Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Embedded: Joe and Azat

Rob reviews the new book from Jesse Lonergan, JOE AND AZAT (NBM).

Jesse Lonergan's JOE AND AZAT occupies some unusual territory. Part of it is a slightly distanced account of a country under totalitarian rule like Guy Delisle's trio of Asian travelogues. Part of it features the sort of first-person reportage of someone who sought to become part of a community before telling its story, like Joe Sacco's work. There's certainly a sense of the sort of chaos and corruption that Ted Rall brings to the table in his comics. These are all important features of this story, but the real focus of the book is on a single relationship: the friendship between the narrator Joe and his Turkmen friend Azat. It's a friendship of remarkable tenderness on the part of both men, and this book seems like a tribute not only to that friendship but to the dreams Azat held so dear.

The book is "loosely based" on Lonergan's own Peace Corps experience in Turkmenistan after the fall of the Soviet Union. Most of the former SSRs fell under the influence of brutal strongmen, many of whom took their leadership cues from Caligula or Pol Pot. That bit of data quickly becomes a background detail of the book, along with the way daily life was often an ordeal. Part of the point of the book was the way Lonergan's stand-in Joe marveled at and struggled with the way Turkmen redefined logic and reality as a matter of course. Part of that craziness was the injection of the ideas of capitalism into a society that didn't have a lot of natural resources nor any understanding of how it worked after 70 years of socialist dictatorship.

Lonergan's line is decidedly unfussy and even cartoony. His figures are simple and expressive, and he varied the visuals through two strategies. First, he employed a variety of panel sizes and shapes, with the use of big circular panels to highlight drama, emotional tension or panoramic views. Second, he made extensive use of negative space both as a way of breaking up the page and creating transitions, as well as it being another method of heightening emotional tension. It's obvious that Lonergan really enjoyed drawing Turkmen characters, from their bulbous noses to their angular facial features to their complexions. Their easily-identifiable characteristics made them perfect for cartoon representation. Lonergan clearly contrasted the figure of Joe with the Turkmen, given that the character was blond, bespectacled and had sort of a weak chin. He was far from the ideal Hollywood American that the Turkmen imagined him to be, yet that was the way he was seen.

The synecdochic manner in which the Turkmen treated Joe spoke to the way that America represented something they desperately wanted to emulate without understanding how to do so. When the realization started to dawn that the Turkmen perhaps were not only not all going to be rich and famous like in the movies, but also in a sense left completely out of the cultural discourse, a sense of panic ensued. That sense of abjection, of being thrown down and marginalized, was embodied by Azat's brutish brother. He combined a sense of entitlement (riches and glory without work) and resentment of a lifestyle out of his grasp with a desperate sense of not just being left behind, but being forgotten. There's a funny but powerful scene at the end where Azat's brother punches Joe out at a wedding, and then embraces him when he learns that he's leaving, shouting "Remember me!"

Azat, on the other hand, is an inveterate optimist with boundless enthusiasm. For him, becoming friends with Joe was the equivalent of becoming friends with America. His approach was the opposite of his brother's--he didn't want Joe to do something for him, but rather wanted to present himself to Joe as a great ambassador for Turkmenistan. It wasn't fakery on his part, but a genuine desire to create a link between what he thought of as two great nations. His greatest fantasy was for Joe to fall in love with a Turkmen girl and remain in the country, their children growing up together as friends. That fantasy was due in part to Azat being forced to marry out of convenience instead of getting to marry the girl he loved. At least if he was with his friend Joe, he'd have some kind of love in his life.

Despite being the narrator, the character of Joe is very much a cypher. He wanted to experience another culture, but didn't want to do it as a tourist. At the same time, his desire for immersion had its limits, both in terms of involvement and time. He wanted an experience as part of the Peace Corps but not a conversion. Azat wanted Joe to want Turkmenistan to be his home, but Joe was only ever on a journey that had his own home waiting at the end. Beyond learning that he wanted a new experience, we learn little of Joe's desires or personality. He's entirely a reactive character, a reader surrogate who keeps people at a bit of a distance. There's a closeness that develops between Joe and Azat, but Joe knew their friendship had an expiration date in a way that Azat never wanted to admit. Lonergan's approach here is different from Sacco's in that his Joe character isn't simply there to collect the stories of other people, but to have his own experience and fulfill his own desires. The fact that these desires are presented rather superficially shifts the focus entirely to Azat as a protagonist.

Joe becomes, in some sense, the object of desire for both Azat and his brother. It was odd to read a story so heavily dependent on a single narrator that revealed so little about him, yet at the same time presented another culture to the reader through his eyes. It made the story resonate with tenderness yet still feel a bit cold and distant to the reader. Joe never really commits himself to the people who meets in Turkmenistan, and that lack of commitment on the part of the narrator led to a lack of connection to me as a reader. It's still a tremendously entertaining read, but it wound up perhaps being a bit breezier than the author might have intended. It's a fascinating book in a number of ways, flooding the reader with all sorts of visceral images, from the bazaars to eating to drink in huge crowds. What we are left with is a snapshot, not a fully formed and rounded image.

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