Wednesday, May 11, 2011

New Post: Developments Arrested-- Mid-Life and Reunion

Pascal Girard's Reunion and Joe Ollmann's Mid-Life are books with similar sensibilities but different approaches. Both are self-deprecatory (sometimes to the point of self-flagellating) accounts of emotionally stunted men at facing crises that are entirely of their own making. Both books are autobiographical up to a point, but clearly take a lot of creative license in order to stitch together a narrative as well as emphasize the humorously pathetic nature of their protagonists. Girard's "Pascal Girard" character is faced with his ten year high school reunion while Ollmann's "John Olsen" is a new dad at 40-something years old who finds himself smitten with a children's music performer. Both characters are dissatisfied with their lot in life in a typically bourgeois kind of way; both have perfectly nice, successful and satisfying lives but have the nagging feeling that there's an ideal version of themselves that they're not quite living up to. It's certainly not an unusual feeling for men of that age, and both books are mostly predictable in how they unfold. Both men are obsessed with their appearance, both men sabotage their own successful lives for their ridiculous fantasies and both men wind up humiliating themselves in spectacular (if differing) ways.

Girard's approach is as loose as Ollmann's is labored. It feels like something torn out of a sketchbook, with no narrative captions, no chapter separations and no panels. Each page feels open and loose, an organic and relaxed approach that belies the sheer relentlessness of Girard's comedic assault upon the reader and his own person. The very first page introduces the reader to Girard's self-caricature, an awkward & stubbly presence throughout the book. The character is obsessed with being considered a "winner" and so is lured to the reunion by an email from a girl for whom he always harbored a crush. He hides that from his girlfriend as he decides to lose fifty pounds to look good for his old crush. That triggers a series of events where Girard, to use some delightful Yiddish terms, is both schlemiel and schlemazel. That is, he's an awkward person who manages to offend and annoy any number of well-meaning friends and acquaintances, as well as someone who has a lot of bad luck.

With 156 pages of this material, Reunion at times feels like too much of a good thing. Girard never embues "Girard" with a single positive trait. It's a bold move to make your protagonist so thoroughly pathetic and loathsome, especially when you throw in the cruel self-caricature (the exaggerated chin he draws on himself and the sweat stains he draws on his clothes are especially amusing) without narrative captions to help defend himself. The first half of the book sees him preparing for and anticipating the reunion, as he looks at Facebook photos of sexy old classmates and fantasizes about being desired by Lucie, his old crush. He starts to lose weight but is in pain from a bad tooth and constant cramping in his legs. Even as he loses weight, he tries to ignore a huge wart on his finger and the fact that his jutting jaw is becoming ever more pronounced. He manages to offend everyone at a dinner party he's dragged to while embarrassing himself by revealing that his socks are full of holes when he has to take his shoes off.

At the reunion itself, he arrives overdressed and proceeds to either abuse or get abused by every single person. He ignores the people who genuinely want to see him. He interrupts conversations and overreacts to perceived slights. The climax of the book comes when his mouth is in pain, he cramps up and his glasses get broken. Friendly former classmates work on all three problems at once as he squirms on a bench, creating the funniest photo of the night. He gets several lectures on not focusing so much on appearances and being a "winner". I was worried that Girard was going to cop out as his namesake went through a pat learning experience, but he stays the course and piles on an exquisite final physical comedy sequence and a topper gag on top of that as the final panel.

The book was a bit of a grind at times, especially during the first half. It's a book whose humor is dependent on schadenfreude at the expense of the author, but the author invites the reader to laugh at his hubris and vanity. There are times that he perhaps thinks his foibles are funnier than they actually are, but it's a credit to his skill as a cartoonist that he was able to blast through the book's slower moments with a series of gags that were not only funny in the moment, but paid off earlier set-ups. Mid-Life similarly has a final act filled with hilarious humiliations, but how Ollmann gets there and the ultimate message of the book are quite different. There are lessons to be learned in Ollmann's book, whereas for Girard, the lessons are far less important the comedy inherent in them.

Ollmann's book is rigidly structured and it's obvious that every page and every panel has been labored over intensely. There's an almost tortured quality to his line, as if he's afraid of having much white space poke through. His line is thick, and while his characters are cartoony (with some of them bordering on the grotesque), he fills them with detail. Olsen in particular gets lavished with a sort of self-loathing and self-obsessed detail: liver spots, lines on his forehead, random tufts of hair, a paunchy stomach, etc. That said, one never gets the sense that Ollmann doesn't trust his line enough to really tell his story, as he uses a lot of distracting greyscaling to fil up space. This is unfortunate, because his drawings are funny enough to carry the story on their own.

The book's first page is hilarious, as the Olsen character has to deal with the shit of his three cats and a feces-filled diaper left on the floor; the line "there's more poop in my life than a German porn film" was a laugh-out loud moment for me as a reader. Ollmann proves throughout the book that he's witty writer who can dish out punchlines and shtick. Indeed, Ollmann is as sure-footed a scripter as he is unsteady a draftsman. At times, text overwhelms his panels, either with Olsen's brutally self-deprecating narrative captions or frequently long-winded dialogue. There were times that I wished he used a smaller 2 x 3 or 2 x 2 grid instead of the 3 x 3 grid that Ollmann employs with few exceptions throughout the book in order to let his pages breathe a little. Mid-Life has a cramped, frantic quality as a result of its panel layout that doesn't always seem to be the author's intention.

Indeed, what I like best about the book is the way Ollmann brings the narrative conflict to a slow boil and frequently pauses along the way in order to reflect. The story involves an exhausted Olsen, having passed 40 and in a constant state of exhaustion due to dealing with a young child, desperately wanting to feel young and vital again. The wrinkle here is that he was a young parent and has two adult daughters, meaning that he never did get to have those carefree days of youth. He spends time after he and his wife divorce trying to play catch-up, and there's a sense throughout the Olsen is chasing some idealized state of youth and desirability that is entirely a fantasy.

Olsen develops a remote crush on Sherri Smalls, a children's musician who is on the cusp of a major career decision: should she accept a job as the host of a kid's show on a Disney Channel-type network, even if it means completely selling out? That crisis is punctuated by her inability to find the right kind of relationship, even as she's attracted to older men (in a bit of foreshadowing that is not exactly subtle). Olsen's burgeoning obsession affects his job performance and his relationship with his second wife. It's as much a fantasy about creating an escape hatch from one's current life as it is something centered on someone in particular. Throughout the book, Olsen simultaneously apologizes for and tries to explain his position while letting the reader know his behavior is awful. At 172 pages, there are about fifty pages of exposition that drag the book down and feel ridiculously self-indulgent. Olsen starts to repeat details and feelings that seemed obvious and cliche' the first time around, let alone the second.

That said, once Ollmann gets to Chapter 17 (103 pages into the book), the book picks up in painfully funny fashion. Contacting Smalls to do an interview in New York City as part of a related work assignment, there's an amazing scene the night before he leaves where his wife pours her heart out to him, regretting their recent lack of intimacy and their constant bickering. Olsen doesn't want to hear it, in part because he wishes he could meet Smalls with his marriage in a state of uncertainty, a feeling that immediately produces guilt but doesn't go away. The New York sequences are as sharp as the middle of the book was flat, as Olsen and Smalls meet, he lies to her about being married, they find they have chemistry, and a guilt-ridden Olsen decides not to go through with it. However, a baffled Smalls calls to tell him she's coming over to talk about this, leading to a number of scenes of great physical comedy that climaxes with Olsen hiding behind a plant in the hotel's lobby in an effort to hide from her.

Regrettably, Olsen tries to tie up loose ends into a neat package at the end, as he ponders all of the ways he plans to change, how the trip was an eye-opener for him and he owed his wife honesty. Sure, there's a plot-derailing bit at the end, but it still feels a bit like Ollmann lets his character off the hook more than a little, and certainly much more than Girard did. There's still a lot to like in this book and I admire Ollmann's willingness to flog himself for humor as much as he did, but the book would have benefited from a less-is-more approach.

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