be an absolute, while racism, poverty, etc are considered to be unfortunate but not priorities. Again, it's a matter of understanding how privilege informs one's worldview, even when one is not aware of it. The bottom line is that both points of view to some degree ignore simple humanism: respecting, nurturing and collaborating with others. Dawson seems to be saying that it's not enough to not do harm to others; we must actively help. The key word here is "active": Angie tries to change things, and Matt actually comes around to her point of view when he witnesses police brutality firsthand.

A friend of mine who's a college professor, when discussing the French revolution with his students, enjoyed putting them to the test in an interesting manner. He discussed the three ideals of the revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. He asked the class to close their eyes and raise their hands as to which of the three was most important to them. Invariably, the men chose liberty, the women chose equality, and hardly anyone ever chose fraternity. That sense of brotherly and sisterly love for one's fellow person is so often left behind when there's a paradigm shift of ideas, yet it seems to be the crucial bridge between liberty and equality co-existing as ideals. It's also an ideal that must filter down to every aspect of human relations, be it race, gender, sexuality or something else. It's interesting that Koestler himself was notorious for being a ladies' man, using his status as a famous writer to bed star-struck fans. It's one more way that his focus regarding freedom was a narrow one, indeed.

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